Application Of Innovation Approach with Design Thinking

May 28, 2023

Design thinking is not easy. I am writing the essay below to reflect on the human-centered innovation approach, processes, tools, and techniques that I have experienced for the past few weeks. From a leadership perspective, I would like to provide an analysis and critique of how this approach could be relevant to my organization at Thought Machine. I foresee there would be significant obstacle to attempting to integrate design thinking into my organization and work practices.

Thought Machine is a startup in the fintech industry, specializing in cloud native core banking products. Founded in 2014 in the United Kingdom by ex-Googler, the company has a unique focus with a strong engineering culture and hiring with mostly technical employee. Unlike traditional banks that are more business driven, our organization has not yet prioritize with customer-centric mindset by “putting people first before technology”.

One of the pitfalls with our existing mindset is working technology for the sake of technology. Our team is obsessed with software engineering tasks rather than solving customer pain points. A typical backend engineer working from home in Europe has a big barrier to feel the pain from the clients in Asia from many thousand miles away in a different time zone. He has a lens from an engineering perspective on the process and list of features implementation, instead of asking what the banks want and understand their needs from the user experience perspective.

Another barrier to design thinking is that smart engineers tend to jump to the solution. They tend to not be spending enough time with users to understand the problem. They easily come up with brilliant solutions and jump into a rabbit hole to dive deep into technical challenges, solving one technical issue after another that no users really care. They may spend a whole day refactoring the code in a different programming language, yet provide no business benefit to the end users. They are too obsessed with the tools, build fancy software than try to find a use case to fit in the tool, rather than discover the real job to be done. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. They should be aware that technology has changed, but jobs are still the same if they can find out the human needs.

The challenge doesn’t end there. Another potentially unsettling aspect of design-thinking methods is the reliance on divergent thinking. It requires engineers to not race to finish line or converge on an answer as quickly as possible but to expand the numbers of options, to go sideways for a while rather than forward. This is difficult with our training to valuing a clear direction, cost savings, efficiency and so on as a software engineer. We are long accustomed to being told to be rational and objective, while design thinking connects with customers can feel uncomfortably emotional and sometimes overly personal.

My role at Thought Machine is a client facing role as an Engineering Manager. I think the customer-centric innovation approach would work best in my team. Because it is an iterative design process with a focus on user need. It is not a one-off process, and I can slowly improve my organization by inserting the user-centric DNA in it. My role is at the sweet spot between users, technology, and business, where I can estimate the desirability, feasibility and viability of new ideas for innovation. I have to remember that I am not my user, and I should always question my assumptions. By immersing ourselves closely with the banking clients, we can focus on the users and their needs, involve them in the design process, get ah aha moments, find opportunities to innovate and create highly usable and accessible core banking products for them. I get the realization and learn something new by keeping an eye on my banking client without having a solution in mind in the first place. I could separate solutions from the problem that people are trying to solve and understand the financial market need.

Working in the financial services industry, the banks are under constraints from the regulator, and they are mostly risk averse. To make matters worse, traditional banks have a complex organization structure, making it more difficult to innovate. Most of them would avoid failure to prevent large punishment by the Monetary Authority. This is one of the biggest barriers to innovation and therefore, the banks remain in legacy systems, such as the mainframe, and they are not willing to take the risk to change.

However, this also opens new opens new opportunities, because the bank customers are forcing the banks to change. Nowadays, banks users are expecting a seamless digital experience, zero downtime and easily accessible on the mobile app. This could be enabled by the latest technology and infrastructure on the cloud, which my company product is offering.

My role as a client engineering manager can play as digital leader to drive and facilitate this human centric approach and make it successful. Successful innovation happens at the intersection of business models and when it is enabled by technology. Currently, my team have great software development capabilities and is strong on cloud-native technology. However, the business model was not disruptive as we are still using the traditional licensing model with project implementation costs. I could change the customer experience by understanding the real motivation of banks to move away from the legacy mainframe core to the modern cloud-native architecture. I could manage different stakeholders and pitch new ideas on different kinds of innovation, such as process innovation, and not limited to technical changes. By having the viewpoints from different client’s teams, such as the accounting team, operational team and product team, they would see different problem statements and there would not be a one size fit all solution. I can look for future business opportunities and map them to existing technological capabilities to solve problems in a more efficient way.

For implementation, I would drive my team to ask How Might We, like the exercise that I did for solving the aging population challenge. In the class project, we were doing research on How Might We encourage seniors to lead an active lifestyle so that they can enjoy health? In the workplace, I could take up the challenge such as How Might We design the core banking product for the traditional banks, so that they can easily install and integrate with their existing complex system? Or How Might We design the financial products in the digital banks for the younger generation, so that they can enjoy the innovative products without going to the branch? Or How Might We automate the requirement-gathering process, so that the team can save time for documentation and enjoy time to solve more interesting problems? There are many opportunities to use design thinking and do research with a human-centric approach. By having empathy, backend engineers can see the world through the eyes of bankers. We could put aside our own pre-conceived ideas and design solutions that work for the banks. We can imagine the world from multiple perspectives and imagine solutions that are inherently desirable and meet explicit or latent needs. By taking a people first approach, we can notice things that others do not and use the insights to inspire innovation.

