Interview

Pete Sena

Design Thinking from A to Z

June 15, 2021
Interview
June 15, 2021

Pete Sena

Design Thinking from A to Z

Design Thinking is a relatively young approach to managing work processes that has been both applauded and criticized by so many industry professionals that we decided to debunk stereotypes about Design Thinking and find out if it’s really ‘only for designers’.

We asked an expert in Design Thinking, Pete Sena, to share insights into implementing this approach in daily workflow and how, in spite of common misconceptions, big companies can also benefit from it.

Pete Sena, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Digital Surgeons

Pete is the Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Digital Surgeons, a creative consultancy that helps brands spark and create new opportunities for growth. His mission is to empower ambitious individuals and visionary organizations to design demand by remixing tried and true strategies with unconventional thinking for human-centric, future-forward, inspiring work and results.

Let’s start with the basics, Pete. Please explain to us shortly what the 'Design Thinking' approach is and how it works in practice

Design Thinking is one of those concepts that, if you ask 100 people who know what it is, you’ll get 101 different answers.

Pete recommends
the book:
The early origins of Design Thinking are often pointed back to Herbert A. Simon back in his seminal book The Sciences of the Artificial
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The early origins of Design Thinking are often pointed back to Herbert A. Simon back in his seminal book The Sciences of the Artificial. In some ways, Herbert was credited for the concept, which was later made famous by the excellent design firm IDEO. He had a big hand in getting designers a seat in the C-suite after learning how design can help solve wicked problems and transform companies. This took off so much in the halls of Stanford University's d.School and has now become the thing that every University is pushing. Business schools didn't teach creativity before, and here we are now, with MIT to Kellog to all the leading business schools issuing Design Thinking certificates.

Design at its core is an approach to solving a problem

From my vantage point, Design Thinking is a way of framing, validating, and solving issues through the lens of the customer (user). I believe that design, at its core, is an approach to solving a problem.

We use Design Thinking daily in various ways while working with clients in all of my businesses. From helping our clients quickly understand categories, business models, and customers using a process we call horizon-scanning to ultimately creating a differentiated blueprint for funded DTC brands — and it doesn't stop there.

It sounds like Design Thinking can be implemented in so many ways. What other benefits of Design Thinking are there if we’d want to compare it with more traditional frameworks and problem-solving approaches?

There are several benefits to Design Thinking that bubble up to the top of my mind compared to other problem-solving approaches that are out there.

One of the most significant benefits of Design Thinking over other approaches out there is its flexibility and simplicity. Anyone at any level in their profession can use it. So whether you’re an intern or a CEO, we can all benefit from the possibilities that this approach to problem-solving affords us by simply becoming more customer-obsessed.

A few other benefits of Design Thinking include:

  1. Building stronger relationships 
  2. Using more creativity behind solutions
  3. Selling more products/services
  4. Fewer risks entailed by everyone along the way

With everything said, what are the most common misconceptions about Design Thinking that you've heard so far? (For instance, some people think that it's only for designers, etc.)

“This is something only designers do.” 

“This is a big waste of time and post-it notes.”

I also often hear that Design Thinking is over-engineered, or buried within rote and lame workshops that lack real value or utility to the specific problems that need to be solved daily.

When I say over-engineered I’m referring to the misconception so many people have that Design Thinking has to be done in one specific way. This, in turn, creates a stigma that people in the business world face and believe when they try to embrace or use Design Thinking.

Context is critical for learning and applying Design Thinking. Ultimately, like any theory or practice, it will fail without actual application. Or worse, it’ll be the butt of a joke that ends up on Giphy.

Why do you think there's so much criticism around the Design Thinking approach, especially when it comes to processes that involve big groups of stakeholders?
In 2018 there’s been a wave of criticism of the Design Thinking approach, illustrated in many online outlets, including UX Design and Harvard Business Review. It was focused on the complexity of the Design Thinking implementation process in massive projects with many participants based on its lack of flexibility and limitation created by over-communication between stakeholders.

I love this question. I think most of the skepticism and criticism around Design Thinking comes from the stigma that it’s too open-ended, that the underlying issue with it is the absence or lack of actionable data to execute strategy stemming from it. Something that will unlock the next phase of growth and success. I simply disagree.

Truthfully, the heavy criticism regarding Design Thinking I’ve personally witnessed is that big groups of stakeholders find it hard to adopt this approach. This usually stems from overcomplication and an inability to come to a consensus. When you ditch the business jargon to simplify things, and approach problem-solving with curiosity and passion, that unlocks Design Thinking. If you combine that with the use of toolkits and frameworks to answer big questions like defining a target audience, or if you try out an approach such as using a paper prototyping process to test out R&D, you’ll unlock the real innovation behind Design Thinking.

Also most executives don’t have the courage to fail or commit and make decisions. For every Elon Musk (Tesla/SpaceX), Kara Goldin (Hint Water), or Jeff Bezos (Amazon), there are hundreds of thousands of executives that have no idea what it takes to actually unlock innovation and design. Innovation & Design isn’t a spectator sport. It requires true action and true buy-in. If you can’t invest and implement innovation, you may as well let go of the idea of being a design-minded company.

Innovation & Design isn’t a spectator sport. It requires true action and true buy-in
Which tools/apps can help people to start implementing a Design Thinking approach into their work?

My personal list of top-5 applications that align with concept of Design Thinking:

  1. Miro
  2. Mural
  3. Pitch
  4. Figma
  5. Notion

Okay, so we’ve figured out that Design Thinking can be helpful to anyone willing to work with it. From your perspective, how can this approach be modified to be more convenient for groups of people to use? And do you think it should be for everyone, really?

