How do you keep the lights on as the world's light dims
January 20, 2020, the United States had its first documented case of Corona Virus. It seems that our world has been in a downward spiral ever since—unemployment skyrockets along with business bankruptcy, protests, violence, and riots.
Even attempts to isolate from the 24/7/365 negative news media will not leave you untouched by our world's events in the last 6 months. The fear of darkness has crept into our places of businesses with the subtly of a mack truck. A mack truck that appears for many companies to be filled with concrete leaving them stuck in fear. Destined to sink into an ocean of other business shipwrecked in 2020. Are you a business leader who is starting to feel the cement hardening around your feet? In short, how do companies keep the lights on and move forward?
Shimmers of hope from the last six months.
For those brave enough to open social media the last six months, you may have noticed shimmers of hope. These shimmers have taken many forms.
People putting toilet paper in their neighbor's mailbox
Teachers teaching math with chalk on the sidewalk outside students home
A leading car dealer shifting from manufacturing cars to face masks
Gyms and yoga studios that had to close their doors discover new ways to bring fitness and health into the homes of people sheltered at home.
While they appear diverse, each shimmer consists of
Concern and empathy for people's suffering.
A clearly defined problem and a desire to solve it.
Ability to see existing resources through the lens of possibility.
Creativity and dogged determination to find solutions.
In business, this is known as innovation. And just like these examples innovation, doesn't have to be a separate entity, a third box, an island of its own that you throw millions into in hopes of raising a unicorn. Instead, it can be boots on the ground daily adaption to meet the needs of those that matter. Namely, customers, employees, and other stakeholders (known as users). And it is why design thinking is the innovative skill required by today's leaders to move forward. And here's why:
Human-Centered. When it comes to the future many think AI is the holy grail, and it is true AI will allow us to accomplish feats never seen before. It is created by us and for us. As with any business endeavor ever, its success lies in meeting the needs of humans. In fact, AI and other technologies have improved our lives so well that experiencing anything less than a seamless, made-for-me experience is ridiculous. Now more than ever, business success is born out of a human-centered approach.
Listening. The lockdown protests, the riots of 2020, and trending hashtags spotlight the importance of listening to people. Steve Job was a master at observing and listening to what society was telling him. I write about his three levels of listening in the 30-day Listening Challenge I held on LinkedIn last month. The challenge written in a daily blog consisted of a simple listening prompt. You can check out Day 1 here. Bottom line - if you ain't listening, you won't survive.
Inclusivity. Besides, a desire to be heard, users want to be a part of the solution. They want to be a part of the answers, not just have them handed to them. They want to be a part of something larger than themselves. If the truth is known, I suspect that failed innovation, change, or engagement initiatives are mini-employee riots. Their way of saying if it doesn't include me, I reject it.
Focus on the How. It's crucial to shift from worrying about what happened yesterday to creating a better future. But how? That's precisely the question that starts the design thinking process. How might we _____? And as the leader, you get to fill in the blank.
Driven by Limitations. The uninformed often dismiss design thinking and innovation to require millions of dollars and tons of resources. Quite contrary, it's driven by the constraints of the organization. Is it desirable (do the people want it)? Is it viable (will it work within the company structure)? Is it feasible (do we have the technology, processes, etc.)? You can achieve performance success even on the front lines without a budget. I've seen it done many times. That's the power of listening, inclusivity, and tapping into employees' ingenuity and potential. The power of design thinking embedded in the organization as an ecosystem.
Fail Faster. Failure is the end of the line for business and where many are headed who don't innovate pronto. However, when it comes to innovation and precisely design thinking, failure is just a step in the process towards success. An opportunity to listen more, include the feedback in the solution, and try again. The use of mock-ups and prototypes leaves these failures, costing zero in many cases.
Building an innovation ecosystem.
Building an innovation ecosystem begins by giving leaders the education and hands-on experience of design thinking. In a company of 500 employees and 50 leaders (assume 10 employees per leader), this can happen in as little as 8 weeks. Starting with the front line, managers begin to utilize their design thinking tools to tap into the ingenuity and untapped potential of their employees to capture measurable (and in most cases) unimaginable performance. Don't underestimate the desire of the front line to succeed. Their livelihood also depends on your company's success. While you can provide a budget, I've seen even zero budgets have tremendous results.
Next, as front-line managers confront obstacles beyond their authority or lack of resources, these problems aren't discarded. Instead, these issues bubble up and become part of the next level of design thinking for their managers. And these continue all the way to the top. In effect, the organization's highest level is only involved in high-level innovation decisions, allowing ideas to be resolved at the level they originated. The C-Suite leaders at the top solve the problems that require their resources and expertise while keeping the users that elevated the opportunity in the loop through each phase of their design thinking process. In no time, the organization becomes a living breathing innovation ecosystem. Breath of creativity going in and out of every level and related opportunity regardless of what level of management.