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Design thinking helps executives find solutions

Cutting-edge innovation management strategy gets school at UCT

Published: Business Report / Business Life (published in Sunday Independent – national, Sunday Tribune – KZN and Weekend Argus – Western Cape) 21 February 2016

Lorelle Bell

BEFORE the new school of design thinking at UCT even had office space, its director Richard Perez was asked to develop and deliver a training programme for a major South African financial institution; one of several enquiries from business and the government.

Design thinking – already a leading-edge innovation management strategy internationally – is making its presence felt among South African executives. As the pressure to innovate in dynamic, complex environments increases, they’re looking to design-led innovation to unlock new solutions.

Complexity and rapid change were amplified in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2016 theme – “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, described as the “digitisation of industry... characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres”.

Questions on the WEF agenda illustrate its implications. How will it transform industry sectors, including health, mobility, financial services and education? How can technology be deployed in ways that contribute to inclusive growth rather than exacerbate unemployment and income inequality?


How can breakthroughs in science and technology help in solving problems from climate change to public health? How will emerging technologies transform the global security landscape? How can governments build institutions capable of making decisions when the challenges they face are more complex, fast-moving and interconnected than ever before?

While local Davos talk barely out- lasted its four-day run in January, South Africa’s 53-strong contingent was the largest to date. Seven ministers accompanied the president. The economic triumvirate – Pravin Gordhan (finance), Rob Davies (trade and industry), and Ebrahim Patel (economic development) attended. As did Naledi Pandor (science and technology), Aaron Motsoaledi (health), Nomvula Mokonyane (water and sanitation), and Tina Joemat-Pettersson (energy). Governor of the Reserve Bank Lesetja Kganyago, and billionaire Patrice Motsepe also went,along with the leaders of some of South Africa’s largest companies, banks and media houses. The implications of digital innovation must have made an impression on the government and business.

Design thinking is an important driver of innovation, as well as a manager of risk for innovation.

Against this background, design thinking addresses complexity and change through its human-centred problem-solving process; and offers a discipline that underpins innovation. It allows solutions to emerge from the process, and helps to generate new outcomes (products, services or systems) that are uniquely suited to the needs of users in the contexts in which they’re applied.

The process begins with research and observation focused on human needs. The empathy and insights developed allow the team to really understand the problem and to develop responsive solutions. Low- resolution prototyping, testing with target users and refining, ensure that solutions are desirable to users, as well as financially viable, and technologically feasible.

Design thinking breaks down silos (an acknowledged, though tough-to- break, reality for many organisations); and facilitates collaboration, through its techniques for working in diverse, transdisciplinary teams. Inclusive teams make a broad range of perspectives and skills avail- able to solve complex problems.

Unlocking innovation

Perez explains that design thinking provides a set of tools, a process and, ultimately, a mindset that unlocks innovation.

The mindset he mentions is evident in Intuit, a billion-dollar California-based software company. Intuit revolutionised its business and embedded an organisation-wide culture of design-led innovation when it adopted design thinking in 2007 as the learning process to understand its customers, and rapid experimentation became the basis of its product development process. Intuit’s success is reflected in its second placing on Fortune’s Most Admired Software Companies and rise by 27 places on Fortune’s Top 100 Best Companies list, in 2015.

Intuit is one of the companies featured in a research report titled

“Parts Without a Whole?: The current state of design thinking practice in organisations” by Jan Schmiedgen, Holger Rhinow, Eva Köppen and Christoph Meinel of the Hasso Plattner Institute.

The authors comment that, “Oftentimes, management focuses on the final innovation outcome. How- ever, design thinking is a journey: Teams or whole units change the way they work and how they approach problems along the way... the introduction of design thinking needs to be accompanied by additional changes in leadership and innovation capabilities.”

The training for the financial institution, mentioned earlier, included its innovation team and a business unit. The aim was to learn how design thinking could help the innovation team better serve its in- house clients.

Practical case

The group learnt to work collaboratively in teams, researching and observing customer needs; sharing ideas and solutions; and developing and testing low-resolution proto- types with users. In addition to realising the training objectives, several solutions were generated. As the head of the business unit reflected, “I think we got more out of this than anyone else because we also got the solutions for our unit. We had four prototypes coming out of this. Every single one of them is valid.”

This year sees the formal establishment of the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) School of Design Thinking at UCT. Funded by the Hasso Plattner Trust, it joins the HPI Schools of Design Thinking at the universities of Potsdam (Germany) and Stanford (US) in offering programmes in design thinking to scholars and executives.

Perez says, “Design thinking is an important driver of innovation, as well as a manager of risk for innovation. Training in design thinking plays a significant role in entrepreneurial and leadership skills development. The competencies developed include an entrepreneurial and innovative approach to work and life that is valuable in education from preschool to executive level.”

Lorelle Bell is a consultant to the HPI School of Design Thinking at UCT. She writes on design, innovation, technology and sustainability, and is an aspirant impact entrepreneur. Contact her at