Design thinking has become one of the hot topics in the consulting world and is now making its way into the nonprofit sector.
The most recent edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review even did a cover story on the topic that was co-written by CEO Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt, both of the design innovation and consulting firm IDEO.
Wikipedia describes design thinking as “the essential ability to combine empathy, creativity and rationality to meet user needs and drive business success.” This design process emphasizes creativity and the needs of those whom the design is being created for. In their article, Tim and Jocelyn outline how the nonprofit sector is starting apply design thinking in to account in solving societal problems.
I also just finished reading “The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage” by Roger Martin. In this book, Roger describes a model for the process of design thinking which he calls a knowledge funnel. This model descries the way most social entrepreneurs think and creates a model that makes this thinking more accessible and deliberate.
The knowledge funnel starts at the top with a mystery.
For example, the mystery when I founded the Taproot Foundation was – how do you make capacity building services like marketing and technology widely accessible to nonprofit organizations who can’t afford to pay for them?
Going down the funnel, you next examine the mystery and develop a heuristic or a hypothesis that you feel could unlock the mystery. For Taproot, we observed that given cost constraints of nonprofits, to provide them with capacity building services, our solution would need to use pro bono service. We also observed that to be scalable and reliable, this service would need to done using a production line model. Thus, the heuristic was to use a pro bono service production line.
In the final step in the funnel model, an algorithm is developed and constantly refined that is the design for how to execute the heuristic to address the mystery. For us, the algorithm was the Service Grant program and all the countless details that went into optimizing it over the last 1,000 projects we have completed.
The article and book really show the power of design thinking and the knowledge funnel model. At the same time, they also showed me that the conversation around design thinking and service is missing the larger opportunity by continuing to focus on individual products instead of larger social missions.
The current design thinking conversation as it relates to service is all about product design and largely about bottom-of-the-pyramid products. The cliche being – how do we develop low cost water pumps for Africa? This is critical and breakthrough work, but the same design thinking can be also be applied to the primary product of the domestic nonprofit sector- services.
Some of the most impressive work of firms like IDEO is their accomplishments helping to drive innovative designs for services, not products. IDEO, for example, helped design Bank of America’s wildly successful “Keep the Change” innovation, a service which helps promote savings by rounding up the cost of each purchase made with a check card to the nearest dollar and transferring that change to the user’s savings account. Designing a service or program that helps address domestic societal issue may be less attractive to designers as it is less visual and tactile, but it is no less transforming.
Using design thinking and the knowledge funnel model, one can see a great opportunity for taking one of the hundreds of social, environmental, or economic challenges facing our nation, working to find solutions, and then doing the hard work of implementing the plan. We need to look at how we can train the nonprofit sector on this methodology to find increasingly better solutions to our country’s challenges. By applying design thinking not only to product development but also to service improvement, we can fundamentally advance our solutions and ultimately address our country’s challenges on a more sophisticated level.
As a last aside- It would also be interesting to design a conference around design thinking and service. Each year you could bring one challenge to the event and work to leave a few days later with a heuristic that is widely believed by the group to have a strong possibility of solving the mystery.