Stuck in an Innovation Rut? Try “Design Thinking”

By Sam Sliman, President, Optimal

If you’ve spent any time with SAP recently, no doubt you’ve heard all about mobility, analytics, the cloud and HANA – the products that represent innovation for SAP and are driving SAP’s record growth. But today you’re just as likely to hear another catchphrase that has entered the fray – and it goes way beyond the product boundaries that traditionally define SAP: Design Thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

As a computer science student and business school grad, my formal education was steeped in the analytical. These curricula teach that problems are addressed with frameworks applied with logic and critical reasoning. It was (and some would insist, still is) the prototypical left-brain dominated perspective. Without a doubt, this approach has proven very reliable in addressing, managing and solving some very difficult issues in the business world generally and in IT specifically.

But left-brain thinking is highly evolutionary, not revolutionary. It makes progress in increments and builds on past history to advance toward an objective. Despite repeated paradigm shifts (think mainframe to client server to Internet to mobile) the history of IT as applied within organizations is practically a left-brain case study. We are trained to document, functionally decompose, structure, build and test things.

Design Thinking in many ways is the antithesis of computer science and business school. It acknowledges that breakthroughs more often come by questioning assumptions, employing creativity and using intuition, effectively turbo-charging the right brain’s contribution to the problem-solving process.

A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Procter & Gamble, put it this way, cutting to the heart of the contrast between the traditional and Design Thinking:

“Business schools tend to focus on inductive thinking (based on directly observable facts) and deductive thinking (logic and analysis, typically based on past evidence). Design schools emphasize abductive thinking – imagining what could be possible. This new thinking approach helps us challenge assumed constraints and add to ideas, versus discouraging them.” (Emphasis added)

Why Design Thinking Now?

Today, SAP flaunts its innovation chops, for good reason. Among the top global software vendors, it would be hard to argue that anyone is doing more to advance software innovation than SAP. Design Thinking supports this innovation agenda, which is why SAP customers are getting a healthy dose of it. In SAP’s view it’s time for all of us to embrace our right brains to get past mere process automation and enter the realm of design-led innovation.

At Optimal, we’ve touched on the challenge before. After decades of being told “You can’t do that” by resource-constrained IT organizations, business is awakening to a new reality: computing resources are plentiful and when focused on Big Data analytics, can reveal some of the most stunning and profitable insights into your customers, products, markets and competition.

For this reason, HANA, analytics, mobility and even the cloud are inextricably linked to innovation for SAP’s customers.

The “constraint” increasingly is imagination. What do we do with this power? The traditional mode of thinking is not suited to the challenge. It might tell you that IT is a mature business, having worked its way all the way up the proverbial S-Curve and that we are entering a market phase where additional IT investment may not be worth the incremental benefit. But our intuition says this is not true. And market innovators like Apple occasionally surprise us by reminding us that the information technology revolution has lots of runway. We just have to think about what is possible. Enter Design Thinking.

How Does Design Thinking Work?

Ironically, SAP’s version of Design Thinking seeks to structure the process of Design Thinking. Based on leading edge research performed at the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI), they have articulated a very thorough process that embodies the unique principles inherent in the Design Thinking approach. Not surprisingly, early HANA adopters are treated to Design Thinking workshops by SAP with particular intensity. It’s even rumored that HANA itself is the result of a particularly productive Design Thinking session.

In a nutshell, Design Thinking is intensely end-user focused. It is a highly collaborative, iterative process for rapidly producing solutions that effectively address complex problems. For SAP, Design Thinking has three guiding principles: technical feasibility, economic viability and end-user desirability.

In general, the Design Thinking process consists of bringing together a small team of individuals with different backgrounds who work together to identify a problem through close observation of a worker and/or work process; rapidly develop a prototype for the solution to the problem; and continually refine the solution through repeated testing and development of new iterations of the solution.

Those who utilize Design Thinking report that their teams often experience an “aha moment” or “chance discovery” that occurs during the process. If Design Thinking has a secret sauce, it is that the process itself is constructed to foster debate among team members, encourage questioning, accelerate development of tangible products, and hold open (anticipate, even) the possibility of discovering something entirely unintended or unexpected while engaged in the creation of a solution to a complex yet specific problem.

There will be more to come on this important topic in future installments. For now, we put together a list of resources on the Optimal SAP Blog to help you get up to speed on Design Thinking, its origin, purpose, and the deeper meaning of its terminology. Check it out and let us know what you think.

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