Jen is a design thinker and innovator with a background in IT and software development. In this episode we discuss how corporates miss opportunities for growth because of a reluctance to embrace the ‘non-traditional’ design thinking approach to problem solving.

Jen’s view is that, rather than just applying the methodologies, the critical thing is to change the mindset of people within organisations wanting to implement design thinking. Businesses are made up of humans; design thinking should be customised for those humans before it is applied to the humans we are trying to serve. This is how we develop a loyal base of internal supporters who believe in the value of the data we collect from the end user.

When organisations adopt design thinking, they are changing things they have been doing for years – it’s not as simple as a design thinking team working in isolation in a back office; design thinking fundamentally changes the way you do business.

We talk about the balance between keeping humans at the centre of the process, the financial investment and the ROI of implementing design thinking to optimise the solution. We also touch on the importance of accepting and learning from failure.

If you are interested in implementing design thinking in your organisation, share this podcast with executives so that they understand the impact on the organisation as well as the humans it serves.

If you are unfamiliar with design thinking, listen to episode 1, where we discuss the methods and mindsets of design thinking and clear up some of the terminology.

Welcome to Great Minds Design Think Alike. Where we investigate design thinking, the challenges, the successes and the problems it solves. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of design thinking, check out episode 1. Be sure to subscribe so you get the newest episode as it’s released. Great Minds Design Think Alike is hosted by Stuart McDougall, owner of Tenaka, a leading Design thinking consultancy in Johannesburg, South Africa and is proudly brought to you by Mac Media.


Today I’m sitting with Jennifer Sutherland. She is an experienced design thinker. We discuss the missed opportunities by the corporates who are reluctant to see the benefits of solving problems through the non-traditional design thinking process.


The conversation with Jen:

SM: Jen, I’m here with you today and I met you through the design thinking meet ups in Joburg. We have known each other for probably close to a year now and my reason for wanting to chat to you is that we were fairly new to design thinking at that stage. I know you have had experience in design thinking and I just want to investigate a bit further with you.


First of all, if you could give a bit of background about where you have come from and then where you got introduced to design thinking. What sparked you and what made you go in that direction 


JS: Ok, how far back do I go?


SM: As far back as you want


JS: I was a curable programmer. That wasn’t sustainable necessarily. But I spent a lot of time in IT, in pre sales and software kind of business analysis type areas. A lot of business to business type software. And then I was at Gijima, working at Gijima late 2008-9. We got introduced to innovation and design thinking. At the time it was like , what the hell is that? It doesn’t make any sense to me at all this design thinking thing. And it just went right over. I didn’t do anything with it until at standard bank during our evolution of the innovation program we realized the crowd sourcing idea and starting at the point of ideas was not the right approach. So we kind of iterated a lot in how do we do this? How do we get to build  MVPs?  We started putting some means of  start-up type of approaches. But we were still building things that were very big and quite clunky and expensive, rather than doing some of the design thinking type of things where prototypes fail early and fail cheaply. We were kind of getting a prototype together but still required quite a lot of technical bills. Physical software, that type of thing. So then we started probably the end of 2015 we did a bootcamp with the D school they did 10 days with a whole team of us at Standard bank. That’s really when we kind of got into design thinking, but how do we merge it with lean start up and agile and how do we start seeing how all these all play up together in coming up with solutions.


SM: You mentioned that you started off at Gijima and that’s where you were introduced to it. Were they in a position that they were running design thinking quite effectively at that stage? I know you said it was the early stages.


JS: Yes they had started an innovation program but as with a lot of corporate or all corporates innovation is the first thing to go when there is costs to be cut. So innovation was sort of supported but people were not quite sure. It was still quite hierarchical, and structural and in a business to business context where you are selling compliance software, design thinking and compliance didn’t really gel well in my head certainly.


SM: It’s not divergence its convergence.


JS: Some of the best innovation people I know are lawyers so it’s possible.


SM: And then at Standard bank you were putting it into practice.


JS: That’s when the light came on and all the puzzle pieces started going, oh this can’t stand alone and this cant stand alone, but wow. What if we put them together and started doing all these things? Then it started getting all exciting.


SM: Could you, without going to stuff that’s, cause obviously Standard bank has got their  intellectual  property and stuff like that. Is there a way where you could explain an instance where you were faced with some challenges or an experience that design thinking  might have overcame, or actually improved what the deliverable was at the end of the day? Is there any examples?


JS: I suppose it’s more about the mindset of people you are trying to buy into the methodology rather than whether it has worked better or not. Because in some instances there was an idea, let’s do this. We said lets try doing the design thinking. Let’s interview people, let’s know how they are feeling, let’s gauge if this thing is going to work or not and then the data was probably ignored. So the data said don’t do it , and they said we were going to do it anyway and they went and  did it. I suppose less about the value of design thinking people see at a superficial maybe level that there is value, but don’t believe the data you have only spoken to 20 people have these preconceived this is how we gonna get there. And the data is now saying don’t do that its hard for people cause they traveled that road so long. I suppose the point is to get in early, as early as possible. But also work with people who are willing to try something different, to try a new approach. That’s where it really start to see traction. Let’s find a team based on what they do that’s willing to try these new things and diverge from their old ways.


