Archives for posts with tag: design thinking

Since 2010, I have been involved with the use of Design Thinking to solve problems and develop new products and services. I have heard much about the famed consultancy that started it all: IDEO. As head of IDEO, Tim Brown is certainly in a good place to describe what Design Thinking is all about and how its promise to help change the world for the better could be realized.

Change By Design is his 2009 ‘guide’ to Design Thinking, yet any novices looking for a step-by-step instruction book will be disappointed by Change by Design. However, for those open to the complexity and promise of Design Thinking, Brown makes the case for its broad application.

Brown approaches the organization of the book with the same mental process that he might handle a design project. Neither is very linear and so, he does not feel the need for a table of contents to organize the information. Instead, the inside cover contains his own hand drawn mind map. Topics stream out in all directions from the box labeled ‘Design Thinking’ in the center of the page. I found this ‘map’ challenging at first and chose to ignore it and get right into the text.

I suppose that this behavior reveals some of my own bias at the outset of the book. A certain part of me was looking for clear, utilitarian instructions on making my design process more effective. I have been challenged recently to apply the set of methods to a new topic—social entrepreneurship—and this drove me to search for answers in Brown’s book.

I quickly discovered—or was reminded really—that for Brown and the experts at IDEO, there is no fixed process. Each assignment, it seemed, brought a new challenge and a seemingly new way to approach the problem. I had been working with a five step process out of Stanford’s I had taught this in a mostly linear fashion with an allowance for iterating at some point along the path. However, Brown’s description makes clear that IDEO does not share the same mental model when it comes to process, although there are very similar phases.

‘Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation’ might be the closest Brown comes to identifying a process. He elaborates further by drawing the initial phases as ‘divergent’ and the later phases as ‘convergent,’ explaining that each project team must actively create many options and then decide how to evaluate them and reduce them down to only a handful of the best.

Brown’s stories start with a team going on site and directly observing the people who would be using the service or product that the client has in mind. Observation is key to gaining empathy with them and ‘seeing the ordinary.’ Sharing the stories of the field research becomes a key step in itself. Here Brown finds many stories to share about the ways that IDEO teams discovered some previously overlooked human need or insight.

While the observation and storytelling steps were quite familiar to me, I found a twist here that surprised me. Brown suggested that prototyping, in its many forms, could make an appearance in this early stage of divergent thinking. Cheap and quick prototypes could be used to further understand the problem or the mental space of the users.

Throughout the book, Brown demonstrates his own optimism and humble intelligence. Brown’s style reflects IDEO’s own ‘serious play’ culture. Again and again, Brown’s shares success stories and collaborations from IDEO’s past. No doubt that IDEO is a great consultancy and responsible for inspiring a whole generation of good design work.

While I finished the book feeling very inspired to try more crazy Design Thinking projects, I also felt that the true challenge of leading and managing Design Thinking projects was not addressed. Often design projects yield only emotional messiness and incremental solutions. Brown admits how IDEO has sometimes struggled to teach others their process. Change by Design also struggles to truly enable those aspiring to follow in their footsteps.

In the end, as I returned to the mind map on the inside cover of the book, I found that the non-linear illustration of the topics and their connections to the others started to make sense. I just had to experience it first. The lesson, it appears, holds true for Design Thinking itself.


When I completed my MBA at UBC just two years ago, the entrepreneurship program looked different than it does today. The courses focused on the classic elements of entrepreneurship, like identifying a target customer segment and writing a business plan. The project work typically culminated in a mock presentation to a panel of Venture Capitalists. Classmates told tales of crushing embarrassment and humiliation before the VC judges.

Now, just two years later and the entrepreneurship program at UBC has changed. A lot. More impressive still is the pace of change at other schools and accelerator programs in the Lower Mainland. Almost everywhere I turn these days, I see the influence of Lean Startup, Lean Launchpad and Design Thinking on entrepreneurship education.

Paul Cubbon

UBC marketing professor Paul Cubbon likes to challenge the status quo. Upon reading Eric Ries and Steve Blank, Cubbon set out to implement their ideas in the new Sauder School of Business MBA ‘Innovation and Entrepreneurship’ track. The focus on lean practices in this entrepreneurship program adds significant rigor to the curriculum.

But Cubbon did not stop there. He took his enthusiasm out to the full university and joined up with the folks over at e@UBC, or Entrepreneurship at UBC. Their Lean LaunchPad Accelerator Program aims to teach alumni, faculty, and students how to commercialize their ideas using a crash course on lean. Participants learn lean entrepreneurship with regular ready-or-not presentations on what they have learned over the previous two weeks.

Their site explains what a typical week will look like: “you and your team will spend 20-30 hours/week between seminars conducting 20-30+ interviews as you progress through business hypothesis testing and customer discovery, mapping out the web of relationships in your industry ecosystem.” Clearly, this is not your grandmother’s entrepreneurship program, with such an emphasis on ‘getting out of the building’ and regular iteration of your ideas.

