Traditional, linear business processes do not set us up to be successful in a future that is difficult to predict. Design thinking, in contrast, is a more dynamic, flexible, and resilient way of approaching value creation through the lens of human needs.
Design’s greatest superpower is that it helps navigate the unknown through cycles of creativity and critical thinking. Unlike more traditional methods of problem solving, design assumes that we do not know the answer from the very beginning, which liberates us from going into the process with the promise of certainty. As such, there is inherent ambiguity in the process.
Even with the best of intentions, senior leaders may find that three common obstacles get in the way of truly learning from their customers. Knowing and naming these obstacles is the first step in preparing to productively get around them:
Obstacle 1: From near-termism to future focus
Nearly every established company favors and measures behavior that drives near-term results—quarterly earnings, annual goals, and projects that have deadlines right around the corner. Near-term investments are often most visible and easiest to measure and require little justification to others. But investment in future opportunities often requires time to discover new areas of hidden value or emerging growth that are not yet on the market’s radar.
To overcome this short-term bias, we need to create real incentives for people to venture outside the building. These could include free time—20% time to explore—or rewards for the executives who asked the most questions or had the most customer visits. By incentivizing discovery-oriented behavior that keeps the organization connected to the changing needs of customers, we can overcome the systemic focus on short-term thinking.
Obstacle 2: From politics to generous collaboration
Politics are a reality in every company. It can be good politics, where people collaborate across functions and geographies to accomplish company-wide achievements, or bad politics, where everyone is focused on protecting “their” people, budgets, or accounts. Collaboration in the discovery and experimentation processes is crucial and must be encouraged and rewarded.
Setting a tone for good politics and collaboration starts at the top. Members of the executive team should go out of their way to demonstrate productive learning and investment in each other’s success. They should proudly share stories that highlight generous collaboration and proactive support—not just for the visible “wins” but for the experimental and learning efforts too.
Obstacle 3: From capability gap to innovation tools and training
Most companies face a capability gap—the stark reality that we have never been taught how to do this. We say that we want to be more innovative and focus on growth, but we don’t teach people the tools and the processes that can help them be effective innovators.
For example, my team and I worked recently with a large materials company that had been talking to its customers from a sales perspective but not from a discovery perspective. This was a very foreign concept to them and caused a level of nervousness among the top leaders.
When we were able to break it down and provide them with the tools to be effective, it changed everything. We taught them what a good interview looks like, how to craft discovery-type questions, and how to structure the session so they could really listen and observe, without a preordained “sales” view attached to it. We helped them set a goal for their discovery process and helped them work internally to identify customers they could learn from.
Finally, we encouraged them to allow time to practice asking these open-ended questions before getting in front of their customers. This was a new skill set for them, and they realized that they actually needed to take a few days to practice what a good discovery interview looked like. They worked in triads to role-play a discovery interview and gave each other feedback.
Any one of these obstacles is difficult to overcome. Together, they’re like a three-headed hydra monster that’s nearly impossible to defeat. That’s why any important innovation effort must start with strategic preparation—getting support from the top, recruiting the right team, and investing in learning the right skills.
With collaborative leadership skills, you can create can create clarity and vision and build mutual trust with your team and other departments.