How “design thinking” can change the way your NFP works

Are teams in your organisation open to new ways of working?

While “innovation” may be something everyone says they love, when push comes to shove, convention and tradition – ‘the way things have always been done’ – often rules supreme.

That’s because innovation can be risky, unproven – and scary. But given that not-for-profit organisations deal with some of our society’s most important problems, the need to apply creative solutions in order to make an impact is even more important – particularly with a rapidly changing external environment and increasingly strained budgets.

Christian Duell believes every single person is creative and has the power to effect change by applying that creativity – given the correct tools. Christian is a facilitator, educator and social entrepreneur, and the founder of White Light Education, a training organisation focused on helping organisations to use “design thinking” and human-centred design to work better and solve problems together.

Ahead of his presentation at the upcoming Not-For-Profit People Conference, we spoke to Christian to find out what “design thinking” is and how it can change the way that teams in the NFP sector work.

Hi Christian, thank you for chatting to us! To start off with, can you tell us a bit about how your interest in design thinking came about?

I used to be an architect, so I have a background in design. I had a career epiphany in 2010 when my company laid off 30 percent of our staff due to the GFC, and I saw the prioritisation of making money over people.

I took a sabbatical in 2010 and had a serendipitous experience in Madrid where I worked with a local community group to explore problems around drug and alcohol issues. It was there that I realised how the creative process I used to design buildings could be equally valuable in looking at those sorts of complex problems.

This led me to discover design thinking around that time, and I took on a role in Queensland as an educator where I began to train teachers in design thinking. What I discovered in that process was the tools and methodology I was teaching around design thinking brought out an inherent creativity in every person that was involved in one of my workshops.

So I really believe now, as a result of having run so much design thinking training over the last five or so years, that we are all creative. Under the right conditions and with the right tools, we can harness that latent creativity within any group to solve our most pressing problems.

So what is design thinking?

There’s a company called IDEO who have been pioneers in building the global design thinking movement over the past decade. One of the founders, Tim Brown, has a definition for design thinking: design applied to anything.

Design thinking is essentially about taking a creative problem-solving process that was traditionally used by designers to create products and physical things, and translating that methodology outside of the traditional design world to solve any complex problem.

We talk about those sorts of problems as “wicked” problems: problems that don’t have a clear right or wrong answer, where the variables are constantly changing, and where things are really messy and ambiguous. Design thinking is a deliberate approach to solving those sorts of complex problems.

You mention that design thinking is traditionally a process we might associate with designers or people in “creative” industries. How is it applicable to the not-for-profit sector?

What’s exciting about design thinking is that you don’t have to be a designer or an ‘elite’ creative to benefit from design thinking. I believe NFPs have everything they need within their organisations to solve the problems they face.

More than most industries, I believe staff in the NFP sector generally have a strong understanding of their clients. In fact, what gets a lot of us into this work is that we care about our clients deeply.

The conflict I see a lot in the organisations I work with is that bureaucracy and the busyness and demands of work get in the way of our ability to help our clients. So design thinking can create a space for us to reconnect to our clients and why we’re doing this work.

It’s a human-centred design approach, so everything we do in each stage of the design process connects back to the needs of clients, and the solutions are designed to support those needs. What that means is the solutions we develop through the design thinking process are specific to our clients, and therefore more sustainable.

Going through this process allows us to build more empathy for our clients and helps us to reconnect with our purpose. So when it works well, it can really be a transformational experience for staff to reconnect with the ‘why’ behind the work they do.

So what are some of the benefits of design thinking for not-for-profit organisations?

One of the benefits of design thinking is that it’s a way of viewing our world and situation differently. There’s that famous Einstein quote that we can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking that created them – and design thinking offers a different way of thinking. It allows us to look at old problems in new ways and it’s inherently creative because the sorts of things we do in the NFP sector – all the social issues we’re grappling with – can’t be solved individually. It forces us to be collaborative.

In the sense of how it benefits teams and managers, design thinking builds our shared capacity to solve problems and thereby strengthens our work culture. It allows us to become more resilient as well, by embracing managed risk and failure. So not only is it a great way to tackle our day-to-day problems, in a broader sense it helps to build a culture where we’re more interdependent and collaborative.

It also allows us to be innovative – looking at our problems in different ways and generating creative ideas and solutions can allow NFPs to do more with less. When we’re challenged with limited resources or funding or time, we can look at what we can do in new ways to have a greater impact.

What are some of the challenges NFPs might face when applying or encouraging design thinking in their teams?

Carving out the time and space for this kind of work often sits in that quadrant of “important but not urgent”. For design thinking to succeed in an organisation requires strong leadership to prioritise this sort of thinking and an innovative approach.

One of the challenges I also come across is “cultural readiness”. There are often entrenched ways of thinking that have been established over years that aren’t ready for change or thinking differently. So there’s got to be a willingness to be experimental and try new approaches. And the prime time for that is when we are actually frustrated with the status quo and the way things have been done in the past; when we’re not willing to tolerate the current situation any longer.

My message for anyone who’s curious about this work is that it doesn’t have to be difficult and it’s not an “either/or” approach – there are scales of implementing design thinking in your organisation, and it can be so easy to get started.

And just finally, what else will you be speaking about at the 2017 NFP People Conference?

I’m going to give a clear definition of the principles, process and tools of design thinking and share, through my experiences, why I believe it can be so valuable to managers in the not-for-profit sector. And I’ll be sharing some case studies and examples from projects I’ve worked on in the last couple of years in the NFP sector.

I hope to demonstrate how this approach can succeed – not only in solving some of the problems we’re facing but also in enhancing the work culture amongst our teams and building a culture of resilience and creativity. I’ll also be providing some really simple tips and tools on how your organisation can get started with design thinking.

Thanks, Christian!

Christian will be training NFP professionals in some essential Design Thinking tools at the 2017 Not-For-Profit People Conference on November 13 and 14. Find out more and book your place here.

Image: Flickr/gsj11berlin

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