Meanwhile, over at Simon Fraser University, Design Thinking and Lean Startup are the cutting edge management practice that every participant must master when they sign up for the Radius Ventures programs (four- and six-month options available). Professors David Dunn and Shawn Smith use Design Thinking and Lean Startup practices as a core part of their curricula for social entrepreneurs.

And it is more than just the public universities that are making the shift to lean. The folks over at the Launch Academy have taken their best practices and guest speakers and compiled a new Lean Entrepreneur Program. Beginning next week, this eight week crash course has two tracks—business and technical—with a third design track in the works.

Spiced throughout their curriculum is an overarching emphasis on lean principals. Right in week 1 of the program, aspiring entrepreneurs are introduced to Lean practices, such as how to build a minimum viable product and how to measure their progress using innovation accounting.

These programs represent an exciting and welcome shift in the way that entrepreneurship is taught in Vancouver. My hope is that these new programs and curricula will start to generate the valuable and scalable enterprises that they are designed to help foment.

I have seen a number of articles and blogs lately where the authors attempt to persuade readers that Vancouver is the place to be when it comes to the next great startup capital after the Valley. Of course, my choice of reading material is selective and my contacts and connections lead me disproportionately to the material about Vancouver. I read and like many of the articles without thinking too much about them. I might have left it there, but something bothered me about these articles.

6 Reasons Vancouver is Hot for Start-up” is a typical example. Among other things, the author talks about the travel time to Silicon Valley and the fact that Vancouver is ranked as a great place to live. While these are certainly true, there is a part of me that remains skeptical and bothered by the gist of these articles. They all appear to be written by folks who are based in Vancouver already. As such, they appear biased and lack credibility. (Full disclosure: The subtext of my own blog’s theme too could be subject to such a critique. I am certainly based in Vancouver and don’t want to have to move to take my career in technology to the next level.)

The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of cities that claim to be in line to become the next Silicon Valley, and Vancouver is pretty far down the list. Vancouver remains pretty much in the middle of the pack for startup cities even though external forces are driving changes.

Some charge that it is simply a reflection of Canadian modesty that Vancouver remains pretty average. However, I don’t think that it is the Canadian habit of not tooting your own horn enough. Instead, I think that it is simply just not high on the list for venture capital and entrepreneurial investments because it has yet to reach the scale and diversity of companies needed to create the talent pool based here with enough experience, credibility, and cojones. Each time those of us in the Vancouver entrepreneurial community believe that this is changing, we lose another ambitious young person to California (or you name the place where they might go).

It reminds me of a lesson in population science. If birth and death rates are equal, then nothing changes.  If the growth of another new Vancouver venture represents the potential ‘birth’ of a new set of soon-to-be-experienced founders and the move of another experienced entrepreneur out of the area represents a ‘death,’ then Vancouver might at best be just treading water. If the birth rate equals the death rate, then we are not gaining momentum. This conclusion is, of course, not a conclusion at all, but only an intuitive guess based on my conversations with individuals within the community.

What needs to change? As they say in time management classes, we need to ‘work smarter, not harder.’ I believe that Vancouver can overcome this stagnation by analyzing and celebrating the successes that we have had in the area of intelligent startup management practices. By this, I mean Lean Startup and Design Thinking practices that Eric Ries and others have argued are central to making startups work better. We need to learn faster, and over the coming weeks and months, I intend to document how the Vancouver startup community is learning these practices.

Hey, there, all of my loyal readers and the others who just stumbled upon my blog, I have decided to return to blogging, but this time with a new focus. This focus reflects what I have been hacking at over the last two years as both a graduate student and as a consultant at SAP.

I am interested in Design Thinking, but more specifically, I am interested in the application of the creative collaboration process to the building of new companies. Over the coming weeks and months, I aim to dive into Vancouver’s technology start-up scene and discover who has been using Design Thinking (in any of its forms) to grow or better their business. My interest comes from seeing how useful it can be to focus a team on a single problem and then to harness the creative potential of the group (or the individuals) to find solutions.

I first witnessed how a group of business students at UBC took to the process and the mindset when I worked as a Teaching Assistant for Moura Quayle and Ron Kellett. As a new professor in the business school, Moura was looking to shake things up. She invited a colleague from the design school to join her as they paved the way with a new pilot for the undergraduate business students. Through service learning activities and many presentations, we learned just how different business students are from design students. Yet, in the end, the pilot was a huge success and became a standard course at Sauder School of Business (COMM388).

More recently, I have been practicing applying Design Thinking techniques at SAP to develop and refine new products and services. The experience working with the product teams proved to me how effective it could be—when done well—within the enterprise. Design Thinking, I believe, helps to overcome from the huge challenges to innovation that exist within the enterprise.

Of course, there is more to be done and no solution is perfect. Often, internal forces within the enterprise still retard good products before they leave the building. This realization helped to shift my focus to start-ups. Here was an ideal proving ground, I thought. Here, within these new or small firms, the process should be much effective and pure. I took heart from examples such as the design staff that Google Ventures uses to ensure that their ventures get the Design Thinking support they need.

Let the search begin. I can’t wait to discover how Design Thinking, the Lean Start-up, and the Business Model Canvas are being applied at start-ups in Vancouver. Stay tuned for more.