First, let me say something I believe to be true. I believe curiosity and creativity are broken in the world of business. I say this as someone who has lectured and taught on the topics of innovation, entrepreneurship, and Design Thinking at some of the world's leading universities (Yale, Carnegie Mellon, Wharton), companies (LEGO, Pepsi), and startup accelerators (Techstars). I’ve won awards, started and funded companies and worked with incredible people across the globe, all through the lens of Design Thinking.

In a second, I’d bet on a 6-year-old over myself, or a seasoned executive, that the 6-year-old is a true Design Thinker. Nothing can beat the curiosity and ingenuity of a child who is fearless and persistent in asking why and constantly suspending their disbelief. The best way to make Design Thinking continue to be the magic changing the world is to go out there and do the work. History is written by those not scared to take action.

So pick real problems that you and your colleagues are facing. The best way to experience the jungle is to go to the jungle. The best way to learn from your customers is to spend time with your customers.

How can we all be a little more like open-minded six-year-old kids again? Do you know any techniques or approaches to boost your curiosity?

I think leaning into curiosity is the place to start. The ability to learn and unlearn can only be embraced when we lead with inquiry and suspend our disbelief. That is a good pathway to a growth mindset. Your mindset is the ultimate determination of the outcome. Like Henry Ford said about innovation, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right.”

To adopt a growth mindset, I do my best to seek out new opportunities and challenges. The one skill that is key to future success is the ability to learn. Avoiding challenges and accepting things the way they are won’t boost your curiosity.

The best way to experience the jungle is to go to the jungle

Here’s a graphic I love to share with my colleagues and clients to pose this question and provide this distinction! This comes out of our curriculum from thinkFWD, thinkFWD is a community of innovators focused on delivering the education, events, and tools that can help people start driving change in their organization.

I have a question from those who are ready to start implementing the Design Thinking approach at work. Any tips on how not to screw up?

Just start! It doesn’t matter where you start as long as you keep going! I think getting hung up on the ‘how’s, ‘why’s, and all the nitty-gritty details is a detriment for so many people that might be considering adopting the Design Thinking approach professionally or personally.

After you’ve identified a few resources, toolkits, or frameworks that work for you, test it out and try not to stress the rest. One of my biggest ongoing goals as an innovation consultant and leader of a cross-functional consultancy is to be that Design Thinking catalyst for my colleagues and clients.

I think getting hung up on the ‘how’s, ‘why’s, and all the nitty-gritty details is a detriment for so many people that might be considering adopting the Design Thinking approach professionally or personally

That’s why one of my biggest investments and passion projects, thinkfwd, has a curation of resources, tools, and activities to teach Design Thinking and help anyone put it into action. These activities run the gamut of Design Thinking in its entirety. From Warm-up exercises to Branding toolkits, my team and I have curated 30+ resources to teach people what Design Thinking is and enable them to apply it to anything. And the brutal honesty is that we’ve got like 300 more that we haven’t been able to find the time to post about yet. The most important question you can ask is WHY. ‘Why’ leads to all we seek. Curiosity is the catalyst of true change.

Top-3 productivity apps that work in 2021

Very useful video messaging app for daily calls with the team

Clean and easy-to-use planner for both big and small projects

One place for ideas, references, notes, thoughts instead of numerous notebooks

Honestly, it sounds like a lot of new tools and resources to research beforehand. What’s your PRO tip on how to stress less when you’re testing toolkits, frameworks, etc., and it seems like nothing works properly?

If Covid-19 taught me anything as a leader, it is that compassion and resilience are critical to have in my leadership toolbox. I’m still working on it, but I’m doing my best day by day. Stress is a killer and frankly, not all of it can be alleviated. Where we’ve been successful with staving off the negative effects on performance that stress can have, is in embracing that the only constant is change.

The first thing I like to do in a brainstorm or a Design Thinking workshop is a check-in with the group and understand how everyone is feeling. Sometimes just leaving a little space for self-care is helpful, be it a few moments for someone to grab a snack, tend to their pets or children, or even delay or defer a live meeting in favor of an asynchronous one. Making the evolution to be a more remote company is a top priority for me, given the shifting needs of the workforce and the world today.

If Covid-19 taught me anything as a leader, it is that compassion and resilience are critical to have in my leadership toolbox

Mindset is everything. If you are starting from the belief that you “can’t” then it’s an opportunity to reframe your mindset. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was consulting many people and organizations that felt hopeless and beaten down emotionally and financially due to the effects of this unprecedented event. My team and I designed an exercise we call a ‘Possibility Pivot,’ which is a simple game that provides several reframes to ideate and offer potential solutions to a persisting challenge. The tool is very easy to use and free to download here. Essentially what you start with is framing out the challenge you are facing. I’m a big fan of spending more time in the problem-space definition as that often yields faster and more rich solutions. So once you’ve defined the challenge, select one of the words in the middle column and then ideate against the third.

Take FlowMapp as an example, a critical tool in our UX process. Let’s assume the challenge was “it’s hard to get all my project stakeholders aligned on the content for the website and the journey our audience is going through.”

I’d select “Add” from the ‘adapt’ list and reimagine adding FlowMapp in as the tool. Now, instead of going rounds and rounds of discussion with multiple people, we can simply invite everyone to join in the content mapping process by using a web-based tool that people from every department can access. This reimagines how we get stakeholders aligned in the content process.

Any challenge, if defined, can be reimagined with an innovative solution.

Okay, Pete, we’re coming to the end of this interview. Please name one song or share a playlist that helps you work productively and overall makes you feel more energized.

Wow. I’d have to say my Spotify starred playlist. I love listening to movie scores and soundtracks. I also love listening to Endel a lot.

Written by Serafima Aleksandrova

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