Italian firms are also turning to this approach, already widespread in the USA. “They have realised the need to challenge themselves in order to overcome obsolete operating patterns”, explains Stefano Magistretti, Research Platform Development at the Design Thinking for Business Observatory.
Two decades in the making. Design thinking may have taken quite a while to travel from Stanford University in the United States to Italy, but now Italian companies are finally embracing it. Getting here was by no means a foregone conclusion, since design thinking is much more than the mere creative use its name suggests. “We see it spreading rapidly in Italian companies, having application in a wide variety of economic sectors and processes, such as product and service innovation, digital experiences and organisational transformation”, states Claudio Dell’Era, director of the Design Thinking for Business Observatory at the Polytechnic University of Milan’s School of Management, during the presentation of research results at the online conference ‘Design Thinking: hate or love it? Matches and mismatches with alternative innovation frameworks’ held this past April.
But in order to understand how it is currently used in the business world, we should start from the very beginning. “Design thinking is an approach, a methodology that puts people and their needs and requirements at the centre. A long-standing fixture in the United States, the turning point came with Tim Brown’s 2009 work ‘Design Thinking’, which also paved the way for the business world. Once only utilised by multinationals, today virtually everyone is hopping on board”, chimes in Stefano Magistretti, Research Platform Development at the Design Thinking for Business Observatory.
There are five steps in the design thinking process:
- Empathise, show solidarity with your users;
- Define, set out the needs of your users, their problems and opportunities;
- Ideate, generate innovative ideas and solutions by questioning your own ideas;
- Prototype, shape your own ideas by bringing solutions to life;
- Test, put the proposed solutions to the test.
The Design Thinking Observatory’s research encompassed 368 managers across different business units, and revealed that design thinking is the most widely adopted model, being used by almost a third of the sample (31.2%). The research also found that the sectors investing the most in projects based on this approach, covering nearly 75% of their total expenditure, were energy (investing 13.0% of expenditure), manufacturing (12.3%) and finance (11.8%). The bulk of 38.6% of the expenditure relates to projects for solving complex problems, while 24.6% is dedicated to the rapid implementation and testing of products and services and 22.6% to activities designed to involve employees more deeply in creative processes. “The dynamics of design thinking have become apparent in companies everywhere. Seasoned design-thinking managers rarely integrate it with other innovation management models, preferring to extend its use to different activities. Those who predominantly adopt other approaches to innovation are more open to combining the other models with design thinking”, explained Dell’Era.
Design thinking can also serve as a useful aid for companies in this post-pandemic recovery phase. “Companies have realised the need to challenge themselves in order to overcome operational patterns that are now obsolete and, above all, not effective in terms of business. The secret to overcoming this phase is to develop a culture of continuous learning, experimenting and working with people with fresh skills and ideas. Admittedly, there isn’t much room for real interaction now, as interactions are limited and mostly virtual. However, the pandemic has certainly changed the way companies view design thinking: It used to be used for their products and services, but today they use it mainly to reorganise their work processes and all related consultancy services”, says Magistretti.
Digital technologies can be of great help here. Digital technologies such as Big Data Analytics, Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things can transform and enhance the way Design Thinking is applied in consulting and innovation projects. On average, Design Thinking projects use fewer digital technologies than projects based on other approaches to innovation. “Design Thinking and digital technologies can greatly benefit from each other. Digital transformation is not just a technological phenomenon, but involves the entire business organisation, including design thinking. In parallel, this new approach can also help managers grasp the full potential of digital tools for engaging the workforce and users alike,” concludes Magistretti.