How We Jumped into the Design Thinking Deep-End

Written by Garth Jordan on September 7, 2017

If you are launching into this article unsure about what Design Thinking is, you can make your way to Part One of this story - Design Thinking could really surprise you! This second part covers my association’s plunge into the deep end, and what happens when empathy becomes your starting point.

There is no roadmap for implementing Design Thinking into your strategic plan. Indeed, given that to employ Design Thinking is to trade in any assumptions, anticipations or plans for an empathetic, interactive process, it wouldn’t make sense to have a thorough and systematic guide.

I was brought into my association, Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA), to support the development of our corporate strategy. HFMA did not want to end up with a typical strategic plan, full of impressive language and destined to gather dust upon a shelf; we needed something tangible, actionable, and able to be translated effectively into the work and the mindset of our staff.

This openness to novelty and change made HFMA ideally positioned to adopt Design Thinking as a strategy-creation methodology. And once this was accepted, the key tenets of Design Thinking began rapidly to ripple through the planning process.

It became clear the staff needed (and wanted) to be actively involved in the planning, and in the execution, of this strategic framework. They needed to own it, rather than have it thrust upon them. With Design Thinking as our approach, a wide variety of our staff were included from the beginning; this inclusion helped them witness first-hand and intimately understand the challenges faced by our members.

Beginning with pure empathy infused our strategic planning with two critical things: A member-centric, need- or challenge-based perspective, and much improved staff buy-in on how we approach solving the problems our members face.

Rather than having a Board of Directors create a business mantra or vision statement that offered less-than-obvious direction to HFMA, the question guiding our decision-making became an empathetic one:

Our members:

“How can HFMA help healthcare leaders meet the challenges of today while creating a sustainable healthcare system?”

The empathy process revealed to us four main themes our members struggled with daily, preventing them from tackling this task. Our job became much more focused: build products, services and membership experiences that dealt directly with these themes. Our members needed help with:

1. Easy access to relevant information

2. Collaborating to define and influence the change around them

3. Successfully navigating the complexity and pace of change on the road to creating financial sustainability

4. Investing in acquiring, developing and retaining talent

A year into putting ourselves in our members’ shoes, we are seeing these conversations turning into action. Beginning to solve the things that strip our members of their ability to face the defined challenge provides so much more value than merely a list of membership features.

For example, theme #4 gave us clear direction to create organizational access to all our content, education and certifications. Today, a Chief Financial Officer may not join HFMA for his/her own professional development but instead to gain access for all finance and accounting staff as part of a talent development service. In less than 6 months, we created visual prototypes (essentially packaging all of our individual products into an organizational-access package), received two rounds of feedback, subsequently developed a minimally viable product, launched the product and sold over $600,000 in contracts. Now, we’re already working on Version 2.0.

It’s clear that the value of design thinking can be translated into a quantifiable ROI.

Our staff:

Our staff are part of every step we take down the road. With our Board of Directors, they helped develop the challenge statement and themes by conducting and distilling hundreds of member interviews and interactions. They don’t need to be brought in and convinced about a strategic plan end-product, because they understand and empathize with the member-centric view from the start.

We worked together to ‘translate’ the challenge and themes into actual projects. As such, staff own and know what is happening throughout the entire process, and are a participant and a witness in implementing the vision. Our internal teams are no longer department- or product-line focused, but instead most are organized around creating experiences for members that solve one of the four themes above. The structure of this approach was a result of broad staff participation: we are creating everything, together.

Implementing Design Thinking into our strategic plan meant jumping into the deep-end. Even if it had failed, it would never have been a waste of time: the things we learned, the perspective we gleaned, and the mentality we fostered are enormously valuable to our association.

If you enter into a project with a mindset open to learning, the process of discovery itself is the fun part.