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Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking Bootcamp: Four Surprising Takeaways from a Newbie

By Abby Breyer

March 26, 2018

My introduction to design thinking came in 2016 when I was invited to attend an Azul Seven bootcamp. At the time, I led marketing and client services for one of Azul Seven’s technology partners, and Azul Seven thought it would be beneficial for us to learn more about their process.

I expected the three-day design thinking bootcamp to be a fun experience, if somewhat irrelevant to my role working with engineers to build complex backend software solutions. How could design thinking possibly influence our highly technical work?

You probably know where this is headed.

I left Azul Seven’s design thinking bootcamp with an innovation toolkit unlike any other in my pocket. Not only did bootcamp change the way I work, it became the catalyst for transforming my team’s approach to software development.

Here are four equally surprising takeaways from this bootcamp beginner:

1. Design Thinking is Not Really About Design

Not sure you’re artsy enough for design thinking? Don’t be fooled. At its core, design thinking is simply a creative approach to problem solving.

Sarah Unger, a vice president at Viacom, explained it well in a recent article on MISC:

“This is the genius of design thinking: It captures the best traits of creatives, innovators, and designers, and it consolidates those traits into a simple strategic framework. It helps us be free to experiment, to consider form and function together, and to iterate without fear. It also involves a little bit of process (which is non-linear by necessity and not too complicated) to help remind us that, no matter what we do, we are in the business of solving each other’s problems, big and small.”

I attended bootcamp with a software engineer from my team; my bootcamp project partners were an independent consultant and a government employee. None of us were trained designers or working in traditionally creative roles or organizations. But our interdisciplinary team brought unique perspectives and skills to the table, and together we learned design thinking frameworks that helped us brainstorm creative solutions to real user problems.

If you solve problems for a living (don’t we all?), design thinking is for you.

2. If You’re Uncomfortable, You’re Doing It Right

Trying something for the first time is rarely easy, and usually awkward. While design thinking itself is not difficult, learning it can be a stretch for those of us who are uncomfortable with failure.

During my first bootcamp exercise, we were asked to run through an abbreviated, timed version of the design thinking process with a partner. With little direction from our coaches, I quickly found myself with a page full of notes, a piece of aluminum foil, and no idea what to do next. Both my proposed solution and my panicked first attempt at prototyping it were way off-base.

You can imagine my enthusiasm when I realized I had to share my sad ball of foil with the larger group. Gulp.

While I would have preferred to keep my idea and subsequent failure to myself, it was freeing to stand up and say, “I have no idea what I’m doing and I’m pretty sure this doesn’t even work!” My declaration was met with support and solidarity; I wasn’t the only inexperienced design thinker in the bunch.

Failure is part of learning. It’s also critical to prototyping and design thinking success. The faster you try and fail, the more you learn. The more you learn, the stronger your eventual solution will be.

Just prepare yourself: failure isn’t always fun. But it gets easier with practice.

3. Ridiculous Ideas Can Lead to Actionable Solutions

There are many fun steps involved in the design thinking process, but one of my favorites is ideation. And not because I’m any good at it—I tend to be more of a doer than a dreamer—but because you just never know where it will take you.

My bootcamp project team was tasked with redesigning the college visit and selection experience. Some of our ideas were expected; others were anything but. After covering an entire wall with possibilities scribbled on Post-its, we voted for our favorites.

The winner? A genie.

We laughed first, then started tossing the idea around more seriously. What if it was as easy as making a wish and having someone deliver the college experience you want? What would that look like? Eventually, we came up with a very feasible solution based on what we initially considered a very silly idea.

Design thinking provides a safe space for off-the-wall ideas, and gives you the tools to extract reasonable solutions from unlikely sources. When there’s no fear of looking foolish, you might as well throw a crazy Post-it up for all to see.

4. Implementation Is Easy

How many times have you returned from a conference or workshop pumped up and ready to make things happen in your organization, only to be faced with the painful reality of being the sole implementer? No one back at the office shares your enthusiasm or vision, and what seemed simple enough while surrounded by your fellow learners now feels daunting or even impossible.

Good news: Implementing design thinking doesn’t require large-scale organizational change.

When I returned from bootcamp, my first declaration was “we need a craft cart!” This was largely said in jest, but it represented a key piece of the design thinking process I felt could be easily applied to our existing software development process: prototyping.

While I never got my team on board with glue sticks and pipe cleaners, we did begin looking for opportunities to build low-fidelity digital prototypes and get them in front of users. Being able to quickly test and refine our work as we moved through development immediately led to better solutions for our clients and their customers. And it shifted something in our team, too.

If such a small change to our process could lead to measurably better end products for our clients, what else could we try doing differently?

Quite a bit, as it turned out. Over time we added an in-depth user research phase to the start of our projects, and began focusing more time on ideation with the larger team. We also landed a big innovation project with a client simply by telling them there was a good chance the solution had nothing to do with software—our area of expertise—and that we’d need to gain empathy for their users before we could say for certain what was needed.

Implementation doesn’t require rigid adherence to the full design thinking framework. Just pick a piece that resonates with your team or works with the processes you have in place, and go from there. You may be surprised where you end up.

Ready to transform your organization’s approach to innovation? Join us May 2-4 for Design Thinking Bootcamp, an immersive three-day training session with Azul Seven’s team of experts. And if you’re curious to know how others are using design thinking to transform their work, check out our recent webinar with Laurie Englert of Legrand.

Want to learn more about design for innovation or biomimicry?

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