Lethabo Motsoaledi

Everywhere we look, disruption permeates business processes, systems and the manner in which we develop our products and services. Disruption is defined (by dictionary.com) as “forcible separation or division into parts” or, from a business perspective, as “a radical change in an industry, business or strategy, etc, especially involving the introduction of a new product or service that creates a new mark”. Design thinking can be said to have also evolved out of a disruption of sorts.

What is design thinking?

Lethabo Motsoaledi, CEO and cofounder of innovation studio Mostoaledi & West Disruptive Intelligence in Cape Town, explains, “I also use the term user-centric design when explaining design thinking. It’s a methodology of problem-solving where you keep the user at the centre of the process of coming up with solutions. There are four orders of design, namely symbols design (graphic design, logos), industrial design (products), systems design (interactions with products and services) and, the most complex, design of models (business models and holistic systems, such as education). Design thinking is in the third and fourth orders where there are increasingly complex systems interacting.”

Dr Puleng Makhoalibe, head of the School of Innovation, Creativity & Entrepreneurship (ICE) and author of The Alchemy of Design Thinking, agrees and expands on this. “There are many views on what design thinking is. Some refer to it as a process or methodology, some as a mindset, some as a set of tools, some as principles, some as strategy. I believe all of these are correct but can represent a limited view of a very versatile concept. Literally translated, design thinking is a study of how designers think and perhaps do their work. This phenomenon was then brought from the design stream into the business stream as it is believed to embody the secrets of how businesses can harness wicked problems facing them in today's world.”

Her first encounter with design thinking was in 2007 while studying towards an MBA at the University of Cape Town (UCT). “I was a software engineer and was much more acquainted with traditional project management approaches. The design thinking approach was challenging to me. I was very analytical, logical and scientific and the idea of flexing my creative muscle and engaging it in problem-solving was quite nerve-wracking.  My mission became how I could bring design thinking and creativity to my world of software development.”

While much has been written about the differences between traditional approaches and design thinking, Makhoalibe believes that the design thinking approach integrates the analytical with the intuitive, imaginative side. It involves the exploration with the exploitation, while the divergence and convergence lead to fresh insights.

But how this is done, practically? Motsoaledi believes that if one sticks to this five-step process, it will yield great solutions, every time. She describes it as follows:

  1. Empathise – This is where you seek to truly understand what the problem is. The traditional challenge with experts is that they view problems from a prejudiced perspective. In this phase, you observe and interview the people facing the problem. You keep asking questions to understand why they do what they do. Out of this, you get to the root of the problem.
  2. Define – You define a persona of the person who faces the challenge, their pain points, their experience and, based on your observations, what you think they want to achieve. You come out of this with a defined problem and a defined person who faces that problem.

  3. Ideate – This is the divergence phase where you think of every possible solution, even if it seems impossible. You do not limit yourself to what is or is not possible. It is about thinking of and sharing all ideas.
  4. Prototype – This is when you narrow down your ideas to a fast and simple solution which you would then go a present to the user. The value of the prototyping is you don’t spend a ridiculous amount of money.
  5. Testing – In a way, you go back to the empathy/observation phase when you test. You determine what works and what doesn’t, ideate, prototype and test, looping until you have a workable solution.

For Makhoalibe, a favourite element of the design thinking process is what she calls “the ability to hold two opposing truths and allowing a new creative truth to emerge. While traditionally, it used to be 'either/ or', the design thinking approach encourages 'yes and', which leads to multiple options before a choice is made. Another characteristic that intrigues me is seeking to get a product to the market fast, in what usually is an imperfect state. While the stakes are low, the market gets to experience the product and reacts to it. It is this wisdom of getting quick feedback, responding and improving the product, that brings innovation and makes design thinking different from traditional approaches.”

Shifting culture

The primary difficulty that both Motsoaledi and Makhoalibe face is the slow rate at which design thinking to facilitate innovation is being adopted, particularly in corporate entities. This is because, in Makhoalibe’s view, some organisations deploy design thinking as if it is some magical process that will suddenly shift the organisational culture and lead to innovation. Buying Post-it notes and printing fancy-looking colourful processes will not suddenly shift the culture of an organisation or build brilliant products. She adds, “We have recently seen scholars proposing a shift from design thinking to design-being, or to design-doing, or to design culture. I think the ultimate quest is to bring practicality that makes a difference rather than making it another well-theorised, fashionable fad in business journals.”

There are many views on what design thinking is. Some refer to it as a process or methodology

Motsoaledi believes that, whether they define it as such or not, small businesses tend to practise design thinking because they find their customer base, bend over backwards to ensure their needs are met and constantly tweak their services to ensure they remain relevant. For corporates, she has identified four primary hinderances, namely:

  1. Collaboration – This is a key principle yet departments within larger organisations often operate in silos and are adverse to collaboration, which means they can’t create holistic solutions.
  2. Hierarchy – Customer insights often get drowned out before they reach the decision-maker. No-one wants to tell the boss that the customer hates the product and so, as it goes up the chain from those on the ground, it goes from bad news to good news.
  3. Risk – Being willing to try something new, even if it may fail, is also at the heart of design thinking. People within the corporate world are rewarded on the basis of performance and success. A mistake may result in a person losing their bonus or affecting their career advancement so they do everything to mitigate risk.
  4. Culture – A popular role within many companies is the head of innovation but you can’t leave creating a culture of innovation to one individual, especially when they don’t get enough funding, time or support. It needs to be company-wide.

The present and future

The landscape is gradually changing, albeit slowly. Tasked with setting Henley Business School’s ICE, Makhoalibe has found herself in the enviable position of developing programmes for corporates while, for Motsoaledi, the projects her company is involved in give her hope. For example, they recently completed a design thinking project on behalf of the FirstRand Foundation, who were looking to replicate the success (100% placement) of the Johannesburg vocational training college Sparrow Schools in Mpumalanga. Motsoaledi & West insisted on following the design thinking process and, having recently finished this part of the project, a school will be built, in partnership with a local vocational college, in the province. 

Education is important to both Makhoalibe and Motsoaledi. Makhoalibe believes that design thinking can “provide us with tools and academic grounding to rethink and shape a curriculum that is relevant to the continent and focused on equipping learners with the thinking tools, skills and confidence to solve problems.”

Diversity, a willingness to follow a process that deals with human beings as human beings instead of just numbers, the ability to take judgement, ego and "expertise" out of the equation all form the soul of design thinking and, as long as we have people like Lethabo Motsoaledi and Puleng Makhoalibe to guide us along, we should all be fine.