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James Bernard

Dec 19, 2023

4

min read

Unlocking the creative potential of mission-driven organizations

Why design thinking is an important tool for mission-driven organizations

Unlocking the creative potential of mission-driven organizations

At its core, design thinking is a human-centered, iterative approach to problem-solving that places empathy for end-users at the forefront. In many ways, it maps perfectly to the mission of social sector organizations.


Over the last several decades, design thinking has emerged as a potent tool driving innovation and problem-solving across diverse industries. Companies in dozens of sectors, including healthcare, manufacturing, agribusiness, and consumer packaged goods have applied the concepts of design thinking or even built entire internal design organizations to better support their business.   

 

If you are a leader in a mission-driven organization, you may have heard or read about design thinking and wondered how it could apply to your organization.  The good news is that social sector organizations—NGOs, nonprofits, charities, and other mission-driven entities—are recognizing the transformative potential of design thinking to address complex societal challenges.  


By launching the Global Impact Collective, we seek to capture this important momentum by teaming a diverse group of world-renowned design experts with social impact and sustainability experts. We believe that together, we can help mission-driven organizations unlock their creative potential to solve some of the biggest challenges facing people and the planet.  


Here’s why incorporating design-thinking methodologies can be a game-changer for social sector entities. 

 

At its core, design thinking is a human-centered, iterative approach to problem-solving that places empathy for end-users at the forefront. For example, when our co-founder, Steve Kaneko, was designing keyboards and mice for Microsoft, his teams would talk to dozens of consumers and end users before ever considering product features. They then apply the design thinking process to better define the problem, ideate solutions, prototype, and test—all aimed at building products that would be both innovative and functional. Design thinking encourages creativity, collaboration, and a deep understanding of the root causes of problems. 

 


Below are six reasons that you should consider design thinking as a part of your organization’s planning and program development: 

 

1. Embracing Human-Centric Solutions 

Social sector organizations are dedicated to serving communities and addressing critical societal, environmental, equity, or economic issues. Design thinking aligns seamlessly with these objectives because – by its nature design thinking places the needs and experiences of beneficiaries at the center. At the end of the day, social sector organizations serve people. The programs you create must be relevant to those people. Using this process and empathizing with the people you aim to help, these organizations can gain profound insights, leading to more effective, contextually relevant interventions.  

2. Iterative Problem-Solving 

Complex social challenges often lack straightforward solutions. For example, a lack of affordable housing in many US cities, combined with a lack of mental health and drug rehabilitation programs, has led to a greater number of homeless people. Design thinking thrives in such ambiguous and complex environments because it fosters an empathetic, iterative, and collaborative approach.   Following the pandemic, Surya Vanka, a partner at the Global Impact Collective, was asked by the City of Seattle to organize and facilitate a series of workshops focused on homelessness in the region. These sessions included input from advocates, government organizations, non-profits, neighborhood groups, and the unhoused themselves. Through this process, solutions were continuously refined and evolved based on feedback, learning, and real-world testing, culminating in a new understanding of the issues surrounding homelessness, especially for women, and innovative new solutions.

3. Encouraging Collaborative Innovation 

Cross-disciplinary collaboration is a hallmark of design thinking; in fact, you will land on better results if you involve organizations and stakeholders from outside your own.  By involving diverse perspectives—ranging from beneficiaries to stakeholders, volunteers, experts, and community members—organizations can unlock a wealth of creative ideas and approaches. This collaborative environment encourages fresh insights and promotes a collective sense of ownership in addressing societal problems. 

4. Flexibility and Adaptability 

Social sector organizations often face evolving external challenges that can be influenced by multifaceted factors. In the Seattle example above, organizations were dealing with much post-pandemic uncertainty, a slow economic recovery, an increase in opioid addictions, as well as a new mayoral administration. Because design thinking is a very adaptable and adaptive process, organizations can pivot and adapt swiftly to changing circumstances. It encourages a mindset that welcomes change and embraces experimentation, fostering resilience in navigating uncertain environments. 

5. Problem Redefinition and Deep Understanding 

Design thinking challenges organizations to redefine problems by delving deeper into their root causes. It encourages reframing issues, asking probing questions, and seeking nuanced insights. This process often unveils unconventional solutions by challenging preconceived notions about the nature of the problem. 

6. Impact Measurement and Validation 

For social sector entities, demonstrating impact for funders, board members, partners, and beneficiaries is critical.  Design thinking emphasizes prototyping and testing solutions in real-world settings. This approach facilitates continuous feedback loops, enabling organizations to measure the effectiveness of interventions and validate their impact, thus ensuring resource allocation towards solutions that truly make a difference. 


 

While the benefits are evident, adopting design thinking in the social sector comes with challenges. Limited resources, hierarchical structures, and resistance to change might impede its implementation. However, overcoming these hurdles through leadership buy-in, capacity-building, and a commitment to fostering a culture of innovation can pave the way for its successful integration. 

 

In a landscape fraught with intricate societal challenges, social sector organizations stand as catalysts for positive change. Embracing design thinking methodologies empowers these entities to innovate, collaborate, and craft sustainable solutions that truly resonate with the communities they serve. By placing empathy, creativity, and adaptability at the forefront, design thinking becomes not just a methodology but a mindset—an approach that fuels transformative impact in the pursuit of a better world. 

