Learning about Design Thinking from the Recent Election Surprise

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The Gap Between what We Say and What we Think


How shocked were you by the results of the recent election and the inadequacy of polling?

Startling as these were, however, these results validate the premises Design Thinking is based on, and they are food for thought for association leaders.

To start with, Design Thinking, a highly respected approach to problem-solving and customer value creation, debunks the data-driven mentality of conventional business thinking.

What drives conventional management and thought, they say, is fear of failure and hence, a constant quest for certainty. To avoid uncertainty, the focus shifts from quick action to lengthy research and planning. Products or ideas must be as perfect as possible before going to market and risk must be avoided through planning and data gathering. As a result, there is a great distance between concept and execution that limits innovation, disallows customer intimacy and lags behind the pace of the market.

Design Thinking (like Lean Start Up and my own Outside-In Thinking) accepts uncertainty rather than avoid it and leans toward action rather than deliberation. Its premise is that it is impossible to predict future human behavior. All you are doing is making assumptions on d of risk avoidance with a culture of prototyping and learning from the market rather than data alone. It begins value creation process with people rather than products. And the first building block is not a process but a stateof mind and heart: empathy.

Empathy is not the equivalent of the mantra of “listening” to customers. Its goal is not to listen but to understand. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes, whether we like them or not. It is thinking and seeing the world through their eyes.  It involves drilling down beyond what people say to uncover what they mean, think and feel. 

The issue is that what people say they want, especially in response to survey or focus group questions, is not necessarily what they truly think, need or want. Most respondents to surveys will give answers they believe the survey expects or opinions they would like to espouse but don’t.

Often, we, ourselves, are confused and unclear about what bothers us and what
our true priorities are. If, during a conversation, an insightful and empathetic interviewer helps us clarify priorities and identify hidden, underlying concerns, then the true causes of our pain come to the surface. It is by surfacing and meeting these unarticulated needs that an organization can create products and services that are unique and resonate with us practically and emotionally.  This is where competitive advantage is located.

A related problem for an association and any organization is that customers’ intellectual understanding of the value of a product is very different from their experience of it. This is why the design thinking process does not aim at launching a perfect product but at setting up an effective and collaborative learning process.

The goal is to quickly convert concepts into inexpensive, imperfect prototypes
to enable customers to experience them and provide feedback. Instead of launching a completed product, you set up an iterative process of co-development in which you arrive at the finished product through several rounds of feedback and prototype revisions.


The Power of Empathy


So in Design Thinking, you mitigate risk, not through data and guesswork, but by drawing closer to the customer.  And to accomplish this, you replace or complement conventional market research tools with ethnographic research methodologies (such as interviews and participant observation), and inside-out product development with outside-in testing and co-development.  

Back to the election process. The quest for certainty unleashed sophisticated polling and predictive tools and on onslaught of data to which we all became addicted. And
up to the last moment, forecasts pegged Clinton as a clear winner. Like me, you
were probably sitting confidently in your arm chair with a knowing, smug smile
on your face when the unexpected bombshell of Trump’s victory fell in your lap,
out of nowhere. 

It turns out that—Surprise! Surprise!– the individuals polled did not always tell the
truth. Some were embarrassed to admit their preference for Trump, others were
irritated by the repeated intrusion of the pollsters and others may have had a
bad day or did not want their girlfriend to know their voting decisions. Who
knows! Certainly, not the pollsters. Polls and market research cannot dig into
a person’s mind, observe their behavior and dig deeply into emotions and
motivations that drive actions. An anthropologist would tell you that 20 in-depth
interviews and engagement in these people’s lives would yield much deeper and
valuable insights than surveys of thousands.  And lack of empathy dismissed “distasteful” points of view and underestimated the level of pain they were experiencing.

It is paradoxical to say that Trump, like him or not, was the one that employed
“empathy” rather than data-driven, conventional campaign techniques as the
basis for his unlikely victory. He may have encouraged and unleashed latent
hatred or fear in his followers that alarmed us. Yet, in Design Thinking terms,
his approach was focused on people and driven by making and constantly
deepening a personal, intimate connection with them, drilling down to what most

And this reorientation– from risk avoidance to embracing uncertainty, from surveys to
empathy and from endless planning to testing and co-developing– can be the foundation for renewal and success for many organizations.