Is design thinking the next big thing?

This article was written by Charles Orton-Jones and featured in Raconteur’s Sales Performance Report in The Times. I’m publishing it as part of the collaboration between Sales Confidence and Raconteur to help elevate the sales profession.

 

Originally a way to brainstorm creative challenges, the philosophy of design thinking has a new home in sales departments

Charles Orton-Jones

It can be exhausting to keep up with fads in management thinking. Remember theory Z, which promoted a Japanese-style approach to motivation? Or how about one minute management? At least that had the allure of being brief.

Now there’s a new one. Design thinking is the latest thing in sales. So what is design thinking? In a nutshell it’s about getting salespeople to think like designers. Bonkers? Not according to the likes of IBM, Salesforce, Google and Amazon, all of which have embraced the philosophy.

“Its origins are 150 years of design education,” says David Kester, co-founder of the Design Thinkers Academy London, where dozens of blue chips have sent their salespeople to learn the art. “You see design thinking at the Royal College of Art and in the Parsons School of Design in New York; it is practised at the Stanford University d.school [design school].”

If you want a single-line summary, Mr Kester offers: “It is harnessing the tools and methods of designers for non-designers.”

The longer explanation runs like this. There are five components to design thinking.

Empathise. This requires researching end-users to find out what they ultimately want and why. How do the end-users think? Designers need to perform empathetic research all the time; for salespeople, it may require entering a new mindset to discover the wider reasons a customer might want a product.

Define the problem. Now the sales team must focus all known information on to a single objective. But which objective? Again, this requires a degree of creativity. What does the company want to achieve? Which sales goals are realistic?

Ideate. This free-form stage produces a mass of ideas, which are then discussed. Teams should bounce ideas off each other. Often teams use idea generation tools, such as a challenge to come up with “terrible ideas” to break the ice.

Prototype. At the core of design thinking is iteration: the constant production, deployment and refinement of ideas.

Test. Solutions should be built and deployed, then improved with the benefit of feedback. It’s a core principle of design thinking that prototypes beat abstract theorising.

“The five-step process is not linear, nor is it always the same,” says Christian Schluender, general manager of Huemen, a design agency. “This is part of the magic. The framework is not a step-by-step process, but rather needs to be viewed as phases that can run in parallel, repeat as needed and not always in a planned hierarchy.”

For sales teams, a major reason to look at design thinking is to stop them thinking as vendors of products. Instead, they solve their client’s needs in a creative way. Often they become product managers, demanding changes to existing products and business models to suit their clients.

“It’s not suitable if you are doing hard sales in something like double glazing, where you have three products to flog,” says Mr Kester. “It is there to solve more complex problems.”

Pietro Micheli, professor of business performance and innovation at Warwick Business School, believes design thinking has a lot to offer companies that want to improve customer experience. “Design thinking starts by investigating problems, rather than by immediately looking for solutions,” he says. “This means that assumptions and preconceptions may be probed and, as a consequence, problems may be reframed.”

For example? “Airlines can use design thinking to improve passengers’ experiences by considering the overall experience rather than just the interior of the aircraft. Or in hospitals where provision of clearer information to patients has been found to dramatically reduce their anxiety, versus focusing just on the interactions with clinicians,” says Professor Micheli.

Salespeople are likely to enjoy the power and freedom offered by design thinking. It draws on their creativity in ways they may never have experienced.

Greg Taylor, chief provocation officer at Elmwood, a brand experience agency, says: “One recent study written up in the Harvard Business Review, for example, showed contact centre staff allowed to flex and experiment to meet customers needs, rather than stick to a rote script. Within four months they achieved targets twice as fast as a control team that used a tactical approach. Freedom and a remit to think on their feet and experiment to be more responsive made a world of difference.”

It’s an impressive list of benefits. Happier staff. A problem-solving mindset. The ability to continue to innovate. Empathy with customers. And better sales results.

“You can master the basics quickly,” says Mr Kester. “It takes two days to learn the core tools and method. Then come back for another two days of facilitation, using different tools and methods. Then you are up and running.”

Get it right and your salespeople will be reincarnated as creative thinkers. “It’s like finance,” says Mr Kester. “You don’t want only your finance team to understand numbers. You want your entire team to be commercially literate. It is true for innovation. You want everyone to contribute.”

So is it a fad? Hardly. Design thinking has decades of proven results behind it. All that’s new is salespeople are learning the skills.

Sales is no longer a matter of flogging units. It’s about creativity, problem-solving and building solutions for clients. In this environment, design thinking is set to be mainstream for years to come.

This article was first published in Raconteur’s Sales Performance Report in The Times.

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