Building a design thinking curriculum for your organization

I’m a proponent of inside-out innovation. I respect and admire the many design firms that have evangelized design thinking during last decade. But these firms aren’t your organization’s long-term answer to innovation as a competitive advantage. Your organization needs to develop a culture that fosters innovation from within, what I call inside-out innovation.

One way to get started with inside-out innovation is to build a design thinking curriculum. A design thinking curriculum cuts across functional areas, can be modularized for delivery, and can include elements that align with your business objectives and strategic plans. These features make a design thinking curriculum a great starting point.

I often start with questions that help assess how ready your firm is for design thinking. Ultimately, my ability (or any consultant’s ability) is married to how well my clients help me understand the organization culture of the firm. So here are some questions to ask when you begin the process:

1. Are you considering a company-wide or just a team outcome?
Some organizations start small with teams and then scale. But others feel it’s important to educate the whole firm about design thinking. Start with expected outcomes and work backwards.

2. What kind of problems do your employees need to solve?
Design thinking is not a panacea. It’s perfect for framing problems that can be solved through collaboration. Some technical or scientific problems are best suited for other innovation methods.

3. How diverse are the skills and people expected to innovate?
Design thinking works best with heterogeneity, both in people and skill sets. If you have a lot of similar people then possibly you might need to introduce or exacerbate diversity.

4. What is your firm and industry’s tolerance for failure?
Design thinking uses a lot of iteration and prototyping…what I call rinse and repeat. Great for products, throw the unsuccessful attempts in the dumpster. If you’re educating students, launching satellites, or operating on humans, this might be so feasible.

5. What kinds of innovation methods have been used in the past?
You don’t want the naysayer who complains “we tried that once in the ’70s and it failed!” So understand how to frame design thinking to fit your organization based on past initiatvies.

6. What kinds of processes and methods (e.g. Six Sigma) are currently employed?
It’s important to incorporate any innovation method with existing methods. Ensure nothing you’re doing on the education side is in conflict with established practices.

7. What are you looking to innovate? (Business models, products, processes).
Organizations are fantastic at saying “we are innovative” or “we want to be innovative” without actually framing what that means. It helps to qualify what you’re looking to innovate before you start. It’s relatively easy to add areas once you have some success and pick the low hanging fruit. But starting out saying “we’re going to innovate EVERYWHERE AND EVERYTHING…” spells disaster.

8. How far apart geographically are your innovation teams or employees?
What tools and processes will you need to employ for collaboration teams that are not in one location? Keep in mind that a lot of communication platforms, e.g. Slack or Yammer, are not always the greatest brainstorming/innovation platforms.

9. What does your Executive team know about design thinking?
Besides buy-in, the education of Executives can help the organization’s priorities. You’d be amazed at what happens when business executives start talking about prototypes and whether salespeople have empathy for their customers.

10. How do you currently incentivized innovation among employees and managers?
Finally, an organization that values something incentivizes it. I think Plato said that… Determine once you begin education how your organization will value employees build design thinking skills.

I hope this helps to frame your initial decisions about a design thinking curriculum. Reach out to me if you have questions or needs more customized questions.