Despite sounding like a fledgling idea, design thinking is a scientific method dating back to the mid-20th century and can be traced to its use in industrial design. In the 1980s, Stanford University expanded the methodology, applying it to wider business contexts. Today, it is deployed by businesses around the world to generate new ideas, solve problems and develop new products and services that are more useful, understandable and engaging for audiences.
Design thinking’s defining characteristic is its radical human-centred approach, putting the user at the heart of the design process. Effective design thinkers therefore need to have a strong capacity to empathise, as well as an ability to integrate an understanding of human behaviour into the design process.
Overcoming the perfectionism trait
Empathy is the most important principle in the design-thinking process. By giving due consideration to the users’ reality – for example, the demands on their time, or how they like to receive information – the end product has been designed to be meaningfully useful from the start. The design-thinking process also relies on divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking encourages as many ideas as possible to be considered, exploring a range of alternatives to problems using curiosity, optimism and experimentation. This is then interspersed with convergent thinking: the act of focusing on different proposals to select the best one and then refining it. The process of refinement is undertaken while clarifying the user’s needs’ as they experience them, to achieve the best possible outcome.
Empathy is the most important principle in the design-thinking process. By giving due consideration to the users’ reality – for example, the demands on their time, or how they like to receive information – the end product has been designed to be meaningfully useful from the start
As a psychologist, I have witnessed first-hand how applying design thinking can be challenging for people working in high-performing professional environments, such as the legal sector. Such individuals are prone to the perfectionism trait. For example, lawyers can tend towards the secure and precedential. While this serves their clients well in the delivery of legal services, it can also be an unhelpful barrier to innovation. The power of design thinking is that it provides a trusted and highly effective framework to challenge such a mindset.
Reimagining the traditional
At Linklaters, we have embraced the power of design thinking across the firm, going beyond its use in legal practice. One of the earliest projects was reimagining our training contract offer letter. This is one of the first interactions our future talent has when joining the firm. During two workshops, our innovation and graduate recruitment teams worked with trainees and students to redesign the look, content and process of collating the letter. The original letter was a traditional Microsoft Word document, similar to the format used in most other offer letters in the market. The overarching objective was to design a letter that gave our future trainees all the information they needed to make their decision, while also differentiating the Linklaters brand on campus.
The new letter is significantly different to traditional employment letters – a digital version, removing the need to print, manually complete and scan the document back to the firm. Information has been grouped so users can find what they need easily, whether that is the path from the point of signing to the first day in the office, or the key benefits offered. From a visual perspective, the use of colour and symbols has made the letter far more engaging, and information within it easier to recall.
The letter received positive feedback from the future joiners at the time, with a considerable uplift in speed of response and fewer questions from trainees as they have found it easier to find the information they need.
Design thinking as a crisis-recovery tool
Design-thinking principles can also be applied to solve broader strategic issues, with the added effect of motivating teams. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a particularly challenging time for community organisations, with the double strain of increased demand for services and reduced funding. Throughout 2020, as part of ongoing pro bono work, volunteers from Linklaters facilitated virtual design-thinking workshops to support charities with their ‘post-Covid’ strategies. The workshops were a safe sounding board and an experimental space for third-sector leaders to share their experiences, working with volunteers to consider how local communities can be better supported. As part of the workshop, they used divergent thinking by considering creative new ways to plug funding holes to secure the long-term futures of their organisations.
These workshops were attended by almost 70 community leaders, with volunteers from two of our banking clients also attending. The most notable piece of feedback from attendees was how inspired they felt for the first time in several months. The design-thinking process enabled them to take a much-needed step back at the time and reconsider how they could increase engagement with their two key audiences: those who want to support causes and those in need.
Innovation in talent development
Having reached a certain scale, depth and complexity, a recently created business unit at the firm felt it was important to define a compelling career offer to attract new talent, while also maximising the development and retaining of current employees. The result was a new employee value proposition (EVP) learning programme, which used design-thinking methodologies to assess strategic challenges and solve them.
The design process used the ‘double-diamond’ model of divergent and convergent thinking to discover, define, ideate and iterate. During the discover stage we interviewed the team to understand their perceptions about brand and culture. This data was then categorised into emotional, financial, operational and other needs, before creating a set of EVP value statements that aligned with the needs of the firm, ensuring the programme clearly differentiated itself as employer of choice in the market.
Consider how the physical layout of the room or virtual format can encourage collaboration between attendees, and how ideas can be shared in an inclusive way, catering for introverts, extroverts, and everything in between
This team now has a compelling EVP designed for and by its people. The clearest success measure has been the improvement in results of staff surveys, with engagement up 11% year on year (and 5% above the market average).
The solution was named best learning programme and also the overall winner at the Legal Education & Training Group (LETG) awards 2019, recognising the innovative process and the centrality it placed on listening empathetically to our people using design-thinking tools.
Ingredients for success
What is the secret to cultivating a workplace culture that is willing to experiment with design thinking to such ends? That lies in creating a psychologically safe, diverse and inclusive environment, where frustrations can be aired, and traditional working methods are challenged. It means carefully planning the set-up of design-thinking workshops to create such a space for ideas and solutions to emerge. For example, consider how the physical layout of the room or virtual format can encourage collaboration between attendees, and how ideas can be shared in an inclusive way, catering for introverts, extroverts, and everything in between.
In the legal world, it is particularly alien to use empathy as a starting point for problem-solving. In many of our projects, not necessarily having a precedent to fall back on felt uncomfortable at first and sharing ideas can feel risky. We quickly learnt that ideas didn’t need to be right the first time and to be wary of leaning too much on existing templates and processes. We’ve learnt to approach problems by imagining the art of the possible, which has led to more innovative and effective outcomes.
We are at a time where the pace of change in the market for legal services is gathering momentum at an ever-increasing rate. Our lives uprooted by changes in working styles as a result of the pandemic, many business leaders are starting to understand that you can’t just remain loyal to how business has been done in the past in order to win in the market in future.
Design thinking offers the perfect toolkit to start the conversation about how to do business better, while at the same time empowering people to bring fresh perspectives and new ideas to the table. After all, a business is only as strong as the voices it empowers.