Change by Design - Design Thinking - by Tim BrownSunday night I got started reading my first book in a while (it is hard to get as much reading done when you’re not riding the train for two hours a day). Luckily it is one that I’ve been looking forward to – Change by Design by Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO).  I have heard great things about the book before and I  heartily recommend it to anyone struggling with the ‘old way’ of creating in a corporate environment.  I believe that design thinking is simply a better term for us internal entrepreneurs who need to pitch a new approach in a more traditional company. It also reminds me of a great story that epitomizes the design thinking process – ‘The Parable of the Fly Fisherman’.

Overview of Design Thinking

If you are not familiar with the concept of Design Thinking let’s start with a quick overview.  The design thinking process has seven steps. Depending on what source you read it may have more or less. Tim Brown focuses on three, but all seven of these are there between the lines.

  1. Define – What, When, Who, Why, and How.
  2. Research – Collect information without passing any judgments.
  3. Ideate – Brainstorm without judgment or debate, build on each new idea.
  4. Prototype – Start building rough prototypes early and often and refine throughout.
  5. Choose – Review the objective and select the powerful / game changing ideas.
  6. Implement – Describe, plan, assign ownership, and execute the tasks required to deliver.
  7. Learn – Gather feedback, discuss, and learn from the experience.

As you can imagine, design thinking is far more likely to result in game changing ideas than the old incremental methods.  A company that embraces design thinking is more likely to be a market creator than a competitor. Design thinking is similar to the concepts in Blue Ocean Strategy – think Apple for a great example.

Fail Early and Often

One of the key concepts that comes from the design thinking mentality is the drive to fail early and often.  Failing early brings with it very little cost to a project, failing later in the process can be catastrophic.  The habit of prototyping often and early allows a design team to quickly test new ideas for viability. Even rough prototypes made using such high tech objects as Sharpies and duct tape are more than acceptable. Prototypes help you gain valuable insights into customer behaviours. Ultimately those insights help identify the true game changing ideas before making a big investment.

The Parable of the Fly Fisherman

It is this concept of failing early and often that immediately reminded me of a story that I was told a couple of weeks ago by a local business leader, Ty Shattuck (formerly Senior Partner at Trivaris and host of the Innovation Night) that I’m going to call ‘The Parable of the Fly Fisherman’.  Here’s roughly how it goes:

One can always tell a successful fly fisherman from one who will struggle (regardless of experience). By observing the behaviours of the successful fisherman we can learn a great deal about the approach to commercialization of new ideas (aka – creation of new markets).

Imagine this scenario. You are in a calm river with a large variety of high quality flies with which to fish with. As a bonus you know exactly where the big fish are located in the river.

The average angler will select the most likely fly for the type of fish that he is trying to catch based on his experience. He will then cast his line directly toward the ‘big fish’ hoping that by going straight for the heavyweights he is most likely to land a big catch for the day.  The problem is that the wind catches the fly in mid-cast and the fly misses its mark just slightly. The errant fly angers the fish more than attracting them. 

To make matters worse, the fisherman has slightly misjudged the tastes of these fish. He casts his line a second time and lands the fly directly in the middle of the school of fish he’d like to call dinner. Now the fish are not interested in the bait and choose to disperse rather than take a nibble.  By the time the fisherman gets his line in the water the third time, all the big fish have gone elsewhere. In the end he has to settle for some of the small fish on the periphery. If he catches anything at all.

In contrast, when you watch a successful fisherman ply his trade you will see something entirely different.  The successful fisherman ties a fly that he believes is a good match for the fish he’s trying to catch and the other conditions. Then he intentionally casts for a pocket of smaller fish away from the main school of ‘big guys’. 

In his first cast he tests the wind conditions to see how he might have to compensate. Then he tests the fly selection by checking for nibbles and perhaps even catching a small fish. 

With his second cast, after changing his fly to a slightly different version, he casts to another pocket of slightly bigger fish also away from the main pack of big fish. This is another test of the wind and his fly choice to check his adjustments.  By the time the successful fisherman casts his third cast he sends it directly into the pack of big fish. Immediately he reels in a whopper. By testing his theories early (failing early and often) he scores the big fish in the pond.

Connecting the Stories

I have often told the teams I have managed and led that the greatest hitters of all time in the Major Leagues were .300 hitters… in fact a .300 batting average over a reasonable length career is likely to get you into the Hall of Fame, but after hearing ‘The Parable of the Fly Fisherman’ and reading the beginning of Change by Design I think I missed part of the equation.  While a .300 average might get you into the Hall of Fame, the game changers in baseball did something more than that. The legends made their hits when it mattered. They were the successful fly fishermen.

You can still be a good baseball player if you don’t get a hit 70% of the times you go to bat. But to be a truly great baseball player, your hits should be when it will be a game changer. Look for home runs that break open a game or a base hit that drives in the winning run. Even if you don’t get a hit you can still win with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 9th.

Try Design Thinking Yourself

Fail early and fail often. Learn from every experience and delivery. Swing for the fences!

Find those game changing ideas that will create new markets and make competition irrelevant.

Design thinking is a powerful tool in the tool belt and I highly recommend everyone do some reading on the subject. Whether you an Entrepreneur leading your own company or a member of a team in a highly structured and process driven company, Design Thinking can help.

Innovation is the key to success in the business world of the future. We need more Canadian companies to lead the way.

I’d love to hear your thoughts – feel free to leave your comments in the comment section below.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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