SM: So this mindset that you are talking about, where the guys were not willing to pervert or went ahead with an idea do you believe that from a design thinking perspective, they could have stopped the idea at that point or they could have actually perverted the idea. Take it in a different direction based on the data that was provided to them. Do you think it comes down to a decision that was made on cost of investment that has already gone into it or just the fact that there is somebody sitting in a position and saying this is an idea that we have had and we need to drive this idea forward and not diverge of that cause or its financially related?


JS: I think it’s a little bit of both, sometimes people have traveled that road this far and it’s really hard to say it’s a bad idea. Let’s kill it. Killing is like meeting failure and in a bank failure is bad. In that also talks to the mindset of it’s ok to say we realize this was the wrong thing to do. Let’s change what we are doing. But people do have these projects that come from above, some of the senior people are like well this is what we are doing. So it’s still where there is this command and control type of leadership. They are not open to hearing things that contradict their views I suppose.


SM: Well. As a look at governance corporate in a way within an organization. Because you  might find, and I’m just talking from an opinion from my side, that you have got people that are sitting in the sort of board level structure or the executive structure. They have to report in terms of what progress the company is making. The direction the company is stirring, and its sailing this course, and the direction that we have chosen. And so once you introduce design thinking then into a process where it starts to determine that direction or that product or that service if you are developing in that direction. It’s probably not the most ideal. You need to pervert and change. Then it’s difficult for them to do that based on the fact that the reporting to the structure that’s above, that’s not operationally involved in the business doesn’t necessarily understand they are just going to see that as a waste of investment really.


JS: Also design thinking is not, people that are wise, what is this thing that will deliver. And design thinking and innovation broadly you can’t say what the business model is going to look like because its iterative but we are going to try and minimize the risks upfront. Build at as low cost as possible. They also think that it’s like a quick process, this will help us deliver quickly, but it doesn’t ,it just enables us to make sure that we are delivering the right thing before we start going in agile and building it. We have to make sure we ask the right questions and deliver the right solution. And I suppose it’s that uncertainty that design thinking is pretty messy and corporates like structure and like a process that says if you do this, and then this and this, will get that. And design thinking doesn’t do that. Because you come in here and you can go backwards, you can go forward, round in circles and it all just gets a little verge for people who like very structured, organized people that cant be dealing with this messiness. Maybe it’s about finding the right people to bring along that journey and you involve those people because it’s actually needed at the right time.


SM: So from the experience that you have had in the institutions that you were in, have you seen design thinking growing in these institutions? What do you see the future of design thinking becoming inside these organizations? Do you have a perspective on that?


JS: I think it’s more that they see the value of human centered and focusing on your customer, or user or whoever it is you are solving for. I think that value is seen. But I think like agile it’s gonna take time before people to understand and buy into the principles before they buy into how are we actually going to execute on living these principles.


SM: I had a conversation with somebody this week. We spoke about agile and they were saying how agile in their organization wasn’t working very well. After digging a bit deeper it came down to the individuals that were running the agile process. And I think design thinking is the same as you need to have the right people in the organizations, in the teams. Is there anything in particular that you think of? One of the things in particular that Tim Brown says from IDO is that everyone can be creative of course. There is no restrictions on that. So is there any context that you can give in terms of how teams should be made up in these organizations and these design thinking teams?


JS: I don’t necessarily know if there is a particular structure. I think people need to be flexible and willing to adapt as needed. I think especially with agile, the challenge with organizations implementing agile, is that they have been stuck on the outer facts and the things and the stuff we do. Not the principles of why are we doing it?  the same with design thinking it’s all very well we can talk to people we do this, look we followed the process, but if you are not doing it for the right reasons and it’s not embedded in everything you do then it starts becoming a facade that looks good but its not living up to the real why.


SM: So going back to the question of the future of design thinking in these organizations. How do you see that unfolding then in terms of the large organizations? Is it something that they will still use external consultants to come in and assist them? The capacity being built in these organizations?


JS: I think there are organizations that are doing a good job at building capacity. I just think in terms of the mindset and the size of some organizations it’s really hard to change when you have been doing this for 150 years in this way. And now all of a sudden you say we need to restructure differently. And it’s less about structure but we need to think differently and solve differently. It’s really a big change management thing. It really is about the change not this is just a new thing. And they don’t see it as just this is the new silver bullet that’s gonna solve everything. In smaller organizations if you started with that and grew with that as an underlying principle it’s much easier than trying to do this massive change.


SM: Obviously there are a lot of companies in America. There are articles that I read all the time about fortune 500 companies that are being highly successful because they have created this space inside their environments and there is some success that’s coming through in that area. In South Africa itself do you believe that is starting to grow here. Is it something that the big companies are taking on board? Are they seeing that?


JS: I think companies are taking it on board in small pockets which is a good way to start because you can’t change the whole organization overnight. But by having it separate, and having this cool feasible space where cool stuff happens and we use design thinking and all these latest things. You still have this allergic reaction or this, kind of, we are fighting the bugs and things that are coming into our system to push it out.


