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Center People from the Start: How Design Thinking Helps Organizations Transform Problem-Solving

By: Kathryn Cornelius

Over the last two to three decades, companies like Apple, Google, Zappos, and Amazon reimagined for us all what design as a concept can be – in both our physical and ever-expanding array of digital products and services. In 2013, the Design Management Institute, with their revolutionary Design Value Index, quantified how design-driven companies outperform the S&P 500 by 219%. 

The ongoing shift of design towards Customer Experience has fueled the last decade of increasing “vote with your dollars” consumer empowerment. And the recent rise of the “The Great Resignation” as a result of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic — along with an increasing emphasis on promoting values of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the workplace — has brought the Employee Experience into greater mainstream focus.

The bottom line is that an organization’s ability to anticipate and respond to the needs and desires of customers and employees requires a different kind of problem-solving. This is where Design Thinking adds value to an organization, by placing people at the center of solutioning, and allowing for the dynamic, multifaceted nature of our systems to be appropriately valued and effectively navigated as we create change.

Internal Operations Case Study: Voting for Change during a 2022 Strategic Planning
Session at our SEI Phoenix Office – masks and all-office collaboration required!

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a simple yet productive, elegant yet engaging way to make solutions more meaningful and inspiring – for customers to use, and employees to create and manage. It takes design beyond just user-friendly GUIs and viral marketing campaigns, and into all areas of the business – from executive level strategic-level planning and front-of-the-house digital transformation to back-of-the-house process reengineering. And all the way down and back up again to the level of data mining for data-driven decision-making. 

Organizations can use design thinking to engage with their target audiences and ensure that they are asking the right questions, rather than basing their solutions on assumptions. This helps leadership understand customers and create meaningful products and services for an “outside” audience. It also helps leaders understand and address the real challenges team members face while delivering on customer experience and digital transformation initiatives.

Design thinking fosters self-leadership, dedication, and commitment to collaborative responsibility from the beginning of the problem-solving journey. Design thinking techniques also give teams a natural and creative way to bond, communicate (often across organizational silos), and spark new ideas – adding to a positive Employee Experience beyond the typical “day job” work of staff.

Leveraging Design Thinking within an organization invites a mindset shift that has lasting benefits and ripple impacts to an organization and its employees. Some of these include: 

  • Permission to learn from failure
  • Embracing experimentation
  • A focus on human values
  • Radical collaboration over individual heroics
  • Cultivating creative confidence
  • Building empathy and optimism
  • Cultivating a bias towards action
  • Embracing ambiguity rather than running from fear of the unknown
  • Iterating so that perfectionism and compliance are no longer constraints to achieving outcomes1

How does SEI use Design Thinking with clients?

At SEI, we’re known for putting ourselves in our clients’ shoes – and the shoes of their customers – to devise modern-day solutions to critical enterprise challenges. Throughout the experience, we model and guide our clients to adopt a Design Thinking mindset, which helps to seed innovation and “aha moments” throughout. In this way, the method is as much about the journey as it is about crossing the finish line.

No matter the end goal, the start of the Design Thinking process involves developing a shared understanding of the problem we are solving and the desired end goal. From there, we collaborate with clients along the five stages of the Design Thinking methodology:

  1. Empathize with people’s pain points, needs, and expectations
  2. Define the problems and how they manifest within an organization
  3. Ideate new ideas prioritized according to their value to the target audience
  4. Prototype an iterative solution that allows for feedback 
  5. Test solutions to ensure they provide the right experience

What is different about the method is the “how” in execution. The specific tools SEI deploys to achieve client goals are uniquely curated by our Human-Centered Design Practitioners for each engagement. We take great care in creating a safe environment where individual contributors can voice their concerns and ideas without fear throughout the engagement.  

SEI consultants look at problems holistically and from multiple perspectives. We focus on collecting input from end users, which helps us gain (often hidden) powerful insights into the key goals, obstacles, and expectations of the people involved with essential business processes.

From there, SEI-ers leverage our wide set of skills to help clients create personalized, powerful enterprise tools and systems. 

We know that even though organizations may experience similar challenges and have common goals, there are many roads that can be taken. SEI acts as both a “trail guide” and “scout,” helping clients along the human-centered design journey to achieve their “destination postcard” vision. 

Client Case Study: Design Thinking for Cloud Migration

SEI used Design Thinking to support a client in migrating their core serving system to the cloud. Many of their processes required significant manual intervention across multiple environments, with no formal documentation or “process map” for customer lifecycles. Using Design Thinking techniques, SEI diagrammed processes and helped session participants vocalize their concerns and suggestions. 

By the end of the project, SEI delivered a verified process flow that identified specific pain points and opportunities. We then recommended the order in which the client should pursue solutions for the greatest ROI and to ensure long-term efficiency.

Client Case Study: Design Thinking for Analytics and Reporting

When a prestigious university identified a challenge in producing accurate, timely reports for academic planning, they turned to SEI. For three months, SEI was engaged in Design Thinking work that included conducting user interviews, collecting reporting artifacts, and discovering common data inquiry scenarios. 

SEI then created a simplified data model that was cross-referenced with qualitative data from user interviews. This allowed us to understand consumer concerns, create a diagram for stakeholders, and provide project management and strategic communications support throughout the implementation.


Image: Client Case Study – SEI DC consultants Celeste Scott and Taylor Brucki analyzing the results from a client “Bull’s-eye Diagramming” workshop to prioritize data-focused solutions

How does SEI use Design Thinking with our employees?

Human-centered design is a natural extension of SEI company values, and exemplary of our business model of employee-owners. As such, we are working diligently to cultivate the Design Thinking capability across all our offices, investing in certifying consultants as Human-Centered Design Practitioners. “The Luma Training and methodology has immediately proven valuable for me,” one trainee said. “I’ve leveraged Design Thinking principles to accelerate solutioning for future state processes, communication plans, and risk/issue identification for a key client.” 


Image: SEI’s first official cross-office cohort of Luma Certified Human-Centered Design Practitioners

SEI uses Design Thinking to effectively tackle our own initiatives, internal developments, and areas we’d like to improve on.

Internal Case Study: Design Thinking for Strategic & Operational Initiatives

  • SEI D.C. utilized Design Thinking to explore and converge on how we can more effectively support business development (BD), recruiting, and culture. 
  • SEI Phoenix leveraged Design Thinking exercises for 2022 strategic planning efforts. 
  • SEI New York used Design Thinking for 2022 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) planning. We’ve found that when Design Thinking and DE&I combine forces, we see real gains in employee engagement and client delivery excellence.
  • SEI Atlanta and SEI Phoenix have both applied Design Thinking strategies to account management planning efforts.

Engage in Design Thinking with SEI

SEI was founded on the principle that people, teamwork, and company culture are at the heart of every lasting initiative. Design Thinking, led by talented and trained SEI consultants, enables organizations to foster evidence-based change and truly impactful enterprise solutions – from concept to delivery.

We leverage human-centered design strategies throughout our external and internal initiatives, inviting our clients and SEI co-owners to collaborate and drive creativity in all solutions. If you want to learn more about how SEI uses Design Thinking to improve processes, whether you’re a potential client or employee prospect, please reach out!

1Adapted from IDEO and Stanford d.school websites

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Kathryn Cornelius

Senior Consultant

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