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  • Writer's pictureJames Bernard

Unlocking the creative potential of mission-driven organizations

At its core, design thinking is a human-centered, iterative approach to problem-solving that places empathy for end-users at the forefront. In many ways, it maps perfectly to the mission of social sector organizations.


Over the last several decades, design thinking has emerged as a potent tool driving innovation and problem-solving across diverse industries. Companies in dozens of sectors, including healthcare, manufacturing, agribusiness, and consumer packaged goods have applied the concepts of design thinking or even built entire internal design organizations to better support their business.   

 

If you are a leader in a mission-driven organization, you may have heard or read about design thinking and wondered how it could apply to your organization.  The good news is that social sector organizations—NGOs, nonprofits, charities, and other mission-driven entities—are recognizing the transformative potential of design thinking to address complex societal challenges.  


By launching the Global Impact Collective, we seek to capture this important momentum by teaming a diverse group of world-renowned design experts with social impact and sustainability experts. We believe that together, we can help mission-driven organizations unlock their creative potential to solve some of the biggest challenges facing people and the planet.  


Here’s why incorporating design-thinking methodologies can be a game-changer for social sector entities. 

 

At its core, design thinking is a human-centered, iterative approach to problem-solving that places empathy for end-users at the forefront. For example, when our co-founder, Steve Kaneko, was designing keyboards and mice for Microsoft, his teams would talk to dozens of consumers and end users before ever considering product features. They then apply the design thinking process to better define the problem, ideate solutions, prototype, and test—all aimed at building products that would be both innovative and functional. Design thinking encourages creativity, collaboration, and a deep understanding of the root causes of problems. 

 


Below are six reasons that you should consider design thinking as a part of your organization’s planning and program development: 

 

1. Embracing Human-Centric Solutions 

Social sector organizations are dedicated to serving communities and addressing critical societal, environmental, equity, or economic issues. Design thinking aligns seamlessly with these objectives because – by its nature design thinking places the needs and experiences of beneficiaries at the center. At the end of the day, social sector organizations serve people. The programs you create must be relevant to those people. Using this process and empathizing with the people you aim to help, these organizations can gain profound insights, leading to more effective, contextually relevant interventions.  

2. Iterative Problem-Solving 

Complex social challenges often lack straightforward solutions. For example, a lack of affordable housing in many US cities, combined with a lack of mental health and drug rehabilitation programs, has led to a greater number of homeless people. Design thinking thrives in such ambiguous and complex environments because it fosters an empathetic, iterative, and collaborative approach.   Following the pandemic, Surya Vanka, a partner at the Global Impact Collective, was asked by the City of Seattle to organize and facilitate a series of workshops focused on homelessness in the region. These sessions included input from advocates, government organizations, non-profits, neighborhood groups, and the unhoused themselves. Through this process, solutions were continuously refined and evolved based on feedback, learning, and real-world testing, culminating in a new understanding of the issues surrounding homelessness, especially for women, and innovative new solutions.

3. Encouraging Collaborative Innovation 

Cross-disciplinary collaboration is a hallmark of design thinking; in fact, you will land on better results if you involve organizations and stakeholders from outside your own.  By involving diverse perspectives—ranging from beneficiaries to stakeholders, volunteers, experts, and community members—organizations can unlock a wealth of creative ideas and approaches. This collaborative environment encourages fresh insights and promotes a collective sense of ownership in addressing societal problems. 

4. Flexibility and Adaptability 

Social sector organizations often face evolving external challenges that can be influenced by multifaceted factors. In the Seattle example above, organizations were dealing with much post-pandemic uncertainty, a slow economic recovery, an increase in opioid addictions, as well as a new mayoral administration. Because design thinking is a very adaptable and adaptive process, organizations can pivot and adapt swiftly to changing circumstances. It encourages a mindset that welcomes change and embraces experimentation, fostering resilience in navigating uncertain environments. 

5. Problem Redefinition and Deep Understanding 

Design thinking challenges organizations to redefine problems by delving deeper into their root causes. It encourages reframing issues, asking probing questions, and seeking nuanced insights. This process often unveils unconventional solutions by challenging preconceived notions about the nature of the problem. 

6. Impact Measurement and Validation 

For social sector entities, demonstrating impact for funders, board members, partners, and beneficiaries is critical.  Design thinking emphasizes prototyping and testing solutions in real-world settings. This approach facilitates continuous feedback loops, enabling organizations to measure the effectiveness of interventions and validate their impact, thus ensuring resource allocation towards solutions that truly make a difference. 


 

While the benefits are evident, adopting design thinking in the social sector comes with challenges. Limited resources, hierarchical structures, and resistance to change might impede its implementation. However, overcoming these hurdles through leadership buy-in, capacity-building, and a commitment to fostering a culture of innovation can pave the way for its successful integration. 

 

In a landscape fraught with intricate societal challenges, social sector organizations stand as catalysts for positive change. Embracing design thinking methodologies empowers these entities to innovate, collaborate, and craft sustainable solutions that truly resonate with the communities they serve. By placing empathy, creativity, and adaptability at the forefront, design thinking becomes not just a methodology but a mindset—an approach that fuels transformative impact in the pursuit of a better world. 

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