By preparing interview questions and talking to the customers, we can get deeper and understand the core pains points. We can connect the dots instead of jumping to the solution. Instead of going through the low-hanging food, I could challenge the engineering team to hear something they do not know, discovering both the known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Instead of looking for validation with a solution in mind, ask questions. The customers may not be able to articulate what why want, and they could be limited by their imagination, but I can be a facilitator to get information out from the customer brain by conducting user research. I must do it myself and encourage others to get their hands dirty as well, instead of relying on a proxy, which could not get the full picture. I could write up the personas based on behaviors and avoid breaking down by market segments in the business decision. I would pick a generic persona that captures the user’s needs and pain.

As my team consists of backend engineers, they tend to work in silos, which someone working on the database schema, someone working on the platform infrastructure and someone working on the network connectivity, they do not naturally collaborate with each other’s and align for the customer, because they were too focused on their own technical task. I would also make a service blueprint to ensure the customers are happy or not, making sure it’s smooth by internal alignment. It provides the customer’s perspective and allows visualization from both the customer and business perspective. The service blueprint is a useful tool to map different back-office staff and vendors to the user experience. For example, a customer transaction requires an orchestration of multiple backend microservices, such as accounting, validation by processor and post transaction handling, which is handled by different departments.

For measurement considerations, we should not limit to financial key performance indicator (KPI). Some of the innovations may take a long time to realize, but the change of culture could be a more important measurement than the return of money. One of the indicators could be the number of user journey maps. For example, DBS integrated this as their team KPI, which ends up with hundreds of them. It may not be used for every single user journey map, but it shows the messages from top down and getting everyone to think from the user perspective and changing their mindset. We could also create customer journey maps for a day of banking users interacting with the core banking, from account opening, deposit money to viewing transaction history etc., it could visualize the users positive and negative experiences.

My organization has not been using this approach, because it has been too focused on the software engineering aspect. I could innovate to lead by making change from inside. It would be more effective than finding outside consultants because the engineers tend to ignore advice from non-technical people. It takes a bit of domain knowledge to speak the same language and convey the messages that technical team members can understand. Communication would be a big challenge since there would not be enough trust for the external party to tell us what to do. Some engineers may think they know the best in terms of system design. That’s why I should bring them in front of the clients, initiating a job rotation program, bringing the backend engineer to a production support role, which would be beneficial for them to understand the client’s need. Once they get into a call with the customers, then they would understand the clients are thinking differently from what they assume.

As a leader supporting my team, I would recommend and foster a culture for us to learn. It includes embracing failure. Design-thinking approaches call on the team to repeatedly experience something we have historically tried to avoid: failure. In other larger organizations, there are systems and processes to prevent anything from failure. It inhibits employees from trying new things and it is not good for innovation. In order to innovate, we must celebrate from failure and learn fast from the mistakes. This could be done by continuous release of new features to the client’s development environment instead of the production, making sure there is time for testing and collecting feedback. We could protype by turning ideas into a tangible form, that can be shared and tested with our client as early as possible. For example, instead of building a data model for accounting reconciliation, we could run a low-cost solution on excel to proof the concept before putting it in code for implementation. It would be useful to learn what works and what does not work, iterate to improve on the concept.

As a leader, I can create and reinforce a culture that counteracts the blame game and makes the team feel both comfortable with and responsible for surfacing and learning from failures. I should insist on consistently reporting failures, small and large, systematically analyzing them and proactively searching for opportunities to experiment. The team needs a shared understanding of the kinds of failure that can be expected to occur in a given work context. Openness and collaboration are important for surfacing and learning from them. Accurate framing detoxifies failure.

Another important culture I would recommend fostering is collaboration. The increasing complexity of banking products, services and experiences has replaced the myth of lone creative genius with the reality of the interdisciplinary collaborator. We should not think ourselves is the best and limit our radar in the same industry and same role. Instead, keep an open mind to look around at different people and industries for collaboration. Be comfortable with thick skin to recognize partnership outside of my main business in banking. There is always somebody else who is a real expert, and we should not be afraid to reach out and collaborate with somebody else. Technical hard skills would fade away, but the soft skills to collaborate with others are transferable. I shall keep on trying and working with talents to go through the human centric approach, don’t give up at the beginning by the first trial failure.

Overall, design thinking is a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centric design ethos. Innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about my organization’s core banking products are made, marketed, sold and supported. Becoming proficient in design thinking takes time and hard work. As an engineering manager at Thought Machine, I can apply design thinking and learned how to bring a deeper understanding of human behavior to our financial product innovation, challenge the organizational status quo and achieve significant market impact.

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Victor Leung, who blog about business, technology and personal development. Happy to connect on LinkedIn