Design Thinking and the Customer-Centric Organization


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“There’s a reason millions of people try to solve crossword puzzles each day. Amid the well-ordered combat between a puzzler’s mind and the blank boxes waiting to be filled, there is satisfaction along with frustration. Puzzles can be solved; they have answers…But a mystery offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer…it depends on a future interaction of many factors, known and unknown. A mystery cannot be answered; it can only be framed… A mystery is an attempt to define ambiguities.”

– Gregory Treverton, Director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for
Global Risk and Security, Smithsonian Magazine, June 2007

It’s no surprise that the notion of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) affects both corporations and consumers alike. In this world where so many complex dynamics are at play, it is any wonder that competing, innovating and growing is more difficult than ever before? In fact, it is often difficult even for the most customer-centric organization to define its true business challenges, much less develop meaningful strategies to overcome them.

In the words of Gregory Treverton, we’re increasingly facing a world full of mysteries to be explored rather than puzzles to be solved.

Algorithmic Thinking vs. Design Thinking

Today’s organizations have made tremendous strides forward in solving “puzzles” by leveraging algorithmic thinking to speed decision-making, optimize processes and create predictive models. We acknowledge that these applications are powerful and important, giving rise to data sciences practices in corporations today.

At the other end of the spectrum are the challenges of understanding one of the greatest mysteries of all: the human being. This is where design thinking comes in. Developing an empathic understanding of often-irrational, fickle human beings and creating products and services that they will value is the essence of the mystery Treverton alludes to.

It’s also the kind of challenge design thinking is perfectly suited for.

Design Thinking 101

While it’s common to see the term “design thinking” tossed around, it’s less common to see a solid definition of it. One of the best definitions of design thinking I’ve come across is from David Kelley, founder of IDEO, the global innovation consultancy:

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

Based on that definition, it becomes easier to see the potential power of design thinking in the context of customer centricity. Organizations that develop the competency of seamlessly transmuting consumer needs into innovations, ultimately create growth and competitive advantage.

Let’s briefly review the design thinking process and discuss why it’s such a powerful approach to solve consumer-centric challenges.

According to Dr. Jeanne Liedtka (United Technologies Corporation Professor of Business Administration at the Darden School of Business), design thinking can be broken down into four key phases:

What Is?

The initial stages of the design thinking process are rooted on the creation of a design brief, building empathy and building a set of key insights that will serve as the guiding principles of the solutions it will ultimately generate.

The design brief serves as the critical “guard rails” of the entire initiative. It defines the business challenge or opportunity, unanswered questions, targeted consumers, outcomes and success metrics. Given the ambiguous nature of human-centered challenges, this step ensures all stakeholders are aligned on the problem to be solved, and how success—or failure—will be measured.

With a design brief in hand, the next critical phase of the design process is anchored in a deep understanding of the consumer: the context of their lives, their challenges and their unmet needs. By taking a holistic perspective of their current reality, the team can better identify a broader context from which to design solutions.

Once the team has a chance to observe and build empathy for the end audience, they distill their learning down into a set of core insights that become the design criteria for the “What If?” phase of the process.

What If?

Not surprisingly, this phase of the design process brainstorms new ideas and develops concepts to solve the challenge at hand. And, while these two activities are certainly familiar, they become even more powerful when framed in the insights generated during the “What Is?” phase. Rather than being implausible and irrelevant flights of fancy, the ideas and concepts are guided by a deep understanding of what consumers truly value, and by a set of specific criteria to assess their ultimate feasibility and potential.

What Wows?

In this phase, the team has already assembled a set of concepts much larger than the organization can—or should—tackle. This phase is focused on identifying the concept(s) that truly have the potential to “wow” both consumers and the organization. Ideally, “wows” occur on three levels:

•  “Consumer wow” (provides extraordinary value)
•  “Execution wow” (the organization can deliver it incredibly well)
•  “Economics wow” (creates significant financial impact)

As the most promising concepts propel forward, the team documents their key assumptions about why the concept will succeed. As they are shared with end consumers and vetted within the organization, the team parses the feedback considering these assumptions: Are they holding true? Did we miss something important? What do we need to modify for it to succeed?

What Works?

The final phase of the design process centers on agile, lean experimentation to turn concepts into prototypes—and prototypes into fully launched new products. Throughout this process, the success or failure of these experiments are judged on how well underlying assumptions continue to prove out. It allows the organization to “pull the plug” on faulty concepts quickly and rapidly accelerating those that generate the most traction among consumers.

Design Thinking and Customer Centricity: Hand, Meet glove

If we agree that customer centricity is deeply understanding customer needs and fulfilling on those needs better than anyone else, you can see how design thinking is a critical mechanism to making customer centricity happen.

It’s an incredible challenge to understand consumers in all their irrational complexity, and quite another to transform that understanding into meaningful business outcomes. It calls for a very different mindset and skillset—to embrace thinking about possibilities rather than limitations. Zooming out to see broad patterns rather than myopic fixation on one piece of the puzzle is necessary. In short, it challenges people trained in left-brained roles to embrace the right-brained worldview of a designer.

Design thinking is fundamentally anchored in human-centered insights, using tools familiar to anyone who’s worked in the insights space. Inspiring, because of the rigor of design thinking to accurately translate those insights into meaningful organizational growth.

In fact, we are developing pathways for our clients to leverage design thinking to create new value through the Gongos Innovation Studio. Multidisciplinary talent is brought in to create innovative solutions tailored to our clients’ unique customer-centric challenges. We see it as a way to incite change, influence decision making, and drive competitive advantage.

Moving into the future, we must recognize that design thinking’s potential to reframe organizations’ customer-centric “mysteries” is as crucial as applying rigorous analytics and algorithmic thinking to solve data-intensive “puzzles.”

In an era where both kinds of challenges are multiplying, it’s important to be able to live in both worlds to help clients create meaningful change and fuel growth.

Greg Heist
A former marketing research practitioner for over 20 years, Greg drives the innovation strategy at Gongos as Chief Innovation Officer. From future trends to product development, he guides the company’s innovative spirit, leading the company's Innovation Think Tank and development of strategic partnerships.A prolific blogger, Greg has been a sought-after industry presenter and hosts the podcast “The Future Stir.”


  1. Hi Greg,

    Very interesting what you say.

    Am a Professor of Marketing and Management in the UK looking at the kind of leadership needed to deliver Customer Centricity and wonder if I could chat with you and a couple of your colleagues (seaprately) on the telephone about this this week? Your comments would then appear anonymously in a paper submitted to an Insttitute of Design Academy conference and you could also appear (via a video-link or footage you forward that I can integrate into the full video) on a video am crerating on Leadership to accompany a new book out in April.

    If this is possible, perhaps you could contact me at: [email protected]

    Many thanks,

    G A MOSS


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