Successful Design Thinking Keeps an Eye on the Future

Design thinking is everywhere. Academia, industry, and the public sector are all heralding design thinking as the ‘new’ solution to creating and driving innovation across organizations. My Twitter feed and LinkedIn Pulse are stocked with stories and visuals explaining how and why to leverage design thinking, and the ‘magic’ of focusing on the customer. Without looking too deep, it’s easy to ascertain that design thinking is much more than a leadership concept in today’s fast-paced, evolving marketplace.


In design thinking, as with other forms and foundations of strategy, it’s important for organizations to look beyond today’s customer and problem. That focus is too limited to drive sustained innovation and disruption across their customer base. And it is insufficient to identify new customers and markets. To drive truly sustainable growth, leaders must understand their customer today and understand their future customers – what they will strive to achieve, and what problems and challenges they will seek to solve. Considering the experience of your future customer allows you drive the real, transformative disruption you seek for your organization and customers.


Deciphering Design Thinking


Ask ten people to define design thinking and you’re likely to get ten different answers. Many executives talk about driving innovation through design thinking as a successful near-term strategy. But it’s doubtful that approach is enough to solve challenges for executives facing turbulent markets, new customer segments, shifting business lines and the increasing influence of Gen C customers.


Among many executives, the pace of change is a common topic of discussion. The democratization of knowledge, volume and velocity of data production, and permutations of new technologies will continue to create business opportunities and new customers. The C-suite is responsible for driving sustained growth and must maintain the critical focus on the future across the organization. Yet, organizations often find themselves struggling to identify the strategic planning ‘champions’ within the C-suite or board.


Focus on Where Customers Will Be, Not Where They Are


It’s not hard to profile today’s customer or to consider design thinking in retrospect. And while both are important, neither is sufficient to drive strong future growth. How can organizations get ahead of customer expectations for personalization, information, delight and ease of use? How can you leverage design thinking help your organization to innovate new ways to lead customers?


Organizations that engage in a process of pursuing clarity through strategic foresight have a better chance of establishing a baseline understanding and appreciation for the industry, market, competitive and customer drivers shaping their future. This critical but often overlooked or rushed strategic thinking process ensures organizations are designing and innovating toward emerging customer desires and needs. Focusing on and leading with a view of the future allows organizations to decrease the challenges of repeated iterations and pivots due to market or customer disruptions and maintains a strategic focus on high value outcomes.


Nearly two decades ago, Toffler Associates worked with a major global IT organization to understand customer needs and plan for a realigned communications infrastructure investment strategy. Throughout the course of this effort, we outlined future customer desires around connectivity, access, security, and mobility. We discussed that customers would increasingly demand access to their information anytime and anywhere, and through multiple manners. This process included a foresight exercise with the C-suite during which our team recommended that the organization start to innovate around helping these customers ‘untether’ themselves from technology and access more information through mediums like wearable technology. We helped them consider the implications that would come with this trend, including changes across fiber, cable, satellite and other critical investment portfolios. The exercise was valuable. Already, wearables have evolved beyond smartwatches to become the seed for the monumental uptake of the Internet of Things (IoT) and its offshoot, the Internet of People (IoP). By focusing on the future and the implications to customers and competitors, executives like these have been able to successfully translate current data into foresight and innovation.


For organizations striving to build a foundation for long-term stability, focusing on today’s customer is a lacking strategy. As part of a solid design mentality, leaders need to challenge their organizations to look at – and then past – today. Great innovation begins with capturing the environment within which you, your customer, and your competimates will operate. It is on that foundation that great design thinking principles can work to produce useful customization, solve problems, and improve the quality of life for your customers.


It’s time for organizations to consider how they are incorporating strategic foresight and design thinking to drive growth.


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