Design Thinking and Action Learning for Product Managers and Innovators

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How can your products solve customers’ needs… as fast as customers need them? Try Design Thinking coupled with Action Learning. Design Thinking is a method of problem solving centered around the end user. Action Learning is a collaborative process that defines a problem and focuses on the desired outcome. Using these two processes together provides innovative solutions fast enough to meet the changing demands of today’s customers.

Product management is about change – the change that creating new products involves. Along the way, product managers need to learn about customers and their needs, consider problems from different perspectives, and collaborate with others. A person with deep experience in doing these things and helping groups and organizations identify and push through barriers of innovation is Chuck Appleby. He is a leadership and organization development consultant with over 30 years of management, consulting, and coaching experience in government, industry, and non-profits.

In the interview we discuss two valuable tools for product managers and organizations wishing to solve problems for themselves and customers:

  1. Action Learning, and
  2. Design Thinking.

A summary of the questions we discussed are below, followed by a link to the audio interview.

How did your study of Design Thinking come about?

For years and years, I had been helping companies solve tough problems using Action Learning. This is a method developed at the Cavendish Physics Lab in Cambridge University by professor Reg Revans, who had gotten very concerned that the world was changing so fast that we would never achieve the kind of speed of innovation that was needed to keep up with change. Action Learning helps people think about problems from new perspectives that lead to better solutions. However, Action Learning is a bit analytical and didn’t have that creative spark that I was looking for. This led me to Design Thinking. Today I use a framework that leverages Action Learning and Design Thinking that is simply Discover, Design, Deploy, and Sustain.

What are the steps to applying Action Learning?

There are five steps, which are generally completed in one group session that is two to three hours long. The steps are:

  1. The problem-owner describes the challenge or problem in 3-5 minutes.
  2. This is the framing step and is the most challenging of all the steps. The objective is to get people focused on the desired future state. Consider what is going on in today’s reality, what the external forces are, what underlying assumptions are being made, and what is the core challenge to address.
  3. Next is solutioning, which is a problem-solving step. With the problem now clearly understood, solutioning usually comes naturally.
  4. Then we commit to action based on the solution chosen.
  5. The final step is reflection on the entire process and assessing how the group did and what could be done better next time.

What is an example of applying Design Thinking?

A recent example was with the Department of Human Services in Arlington and the Arlington County Public Library, specifically.  The central challenge, which is seen in all businesses, was not engaging with certain groups of customers. In the case of the library, they were not seeing teenagers, 30-somethings, or recent immigrants using the library. To consider the situation, we created three teams to interview those three cohorts (see link to video below that explores this). The groups didn’t ask about the library. In fact, the questions they developed had nothing to do with the library, except it focused on the library’s mission, which is a love of reading, access to information, and building community. So those were the questions that were asked. The insight that came out was, “We like to meet new people doing fun things.” So the library came up with a couple of great ideas, one of which, designed to reach 30-somethings, was an annual ball to raise money for literacy. 30-somethings piled in and began to make a connection with the library.

What makes Design Thinking successful?

You need a driver, which is the person who works with the design teams and the prototyping and testing activities.  They also make sure that the group is not going back to their old ways. Prototypes must be used. They shouldn’t look perfect or complete. Prototypes help people see things in new ways and are a great tool for getting feedback on ideas. Another factor is you need to have a dream team. You need to spend time picking the right people for the team–people who want to be there–and developing some camaraderie.