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Design Thinking for Social Innovation: A Conversation with IDEO’s Sally Madsen

Net Impact | Thursday October 21st, 2010 | 1 Comment

Net Impact Conference - 2020: Vision for a Sustainable Decade

by Jess Sand

As the private sector beings to embrace the possibility that social innovation can lead to a robust bottom line, companies face the very real challenge of figuring out what these efforts might actually look like on the ground. Can a for-profit business truly adapt conventional operational approaches to build a more just and healthy world? How does it measure impacts that go beyond the financial? And how do you get your organization to commit resources to these new approaches? The answers, according to Sally Madsen of design firm IDEO, can be found through a systemic approach to the human experience known as design thinking.

“Design thinking is a process for innovation,” says Madsen. “It’s a way of thinking that doesn’t depend on those brilliant ideas in the shower” that are not only rare, but hard to replicate or rely on. Madsen, who holds the title Designer of Social Innovation for IDEO, will lead a hands-on workshop at the upcoming Net Impact Conference – 2020: Vision for a Sustainable Decade in Ann Arbor, MI on October 30, in which she’ll help participants learn to apply this process to a range of social issues.

From observation to iteration to implementation

Madsen points out that design thinking can be applied to any number of business situations, from product design to systems design to organizational strategy. “It’s about finding inspiration in the world,” she says, “and using that to drive the generation of new ideas, and then coming up with a huge number of ideas in order to get to the one or two good ones. It’s a process that makes the whole innovation cycle easier.”

Such an approach typically begins with talking to “a variety of stakeholders within the company,” says Sally. “We’ll talk to some of their customers, but we’ll also talk to a huge number of people who surround it more peripherally, just to get grounded in the context and the reality.” Because this observational or inspirational stage requires a human-centered approach that many companies may not be used to, Madsen will address some of those challenges at her Net Impact Conference workshop.

“After that, we’ll try to take everything we’ve learned and synthesize that into a strategy to go forward. After synthesis, we start generating concepts, so we’ll hold brainstorms, we’ll start sketching, we just try to come up with as many different ideas as we can. It’s a divergent process where we’re going for quantity and diversity. From there we’ll start to select our favorites and narrow in, and design them in detail. I’m describing this as a linear process but the reality is you’re always circling back, trying things at different times, and it’s never really linear even though we might describe it that way.”

Can empathy be institutionalized?

One of the growing criticisms of the private sector in recent years is the focus on the financial bottom line at the expense of the human experience. But design thinking can help companies reconcile these seemingly competing concerns. “The design thinking process itself is pretty similar between commercial and social innovation work –and it should be,” says Sally. “The process starts with really getting to know people, having empathy for their situation, and letting them be the experts that guide our work.”

She points to IDEO’s recent Keep the Change program created for Bank of America as an example. Tasked with a goal of expanding the bank’s market among boomer-aged women with children, IDEO developed a program that has ultimately led to $3 billion in savings equity for the bank’s customers. The service rounds up purchases made with a customers’ debit card to the nearest dollar and transfers the difference automatically into their savings accounts.

IDEO came up with the idea by “talking to people who were great at saving, and people who struggled with it, taking inspiration from some of the existing, every-day habits people have around savings – things like keeping the coin in the coin jar, or rounding up the electric bill.”

Sally’s upcoming workshop draws upon projects like this, as well as interactive case studies, to encourage participants to explore such humane approaches and methodologies for social innovation. She notes that the Keep the Change program “meets Bank of America’s goal of generating more business for their savings programs, but it’s also something that meets a core basic need that people have, which is finding ways to manage their financial security.”

Translating challenges into opportunities

Because design thinking can be applied to a whole range of challenges, Sally says “it’s really about the organization’s capacity to try new things and to experiment.” The most effective outcomes often stem from broad-based strategies that get adapted and adjusted in response to realities on the ground.

“With our work in the developing world,” explains Sally, “often times the challenges are very systemic in nature. So you might be tempted to design a solution for the problem at hand, but because there might not be the same distribution networks or service networks, or awareness about the product, you [need to consider] the entire system.” A new watch released in the U.S., for example, “would go right into the existing supply chain for watches.” But in emerging market contexts, she says, organizations often have to consider additional systemic factors to support a given effort.

But what about organizations with limited resources? How does a person convince their company’s leadership to commit to such initiatives? “I don’t know if it’s about overcoming the challenge,” responds Madsen. “I think it’s about designing appropriate solutions for the capacity they have. Sometimes what that means is starting small, starting with a small pilot that doesn’t consume too much organizational capability that they can learn from, prove some success, and use that to raise support for growing and expanding from there.”

She points to IDEO’s nonprofit and NGO partners as an example. “These organizations have experimented, they’ve learned a lot about their particular idea, and many of them are continuing to run in the same way. Others are growing, expanding, taking it forward in new and different ways based on their learning.” This, she says, is ultimately how companies can benefit from social innovation: “social innovation forces us to work differently, but the approaches we come up with are relevant and helpful in more standardized contexts.”

Join Sally Madsen, Designer of Social Innovation at IDEO, for her workshop “Design Thinking for Social Innovation: Methods for Unlocking Value,” part of the Net Impact Conference – 2020: Vision for a Sustainable Decade to be held at the Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor, MI on October 28-30.


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  • Robert Bloom

    Fantastic Article!This sounds like an awesome workshop and conference. I would give so much to go to this conference but unfortunately am based in South Africa and its quite a treck to get out there. Maybe next year…

    I am working in this space and here in the developing world such projects are becoming common. Most major corporates have a foundation and are in the process developing social entrepreneurs in small ventures.

    In particular there are powerful programs in the agri sector where large retailsers are collaborating with NPOs to estabish a network of growers to supply local stores, develop entrepreneurs and reduce the carbon footprint while at the same time saving on costs.

    These intiatives are initally small pilots. As they scale, the benefits grow and so does the suply chain network and market for the start-up entrepreneur. The beenfits are multiple but the main goal is to develop our socio-economic conditions and enlarge our market space a la “the Fortune at the bottom of the Pyramid” by Prahalad.

    This is one small example of multiple initiatives that are taking place.

    Rob Bloom
    Creo Consulting