Design Thinking (Part 1 of 2): Transforming Organizations with Entrenched Cultures

How do we balance a drive for perfection with a drive for innovation? This is a question that is discussed in “What Design Thinking Is Doing for the San Francisco Opera.” That opera company dates back to the 1850s and has a structured organization focused on perfection. Using Design Thinking, their culture has shifted from on that is “very, very, very averse to change, not open to the idea of failure” to one that embraces change.  Their experience is somewhat similar to what many enterprises face when adopting cloud computing. There is a need to change and challenge cultural and organizational norms.

Innovation at the San Francisco Opera
Prior to applying Design Thinking, experimentation from the San Francisco Opera was rare. Their high quality requirements meant costly and therefore few experiments. Working with Stanford’s “d.school”, they undertook a series of rapid prototypes. The first included low budget activities like playing opera in the park. They feedback from those prototypes was powerful and much better than surveys. For example, they learned that people in different age groups had different needs. Furthermore, they learned that audience involvement was more significant than anticipated.

The Design Thinking facilitators pushed the opera company participants outside their comfort zones. Initial suggestions like including drinks in ticket prices were deemed as too safe.  Later, they had a brainstorming session and came up with an event called “Barely Opera”.

The pop-up opera was held just 10 days later. They advertised in social media. Instead of selling tickets, they had a $10 “cover charge. Their hope was to attract 100 people. To their surprise, there was a line of 400 people stretched around the block, with the majority under the age of 35. With a “wheel of songs”, costumes and a DJ, the event was, as they had said in their slogan, “not your grandmother’s opera”.

While not all of the Opera’s staff approved of “Barely Opera”, its success resulted in a new production arm called “SF Opera Lab”. Design Thinking has enabled the San Francisco Opera to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.

What is Design Thinking
Design Thinking focuses on users’ experiences, especially emotional ones. It is a hands-on approach that focuses on developing empathy for others, prototyping new ideas, and tolerance for failure. Enterprises such as GE are adopting Design Thinking, moving away from a model of exhaustive product requirements to one of iterating and pivoting. Entrenched cultures, however, face a number of hurdles to become design centric. Perhaps the biggest is an establishment’s discomfort with risk.

Design Thinking for Established Enterprise
Whereas a startup can easily get value from new tools and methods, established companies likely have old habits that they need to change first. One IT executive told me yesterday that they had automated broken processes without changing them. Therefore, service request times still take weeks instead of being minutes or on demand like users want. In their efforts to adopt cloud, they had focused on automation but not process change. In the future, perhaps they will adjust their focus from technical aspects like automation to the user experience. One tool they can apply is Design Thinking.

Post in this Blog Series

Design Thinking (Part 1 of 2): Transforming Organizations with Entrenched Cultures
Design Thinking (Part 2 of 2): Think Bigger and Adopt a Beginner’s Mind

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