Design Thinking for Organizational Development

Design thinking has become a buzzword over the past few years—maybe you’ve heard of it. Companies ranging from Airbnb, Jet Blue, GE Healthcare to Hyatt have all used design thinking methodology to rethink how their organizations are meeting customer needs and organizational effectiveness. But design thinking isn’t just for designers; it’s one part of taking a user-centered approach to problem solving.

Within an organization, design thinking (DT) is a tool for identifying hidden issues and unlocking behavioral change from the bottom up. DT for organizational development (OD) focuses on discovering latent or hidden organizational needs and then addressing those needs with active problem solving.

Ok, but what is DT for OD, and how does it transform businesses?

Let’s start with the basics.

Organizational development (as previously outlined by Gina Urgena here) is about taking an organization “from where it is to where it wants to be.” For organizations to become more effective, they need to know where they are going, how they intend to get there, and what large or small barriers exist to getting there. Often this path is nebulous, everchanging, and dauntingly unclear. OD consultants like those at Oyster OD can help businesses identify this path in part by helping them ask the right questions about where they are and where they want to go. While the methods for clarifying this path largely depend on the organization and what they are trying to accomplish, the methodologies of design thinking can often be used to help organizations think beyond the limiting mindset of “business as usual” to innovate, change direction, improve customer experience, and simply ask better questions about why the organization operates the way it does, and by approaching change from a more collaborative perspective.

To summarize, DT for OD helps us:

  • Use an empathetic collaborative approach to creating change.
  • Understand employee and customer wants and needs by collaborating with them to identify issues.
  • Ask better questions to identify latent issues and search for unique solutions.
  • Think about how the organization can be more efficient and productive by meeting those needs.
  • Explore and test novel solutions to innovate or improve experiences and systems.

Typical design thinking methodology can be summarized in five steps:

1. Researching and Empathizing: During the research phase of the design thinking process, the goal is to understand and empathize with the people for whom you’re designing, learn to see from the perspective of the people (customers, employees, etc.) you are problem solving for. This goes beyond surveys and standard performance research and is more about observing and talking to people to understand how they work.

In this exploratory stage it is important to understand the deep problems so that we can eventually articulate good questions about how we might create change. OD professionals use this stage to identify dynamics within the work culture, potential business constraints, where opportunities for growth and change are, what has changed or may change in the near future within the organization and in the external environment.

2. Define: In this stage OD professionals begin to verbalize the problems and opportunities identified in the research and empathize stage. Often this involves framing specific opportunities for specific customer groups or organizational changes. Accurately articulating the issues is often more difficult than expected. For example, asking “How can we create new KPIs for the area XYZ?” is not a design thinking question. Putting a solution in your question is not user-focused and leaves no space for questioning whether the resulting KPI is even the right solution. A better question might be, “How might we rethink the check-out experience for our online customers?” Note there is no solution pre-embedded in the question, like there is with the KPI question.

3. Ideate: During the ideation phase of the design thinking process, the goal is to generate a large number of interesting ideas that represent potential solutions. This phase reframes “problems” as opportunities. This stage involves exploring alternative solutions to these issues that align with your organization’s ultimate goals. The purpose of ideating is to explore beyond the usual or expected answers and to identify novel solutions. This is a fun but sometimes challenging stage as it can require innovative and daring thinking, but OD professionals can help you innovate while moving towards your short-term and long-term goals.

4. Prototype: Prototypes are the embodiment of “soft solutions” that allow you to test your problem-solving ideas, whether they be a physical product or a new work flow system. You can create prototypes for demonstrating and validating your solution ideas. To properly evaluate a design concept, you’ll want to prototype it in the same environment and context in which it will eventually function. Before you test, you have to come up with an idea (system, product, service, communication method, etc.) to test. Making ideas tangible is critical to the DT process, as are the iteration cycles required to test and refine those ideas.

5. Test: Before implementing huge top-down change, it can be wise to test your prototypes. This allows you to explore novel solutions without taking on the risk of huge organizational change. Bring a new solution into the system but be prepared to measure how effective it really is. Although every company is different, some useful metrics for assessing the impact of design thinking include: cultural measures, such as employee satisfaction, internal engagement, efficiency, financial measures (like sales and productivity) and product quality measures, such as customer satisfaction.

6. Iterate: This last step is ongoing. Once you have tested some of your ideas, you can start to iterate and improve on your initial solutions before making the change permanent. Organizations that want to remain resilient will continue to self-reflect and act in the face of changing internal and external factors. Organizational improvement doesn’t stop once you decide on a solution—you need to test, improve, and continue to gather feedback!

For many businesses, these steps for organizational change can seem complex and confusing, but the outside perspective of an organizational design professional like those at Oyster OD can often help. Contact Oyster for a complimentary one-hour consultation to discuss your challenges.

Laura Bell serves as Oyster’s Customer Experience Strategist. A recent MS graduate from Cornell University’s Design and Environmental Analysis program, Laura is a social scientist trained in user-centered research and design methods who takes an evidence-based systems approach to understanding both customer and employee experiences in organizational development.


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