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Book Review: Change by Design

In Tim Brown’s fascinating new book, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, he promotes the application of design thinking in all facets of business and life. This approach spurs innovation and promotes creativity in problem-solving that provides new and lasting solutions to operational, financial, and social problems. To Brown, design thinking moves people from creating products to analyzing relationships between people and products. Design thinking pushes its practitioners to use interdisciplinary approaches to tackle difficult problems, seeking solutions by evaluating products or processes through a humanistic lens. He cites countless examples—from historic innovations and his work with IDEO—to support his overall objective of encouraging all readers to become design thinkers in their respective fields.

Brown begins his discussion of innovation through design thinking by explaining that “design thinking is fundamentally an exploratory process,” which must focus on human experience rather than function. People must work through what he calls the continuum of innovation, a non-linear process involving inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Brown explains that the emphasis must be on fundamental human needs—as distinct from fleeting or artificially manipulated desires—to drive design thinking to depart from the status quo.

To execute this process, Brown encourages group collaboration within organizations, inviting CEOs to pull individuals from accounting, marketing, and human resources to work as a team to solve a problem. He recommends that the project team diverge to create a range of choices, then converge to agree upon which of those choices to pursue. He strongly encourages using creative techniques such as storyboarding, building models with scraps or Legos, and acting out skits to express and exchange ideas. Rapid prototyping is essential at IDEO, where they say, “Fail early to succeed sooner.”

Perhaps the most important best practice Brown offers for organizational leaders to sustain innovation is to create a culture of innovation. He argues that to be creative, a place does not have to look like Google or Pixar: “What is a prerequisite is an environment—social, but also spatial—in which people know they can experiment, take risks, and explore the full range of their faculties.”

Brown supports this comment with examples:

  • nurses collaborating at Kaiser Permanente to improve patient care
  • coworkers at Mattel creating new product designs for children, and
  • women employees working together at Best Buy to better serve female customers.

Change by Design offers numerous other intriguing case studies to prove that important and necessary innovation occurs in a creative and collaborative environment.

While Brown discusses innovation with products and services in the for-profit sector for most of his book, he also applies the principles of design thinking to the social sector. Like Heather Peeler in the March 2010 article in Community Wealth Vanguard, “Learning to Build Your Organization’s DNA,” Brown stresses the necessity of deeply-rooted innovation to achieve impact: “Innovation needs to be coded into the DNA of a company if it is to have large-scale, long-term impact.”

He specifically cites IDEO’s work with the Acumen Fund as an exciting collaboration that blends business goals with philanthropic objectives, and also explores the potential impact design thinking might have on childhood obesity, crime rates, and education. Initiatives solving these problems should not interrupt careers, but instead will change their course to be able to serve those in need.

Change by Design concludes with this hopeful observation: “Today we have an opportunity to. . .unleash the power of design thinking as a means of exploring new possibilities, creating new choices, and bringing new solutions to the world.” As we apply principles of design thinking in our organizations, we will be able to innovate effectively and thereby tremendously increase our social impact.

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About Community Wealth Partners

At Community Wealth Partners we dream of a world in which all people thrive. To realize this dream, we help change agents solve social problems at the magnitude they exist. As a Share Our Strength organization, we bring the successful practices of one of the nation’s leading anti-hunger, anti-poverty organizations to hundreds of change agents nationwide.

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