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18 May 2020

Business Design Thinking during and after COVID-19: stop faking, start caring and reacting appropriately

These last few Corona-dominated months have taught us some valuable lessons. Lesson one: times are even more unpredictable than we had ever imagined. We need to prepare for constant change, with a more profound impact than ever before. But speed of change in itself will not make the difference in the long run. Agility, the willingness and ability to reinvent oneself, will become hygiene factors (in the sense of always-on), but by no means a guarantee of success. To create a sustainable business model, marketers will have to combine agility with real added value for the customer.

Lesson two: in such times, you can clearly tell the difference between two sorts of organizations. There is an opportunistic bunch that merely tries to exploit the crisis for their own benefit  by combining insincere “we care” messages with an obvious scramble to repackage their products and services in an attempt to capitalize on this drama. On the other hand, there is a group of organizations that are truly driven by genuine concern for their customers. You can recognize the latter group because they manage to fully understand their customers’ fears and desires even in these troubling times of crisis. This true connection between the organization and its customers leads to a relevant offering and communication and thus to a sustainable relationship.  

Business Design Thinking as a foundation

Stop saying that you care and start proving it. Easier said than done, you might think, but how do I bring about such drastic change in my business model? How can you ensure agility while aiming for the best possible solution for your customers at any given time while keeping the shareholders happy? The answer to this question could be found in the Business Design Thinking approach.

Business Design Thinking is usually defined as follows: “a customer-centric and innovative approach based on short iterative loops which starts from real customer problems, uses the possibilities of technology and leverages the requirements for business success.”

Perhaps the most important part of the definition is: it STARTS from REAL customer problems. This differentiates Business Design Thinking from many other methodologies. Very often, a new product is designed on the basis of a theoretically sound idea which is then put into practice. This result is then offered to the customer, hoping that it will precisely fit their needs. If not, they go back to the drawing board and start anew.

With Business Design Thinking, the opposite happens: we meet up with the customer and listen carefully to their needs, desires and frustrations. We try to "get under their skin and feel their pain", so to speak, showing as much empathy as necessary to truly understand their need. Next, we can clearly define what should be produced to meet those needs. This is called the 'research stage'.

An example of what this understanding of customer needs, desires and aspirations can lead to can be found in this Nike ad:

Understanding customers' needs: the Nike example

By combining this more or less secret dream of every (aspiring) athlete with our general worldwide concern around Corona, you get this powerful message. This can only be conveyed when you genuinely care for your customer. And for the world. Well done, Nike!

From desire to design

In the 'design stage', we will translate these needs and their detailed and specific wish list into concrete product features integrated into one prototype, which can then be tested to see if it meets the specified criteria. If not, the design stage is repeated until the result meets the expectations. Then, the next item(s) on the wish list can be ideated, prototyped and tested.

An excellent example of how to move from the first stage – listening to your (potential) customers and understanding their deepest desires – to the second stage – designing and implementing a solution that fully meets these needs – is provided by world-leading guitar builder Fender. They have clearly understood that this period of isolation is the ideal moment for many of us to get started with that long-planned guitar course. So, they swiftly organized an advertising campaign with the following offer:

From desire to design: the Fender example
Listening to your audience and rapidly responding with a spot-on offer, that’s what Business Design thinking is all about!

This two-phased approach can be visualized by means of these 2 diamonds:

The double diamond framework of Business Design Thinking
The iterative aspect is very important here: by building components which are immediately tested, you can react much better to any divergence between the customer expectations and the concrete deliverable and keep on adjusting until you get it exactly right. You can also change course much more easily whenever the customer has adjusted their expectations, for instance when confronted with an entirely new market reality. In other words: you will be more ready to adapt to change, in whatever form.

Business Design Thinking is needed, now more than ever

Nobody expected this Corona pandemic to impact our society so drastically. But some of us will be able to bounce back and recover more easily than others. I am convinced that the winning organizations will not be the opportunistic mongers who combine a faked concern with another low shot at pitching their ware. The ones who adopt the Business Design Thinking mindset, and thus combine genuine empathy with an agile mindset, are the ones most likely to end up ahead of the curve.

The need for agility will be raised to a new level, however: for organizations to recover rapidly from COVID-19 and to thrive in a post-Corona era, they will have to rethink their operating model, building it around how their people work best, to become – as McKinsey calls it – ‘Human at the core’. In practice, that will mean enabling a new remote sales model alongside or – in many cases – replacing the old one. This will clearly require a new set of skills and capabilities, and a considerable investment from the organization. But it will be worth its while, as it will result in a new sales and marketing operations model that suits both your internal and external audiences. Considering the impact of this change, it will require several iterations before you get it right. But you will get there eventually, taking it one diamond at a time. 

So, let’s get Business Design Thinking started, so we can all emerge from this crisis together as winners, on every level!

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