By James Choles, Academic Manager, Professional Development Centre, British Council in Singapore

25 July 2018 - 15:45

If you’re anything like me, ‘Design Thinking’ is one of those terms that you’ve heard a lot about recently but aren’t entirely sure what it means. But if you’re Singaporean, or have lived in Singapore for a long time, then you’ve already benefited from it.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking at SUTD in April 2018, said that Design Thinking was a “key reason for Singapore’s successful journey from third world to first, and it will be critical in the country’s future transformation.”

But what is Design Thinking, and how can it benefit you and your business?

What is Design Thinking?

Very simply, Design Thinking means thinking like a designer, and using the kind of processes that designers use to solve whatever problems they’re facing. For the founding fathers of Singapore, in PM Lee’s example, this would have been thinking of creative ways to attract foreign investment or house the growing population.

Start with people

Design Thinking starts with people. What do they really need? What would make their lives better? When Steve Jobs was thinking about the first iPod, for example, he realised that there was a demand for an ultra-portable device that could carry a person’s entire music library. But you don’t have to be a visionary like Steve Jobs to start applying the same principles. Ask your staff what they need or what would make their lives better. Or, better yet, observe them doing their jobs and get them to walk you through a typical process. Remember to show empathy (‘What is this person thinking and feeling? What’s not being said?) and to keep an open mind. 

Define the problem

After talking to or observing your people it helps if you can define exactly what the problem or issue is. This is a challenge for a lot of managers. Framing is important (i.e. the mental window through which we view the problem) and being able to write a concise and compelling problem statement. As the American inventor Charles Kettering once said, 'a problem well stated is a problem half-solved.' 

Generate ideas

Now comes the fun part! Once you’ve defined the problem you can begin to generate creative ideas about ways to solve it. Whatever technique you select to do this it’s important to try and generate as many ideas as possible and to defer judgement of what would work and what wouldn’t. At this stage it’s also important for managers to try and push their teams past obvious answers towards more innovative solutions. As David Kelley, founder of IDEO, says, 'with some gentle nudging you should find that everyone is capable of ‘routinely wonderful ideas.'

Design and test

Once you’ve selected the two or three most innovative solutions from your ideation session then you need to create some kind of prototype and try it out on your end users. Don’t worry if the word ‘prototype’ makes you think of a complex model or sample – it can actually be anything that your users can interact with. The Institute of Design at Stanford suggests that 'a wall of post-it notes, a gadget you put together, a role-playing activity or even a storyboard' would work well as prototypes.

Share your story

The last stage of the Design Thinking process, according to design firm IDEO, is to 'craft a human story to inspire others toward action.' You could show how people’s lives have been made better or how your team’s creative ideas have benefitted the business. In this way you will inspire others to learn about and apply Design Thinking to their own problems at work.

Learn more on Corporate training

James is a corporate trainer, course writer and manager, and has lived in Singapore since 2015. At the British Council’s Professional Development Centre he oversees a range of corporate training products that includes face-to-face workshops, Bitesize 90 modules and digital learning solutions. He also creates development opportunities for a team of almost 20 in-house corporate trainers.