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Using Design Thinking to Be Better L&D Business Partners

A senior manager in a learning organization recently said, “The business is our most important client; they have the money.” Pinching the back of my hand to hold my composure, I took a deep breath before I began the long journey of trying to change their misconstrued viewpoint. In L&D, saying the business is most important because they have the money is analogous to a doctor claiming that the insurance company is most important because they have the money. I recognize some doctors may hold this priority, as do some L&D organizations—but we know neither is correct. Patients should be the most important client and focus for doctors, just as our learners should be our focus and most important client.

More often than not, L&D requests do come directly from the business. The requests usually include a murky description of the problem accompanied by a very clear prescription of the solution. A common request might sound something like, “We want a 30-minute web-based training” or “Create a 2-hour virtual instructor-led training.” Having been molded into reactive order-takers, we oblige. After all, the business has the money, and the client “knows” what they want, right? Wrong!

I’ve tried this approach with my doctor: I research WebMD.com for my symptoms, read the remedy, and confidently relay this to my doctor, expecting a reward for the time I’ve saved him from doing his job. And yet, each time he reminds me that he’s the professional, explains how my 2-minute research fails in comparison to his 15 years in the medical profession, and warns how detrimental my self-diagnosis could have been to my health. Allowing our business partners to self-diagnose—and prescribe solutions for our learners—allows them to jeopardize the health or learner experience for our learners.

Although we would love to respond to the business in the same way my doctor responds to me when I self-diagnose, it’s probably not wise to remind our business partners that we are the learning professionals if we want to keep our jobs. So, what can we do when the business self-diagnoses and self-medicates on behalf of our learners? One approach we can take is to engage our business partners in co-engineering a remedy that maintains a keen focus on our shared priority—the learner. Using design thinking in this instance could be just what the doctor ordered!

Design thinking is a framework for creative problem-solving. It’s a methodology that focuses on the end user, the learner. Applying design thinking to the L&D setting helps to unlock the users’ needs and problems, even when they don’t know what the problem is or are not able to articulate them correctly. (Hello, business partners!) Historically, design thinking has been well known for helping to solve design problems with products. But a lesser-known secret is that design thinking can be applied to problems with services or processes. In fact, design thinking can be applied to a number of challenges around recruitment, performance improvement, employee engagement, and organizational development, just to name a few L&D applications.

Design thinking helps us be better business partners by providing a methodology to follow, evolving L&D from portraying reactive order-takers to proactive solution partners. Rather than accept the problem statement at face value, we empathize with our learners to understand, from their point of view, the challenges they face. And we maintain that connection with our learners throughout the solution design process.

Empathy and understanding are the foundation upon which all design thinking principles rest. Using design thinking helps us take a step back and start with problem-finding before moving into problem-solving. When we take orders without doing the due diligence of understanding the problem, we do a disservice to the business by potentially wasting their money. We do an even bigger disservice to our learners by not providing the right remedy to solve their challenges. Design thinking is a structured—but not too rigid—format that engages with our business partners and our learners to keep our focus right where it belongs: on the learner.

So, the next time your business partner self-diagnoses and dictates the remedy for their learners, consider applying the design thinking methodology. Making this recommendation will help you to serve the business as a better partner; ensure the business’s money is well invested; and refine the focus on the most important client: the learners. After all, whatever the business challenge or performance challenge is, it’s the learner we want to have impact on. Why would we design an experience that fails to serve their needs?

About the Authors

Keith Keating
With a career spanning over 20 years in learning & development, Keith Keating holds a Master’s Degree in Leadership and has experience in a myriad of areas ranging from Instructional Design, Leadership Coaching, Operations Management, and Process Transformation. More recently Keith has been leading clients on the development and execution of their global learning strategies. Regardless of the role, at the heart of everything Keith does centers around problem solving. He studied Design Thinking at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and found Design Thinking was a perfect tool to add to his problem solving "toolkit". Since then, Keith has been utilizing Design Thinking to help clients tap into understanding and resolving unmet customer needs.

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