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Design thinking for business analysis

BA as problem solvers
Applying design thinking makes us better business analysts
20 July 2016

Business analysis and design thinking. What are these? And why combine them?

Have you ever worked on a great solution and concluded … you were not working on the right problem? Well, it has happened to all of us and probably many times. However, there may be a way to break this vicious cycle. Consider the mesh of design thinking and business analysis. How do these play together? What is so powerful in this combination? But first thing first.

Design has often been associated with aesthetics and beauty. Notably, great designs deliver not only the looks but also great functionality. Beautiful and useful is what attracted attention. This notion has its roots in the realm of industrial design. Design has enjoyed the perception of exclusivity. Arguably, artist designers or architects applied their secret sauce and that resulted in magical outcomes. Few have really appreciated it is a creative but a disciplined and rigorous process.

So what is design thinking?

Definitions of design thinking vary (if only a little) though the one the appeals to me the most is: a way of thinking that helps innovate and solve problems like a designer. Another, perhaps a more authoritative one comes from Tom Brown, the president of the venerable design firm IDEO: “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Importantly, one needs to appreciate key tenets of design thinking: human-centricity, drawing from possibilities of technology. Others, not mentioned in the definition are: collaboration, iterativeness, optimism, experimentation, experience-driven. I should elaborate on those in a separate post.

Fundamentally, design thinking is about focusing on problems, especially WICKED PROBLEMS. This sort of problems has often contradictory, incomplete and changing requirements.

Design thinking is also about applying abductive reasoning vs deductive or inductive reasoning. Roger Martin in his book ‘The Design of Business’ explained it quite well. Unfortunately, our culture heavily promotes inductive reasoning. The reason is that we strive to find definitive answers and prescriptions for solutions. Martin argues that all problems can be placed somewhere in the knowledge funnel spectrum. Arguably, many problems are still mysteries (no clue how to bite them) that some day may find their way into heuristics and eventually the solution can be found as an algorithm.

Neck-breaking pace of change

Well, it may sound already a cliché since most of us understand in how dynamic world we live in. Changes happen with almost unprecedented speed (and not only technology-wise). Just to mention a few:

-Increasing consumer demand for superior experiences

-Disruptive business and technology innovations (marketplaces, blockchain, artificial intelligence, IoT, predictive analytics etc.)

-Pervasiveness of software – Marc Andreessen from Andreessen Horowitz venture firm famously summarized in as software is eating the world.

-Drive towards digital – interactions, things, communication, experiences and everything else.

Software is eating the world

Arguably, these changes pose enormous opportunities (unlike threats). Yet, benefiting from those requires a new approach. Old school thinking will not create breakthroughs or even incremental improvements. Simply, if you keep doing what you always did, you will get what you always got.

Why does this all matter in business analysis?

First of all, design thinking offers the new way. Arguably, applying it might increase chances of success in the new fast-pace environment. Let’s bring a few arguments.

This very definition “… design thinking … draws … from the possibilities of technology…”. Therefore, technology is a mere design constraint or an enabler. Hence, technology is neither the product nor the value proposition itself. It might be one of the elements of a solution addressing a problem. Surely it is easier to just propose what technology can do but it often misses addressing the problem itself. The other part of the definition mentions “…requirements for business success”. Consequently, requirements describe not what’s expected from the product or a value proposition but what’s expected to achieve business success!

Interestingly, earlier this year, the famous VC firm Kleiner Perkins published their report stressing the importance of design. Design becomes one of the leading subjects in the startups (and venture community) along other (in our opinion complementary) concepts like lean startup, business model innovation, agile & scrum, continues delivery etc. Design is a necessary element of the innovation magic.

Last but not least, many companies nowadays appoint CDOs. This acronym may mean either Chief Digital Officer or Chief Design Officer. Some argue the Digital Officer is already in demise. This is a separate discussion though.

So what and what about business analysis?

1. As software is eating the world, arguably, technology becomes less of a constraint. It means we might be able to successfully address wicked problems. However, we need to do it properly – the design thinking way.

2. Although Stanford professor Bob Sutton argues that engineering has been the driving force for the design thinking movement engineering or technology is (only) part of the solution. Notably, more time spent on cracking the problem might yield faster and better payoffs.

3. We need to unwind our brains from pattern-thinking. Past does not spell the future. We need to embrace mysteries and iteratively work on them and demystify – it is an iterative process.

Uncanny solutions

Hopefully, the link with business analysis is clear by now. It all starts with the right problem! Most noteworthy, the problem part needs more attention and effort (vs solution). And simply, design thinking does just that.

I will continue the series of posts on design thinking. Stay tuned!


Digital Innovator aka Dinno