SM: Again from an opinion perspective, if South Africa were to move into this space of being innovative and developing new technologies and things like that, it’s got to start to break those barriers of the restrictions around the old way of doing things and opening it up and saying we willing to be a little bit riskier in terms of what our investment is on something to find out more, whether or not it’s gonna be desirable or successful as a product or service before we go down the road of saying ‘Ok well let’s start even building the prototype of whatever this service is.’


JS: So it’s partly about that. But I think it’s also about the rest of the organization and how well it’s geared to support a change in how well you do things. So it’s all very well in having this fantastic team of however how many people maybe sub-teams working in new ways of work following design thinking and whatever else you apply. But you still got procurement and compliance and finance and HR and everyone that works in the old ways. These 2 things don’t work very well together. So how do you bring this vertical group of people that includes all of that discipline of not just the people who are building the product, but everybody that they buy into this is how we are going to develop things. Cause if we’re gonna build quickly we need to agree quickly with a textile that’s going to build this pilot. We can’t spend 6 months negotiating a contract through procurement and a million page legal contract because the start-ups doesn’t have the resources to read that contract. How do we adapt all this thinking while we are still being risk givers ang bring it all into a new way of doing things.


SM: You have nailed it there because if you think about it through, if you execute that project in any case every department needs to be on board.


JS: And we tried that at Standard Bank and what really worked very well was bringing procurement and business and IT and everybody into a project that we were saying let’s look at KYP for an example, we are evaluating these people. We have done these interviews. Everyone gets a say in how do we go ahead. And we bringing people in at the earlier as possible stage rather than saying we have done all this and then we go to legal down here and procurement and say we are going live tomorrow we need these things. And then they say ‘what the hell you should have told us sooner’. And then they are going to find the problems because they are now really annoyed. Rather if you brought them in earlier, they could have been part of this process we got by and then it’s just a couple of steps to make it real rather than a big fight.


SM: So Jen you have left Standard bank you are not at Standard bank anymore, what’s the next thing on the horizon, what are you looking at? Where are you inserting yourself into organizations and things like that from a design thinking perspective?


JS: I’m struggling a little bit to say there is only one thing I’m going to focus on. There are so many interesting and different ways of approaching problems. Design thinking isn’t the only way. Just as leading start-up isn’t the only way and agile isn’t the only way. But then you have got customer experience as an underlying thing across all those things. We have got service design and some people are very passionate about one thing and will focus on that one thing. And I’m a human struggling to pick only one and I feel like I shouldn’t have to pick only one. So I really like seeing the big picture but I’m probably going to end up being a Jack of all trades and master of none potentially. But it keeps life a little bit more interesting. As you hear new things, this is a new buzz out there. You start going into how does this apply into this big picture that I have? How do they play a part and how do these things talk to each other?


SM: And then as an opportunity maybe we have the design thinking meetup every first Thursday of every month. Give us a little background about that, maybe people will be interested in looking it up and where they can find it.


JS: Ok so it started probably about 2 and a bit years ago, April 2 years ago. Ulrich from design approached me and said I used to run this, I don’t have time anymore, do you wanna take it over? That would have been 2017. I was like wow it’s gonna be something I have never done before. It’s a little bit of organizational stuff which is not my strong suit, but hey it’s going to be a challenge, it’s going to be interesting so well let’s see what can happen. So I just took the leap of faith. But I think as it’s grown, especially recently with you guys coming on board and now Alaa, Graham and we have started building up this connected community. It’s starting to say how do we use this for the greater good of the country. In building within communities and within corporates and just general awareness that eventually will have purpose. Rather than just saying we are just here for skills development and helping people learn. But how can we actually do real valuable work together? And yeah I have met some great people and I’m really grateful that I actually took that leap because I wouldn’t have met a whole bunch of people otherwise. 


SM: You have built a great network of it.


JS: I think the community values that as well because that half the reason people around meetup is how do I get to engage with people like me who are struggling with the same things, or have the same mindset. People start connecting and it’s really lovely to see those connections being made.


SM: So where can people find the meet up?


JS: It’s on the meetup platform Design Thinking Johannesburg. First Thursday of every month. We just pick the topic. We pick the topic every month and we try and alternate between skill sharing, conversations where people can share experiences and practical exercises and I don’t know, maybe we will get to a movie or something one day.


SM: Great, Then we also did the Jozi Jam with you last year which was also the international design sprint. That’s also something which was an initiative of yours and I was part of that. That went really really well. We had some fun doing that. It was all weekend and very immersive. yes so you going to do that again this year i suppose?


JS: Yes we are.


SM: Yes we are, we are going to do it again this year. Ok great. I look forward to that.


JS: The dates are set already and you should start planning.


SM: So people should look out for that. We should start getting the community involved.


JS: What was the word, Blue?


SM: The last theme, Blue yes that’s what we started with. They made it interesting from the word go.


JS: They summarize design thinking, that you can start with a single work and you can start divulging it to many so many different ways and converge on one thing. It was really interesting to see that at play it’s not really an angle I have seen before, but yes, definitely looking forward to next year.


SM: Excellent. Cool Jen thanks so much for your time, appreciate it we will catch up again soon.


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