Design thinking should be the future of business.

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I’ve recently become interested in design thinking. It began when I heard about something called service design. It piqued my interest so I did a little research and learned more about not only service design but user experience design, interaction design, product design, customer experience design, brand experience design, you name it, there seems to be a design for everything. I find the creative spirit and youthful streak of rebellion that seems to be at the core of this burgeoning industry compelling. It reminds me of so many artistic movements that have appeared throughout history. Lots of ideas, collaboration, and flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants let’s-try-it action. It’s exciting.

But perhaps even more exciting than the movement and the work itself, is the fundamental mindset or thinking that drives the work regardless of what type of design is being created. And it is precisely this thinking that could have a big impact on the future of work and how we do business.

Before we get into that though, let’s make sure we know what design thinking means. If we were to create a definition, it might go like this, design thinking is a frame of mind that is focused on solving problems by providing creative and innovative solutions that address people’s —all stakeholders— needs. I love this thinking because it is simple and uncomplicated not to mention human centered and fueled by empathy. I am also drawn to it because it sounds like a perfect definition of what business should be.

I’ve always thought business, all business, should be thought of as a service committed to helping people accomplish things by solving their problems. Whether that problem is something that a person doesn’t know how to do, doesn’t want to do, or doesn’t have access to, businesses should solve it. If, for instance, my problem is feeling hungry, I go to the grocer or a restaurant. If it’s being cold, I need to find a place to get a coat or warm clothes. If I’m in trouble, maybe I need a lawyer. Simply put, the priority of businesses should be solving people’s problems whether ridiculous, sublime, or points in between. Businesses should be, just as design thinking suggests, of service to customers first and their own needs second.

However, most businesses don’t see it that way. Why do I say this? On innumerable occasions, when I have attended conventions or networking events, I have had experiences like this. I introduce myself and get to talking with someone. I tell them that I have worked in restaurants, retail, and the hospitality space. They immediately say, “You’re mainly in the service industry,” to which I reply, “So are you.” They then glare at me with a perplexed look and say that they are not, they work in, let’s say, the financial industry. To that I ask them if they help their customers solve financial problems. I get a yes. I then ask if helping solve financial problems through investment advice, planning, and financial products is how their company serves their customers. Again, I get a yes. So I ask, “Your company serves customers, right?” “Of course,” they reply. “Thus,” I say, “you too are in the service business. In fact, all business is in the service business. The problem for customers is that most companies don’t know it.” The conversation then carries on with me hoping I’ve inspired them to think differently about their work. Given the number of times I’ve had these encounters, it seems clear, most businesses don’t seem to think service is what they do. In fact, they often seem to get offended by being equated with the so-called service industry.

But what if that changed? What if everyone went to work every day with a service-focused design-thinking mindset like “my job is to listen to people’s needs and solve their problems with innovative and creative solutions,” how would that change the experience of our customers as well as our work experience? As customers we would be listened to and advised on solutions rather than marketed to and sold products. As employees, we would understand that service is not the result of doing business, rather, we would see that business is the result of providing service, real service that genuinely does what’s best for the customer even if it means losing a sale. It would also change how we work with fellow employees. We would collaborate more and serve each other knowing it is ultimately in service of the bigger goal of customer success. Overall, empathy and ethical dealings would be the norm instead of the exception.

Have I got you thinking? What’s your mindset? Are you in the service business? Think hard, because if your work helps someone, and it must, you are in the service business. Does knowing that change anything? How can you demonstrate this thinking? How can you better empathize with those you serve so you can best understand what they need? How can you get focused on solutions that benefit them regardless of their benefit to you? That’s service that creates a great experience. That’s thinking like a designer, and that thinking is really what business is all about.

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