Design thinking: Making it pay off | The time barrier

There’s a universal problem when it comes to innovation: it takes time.

But not innovating isn’t an option (at least, not if you want to keep the lights on).

In all our interviews, lack of time was far and away the most frequently cited obstacle to applying newly acquired design thinking skills. There are only 24hrs in a day. How can we fit in more? The simple answer is: we can’t. Fortunately, we don’t have to.

Design thinking isn’t about adding to your workload, but changing the way you tackle it. In this article, we’ve collected some quick and dirty strategies that will help you meet your objectives faster. But before we get to them, we have to accept one simple truth:

We work where we work

By acknowledging this important fact, we free up valuable time and mental space. Let’s be realistic: we are not going to change the way an entire organization operates overnight.

Would it be helpful for your company to realign its performance matrix? Institute a policy that assigns X hours per week for innovation? Absolutely. We work with organizations to introduce these very strategies and get great results.

However, these things are not prerequisites for personal change. Fantasizing (and getting frustrated) about the way we wish our company was, is a waste of time. The first step to overcoming the time barrier is to accept what we can’t control, and take responsibility for what we can.

Don’t separate, integrate

We know design thinking has started to take hold when people stop talking about ‘innovation’ as something they interrupt their jobs to do, and start integrating these methods to do their jobs in better, more innovative ways.

Small changes can save big chunks of time. In the last fifty years, business practices have changed. Not always for the better. Take workplace meetings as an example: in 1960, the average time an executive sat in meetings was 10 hours a week. By 2007, that figure was up to 23 hours, with 71% of those polled describing them as ‘unproductive and inefficient’. Not only that, but over 60% said meetings interfered with their need for ‘deep thinking’. In 2011, a study identified ‘too many meetings’ as the single biggest time waster at work (up from third place in 2008). Design thinking may take a minute to get used to, but it has the potential to save us vast amounts of time in the long run.

Running a brainstorm to get a group project unstuck can sometimes save the hours lost to endless discussion. You don’t need an official proforma or pre-booked conference room, just a pot of coffee and a pack of sticky notes.

Most of us interact with customers and colleagues every day. These conversations are an opportunity to apply the questioning and listening techniques used in design thinking. Consider these three, no-extra-time-needed techniques:

  • Try evoking specific stories of great (and terrible) experiences to gain empathy with customers or colleagues
  • Use open questions (“Why? How?” not “Do you…?” ) to dig deeper and really understand the problem
  • Take notice of things in your physical environment during a conversation (items on desks, an overloaded calendar) and enquire about them – you may be surprised what you learn about the person

These ‘integrations’ don’t require much if any more time than it would take to complete tasks in the traditional way. When done habitually, they can often save us time, improve relationships, and sometimes even lead to insights that spark radically new ideas.

JFDI – No excuses

There’s no question about it: we’re all way too busy. But regardless of what we tell ourselves, it’s not always time constraints making us procrastinate, but a fear of the unknown.

Design thinking is not difficult, but it is different. Different to how many of us are used to working. Different to what is comfortably familiar. It’s this difference that can sometimes make it hard to take that first step back on the job.

A quick example of what we mean from our experience: At Treehouse we spend a lot of time leading design sprints with teams that are new to design thinking.

These sprints can last from a few weeks to several months, and require teams to head out into the field to practice methods they’ve only just recently learned. This means conducting interviews, doing in-context observations, prototyping, running experiments, the whole shebang.

What we’ve found is that familiar tasks (e.g. desktop research) typically get done on schedule, despite the fact they’re relatively time-consuming. But when faced with a new method (e.g. rapid prototyping), teams will often put it off, even though only minutes are required to do it to the standard required for iterative design work.

Letting go of the edge

Procrastination can kill a design project.

We get it, those first steps are hard. The painter faced with a white canvas. The writer staring into the snowstorm of a blank page. The pale kid hanging onto the edge of the pool. Procrastination is fear, pure and simple, and there is only one solution:

Do something, and do it now.

The first brush stroke, the first sentence, the first paddle across the deep end. You can do it, but you have to let go of the edge.

This is how: Pick one small, new-to-you action that you can take immediately. Try it out and see how you feel afterwards.

Instead of polishing a project until it’s perfect, try sharing work at an earlier stage. It might feel a little scary, but showing a colleague (or customer) your rough sketches for an idea actually increases the likelihood of being able to use their feedback. Let’s be honest, who really wants to hear criticism of an idea we’ve already painstakingly refined until it’s ‘ready’? Being willing to embrace the early, messy stages allows us to progress faster.

The only way to do this wrong is to do nothing at all. Don’t worry about getting it ‘right’, just getting it done. But never forget: a quick failure right off the bat should be expected, welcomed, and used to learn – that’s what it’s all about.

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