“In school, we’d make field trips to hospitals, and we were taught to become the patient,” Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb recalls from his days in design school. “We’d lay down in the bed and talk with all the doctors and nurses and feel exactly what it what was like to be the patient. That’s the moment in which we’d say, ‘Ah-ha! There’s a better way to do this.’”

“The problem with Airbnb,” Joe says, “was that we spent the first year behind computer screens trying to code our way through problems.”

Two Questions

However you prefer to measure it, the truth about innovation is that most people think their organization needs more of it. That may reflect on the difficulty in answering two very basic questions about innovation:

1) What is innovation?
2) How do we do innovate?

Let’s tackle the first question. This definition works well: Innovation is the introduction of something that creates new value.

Note the scope of this definition. Innovation can be anything from a new product line to a new product extension, a new accounting procedure, a new organizational structure, or a new way to interact with customers.

Now for the second, more difficult question: there are lots of methodologies for innovation. Some are idea-based; meaning they rely on generating large amounts of disruptive ideas. The art of this kind of innovation happens in taking radical, outlandish ideas, and turning them into practical solutions.

Others are solution-based—they start with an intended solution rather than a problem. Design Thinking is the most well-known example of solution-based innovation and one that you can implement today, right now, to measurably increase your ability to deliver value to customers and the people you work with.

What is Design Thinking?

Following four official ‘failures’, Joe and the Airbnb team decided to try something new. “It was only when we met Paul Graham at Y Combinator that we were told to get out of the office and go meet the people that use our products.” That’s when the company took off.

The most effective way to think of Design Thinking is not as a set of instructions on how to innovate, but as a series of discrete conversations had between people that co-create new value. The Stanford D-School’s framework for Design Thinking consist of the following steps:

• UNDERSTAND the present situation, or the individuals needs and concerns.
• OBSERVE how the affected stakeholders interact, and react to a situation.
• DEFINE insights with a needs-focused approach to create suggestions.
• IDEATE ideas from the silly to the savvy.
• PROTOTYPE ideas quickly with a sketch, flow chart, or physical model.
• TEST solutions based upon user reaction and experimentation.

I encourage you to focus on the first two steps—the steps that catalyzed Airbnb’s tremendous growth. The essence of ‘understand’ and ‘observe’ is to empathize with the person or people for whom you want to create value. The ‘empathy’ phase consists of listening and exploring the emotional impact of another person’s experiences. What does the other struggle with? What is important to them? What are they trying to accomplish?

Consider the eye-opening experience of becoming a patient. It’s one thing to administer care to a hospital patient, but it’s a whole other experience being confined to a bed. Design Thinking offers powerful opportunities to innovate from becoming intimate with that kind of user experience.

Joe Gebbia said, “The founding of Airbnb is a classic design story. You can see two dots that don’t make any sense, but using the Design Thinking ethos you can connect them in a new and different way.”

Essentially, the empathy phase is one of listening for what is of greatest importance to the other person—unconstrained by your pre-conceived notions of what’s wrong or needs improvement. Then, a new solution is created to meet that deeper, usually unexplored user need. Consider that Joe’s data points didn’t make initial sense, because he looked at them from his own set of needs and concerns—not from the perspective of his customers.

How often do we have empathy-based conversations with those around us? How often to we intentionally set aside time to better understand what it’s like being another person, and to empathize with what that other person is dealing with? In my experience, the answer is: rarely.

How to implement Design Thinking right now
We defined Design Thinking as a series of discrete conversations that co-create new value. Anyone can have these conversations with customers and colleagues. I often begin conversations for empathy by asking questions like, “Tell me the last time you acknowledged a colleague?” Moments of acknowledgement can be powerful emotional experiences—rich in opportunities for you to better understand what matters to the other person.

A piece of advice: when empathizing with another person ask ‘why?’ as much as you can. When we get clear why people do what they do we can better offer solutions that resonate powerfully for them. Try it out. You may be surprised what you can create.

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