Design Thinking Puts the Problem in Focus – Selling Solutions Instead of Inventions

Tomi Sundberg, CEO of Leinolift, and Antti Kujala, Director at Amer Sports, apply design thinking to their work. “Finding a genuine problem means getting to ideate solutions around it. This results in better, usable ideas.”

Antti Kujala, Suunto on the left and Tomi Sundberg, Leinolift on the right

Reetta Räty, 11.12.2018

Lue tarina suomeksi.

CEO of Leinolift Tomi Sundberg gives an example of design thinking -based innovation. The example comes from a construction site.

An innovation team and a startup jointly developed an idea they thought was useful; a device for monitoring how much small machinery like drills were used at the building site. The idea was to find out whether certain types of machinery were over- or underused. But a conversation with the foreman highlighted that at the huge construction site, drills were an insignificant expense. Instead, the foreman had other problems, such as precious work time being spent looking for small machinery that constantly went missing. The discussion led to the innovation team developing monitoring equipment, and soon a tablet was in use that showed where each machine was located. Not having to spend time searching for machinery anymore brought savings.

The example illustrates one of the main principles of design thinking; approaching innovation with the customer’s problem at the forefront.

In the design thinking model, nothing happens before talking to the customer."

Tomi Sundberg describes the difference of an innovation process based on traditional innovating and design thinking:

“Traditional innovating often stems from internally developing something as a process, launching it on the market, and seeing how it does.”

“In the design thinking model, nothing happens before talking to the customer. The customer is involved right from the start in the spirit of ‘we would like to hear about your problems and how we could solve them’. Collaboration means engaging customer understanding from word go.”

The latter approach means fast moves and projects that do not directly aim for a finished product. A lot less money and resources are burned on each project compared to a model where an entire lengthy project may turn out a mistake. The development process has many stages, which requires giving up at times: even the top director’s idea will not lead anywhere if irrelevant to the customer. 

If management doesn’t believe in the model, it doesn’t matter what I try to do."

Sundberg transferred to his current role from construction equipment rental company Cramo. His experience has shown that the key to successful innovation work is management believing in new thinking and giving free reign and a budget to the person overseeing it.

“If management doesn’t believe in the model, it doesn’t matter what I try to do. Management clears the way for innovation by giving space and freedom. Otherwise ideas are mainly met with ‘we’d like to but can’t’.”

Sundberg learned the basics of design thinking at Design Thinking in Business Innovation program, which is a joint effort of Aalto EE and ESADE Business School. “I’d been working in innovation for a short time when I read about design thinking. It felt like that’s what I was trying to do but without the tools.”

Now Sundberg knows how an innovation process can be systematic and creative at the same time.

“Innovating often sounds like sitting in an orange room coming up with loads of new innovations. It doesn’t work like that. Focusing on the problem was my main takeaway from the studies: you can develop a great idea, but it won’t work if it’s not needed for anything. Instead you have to think about what problem the idea could solve.”

“Finding a genuine problem means getting to ideate solutions around it. This results in better, usable results.”

One way to put design thinking to the test is on a case-by-case basis in collaboration with an expert."

Antti Kujala, Design Director at Amer Sports, applies similar thinking in his work as Tomi Sundberg. Kujala mentions that in tech companies in Silicon Valley, for instance, design thinking is part of everyday life and ingrained in operations. He sees the thinking more as a philosophy than a strict dogma. One way to put design thinking to the test is on a case-by-case basis in collaboration with an expert.  

How is design thinking applied in practice? Here’s an example:

Start by gathering thoughts and views from your own team, define the context, and see how much is known already. “At this stage, you outline the world where you operate and what is known about it.” This information results in the ’house rules’ for a new product.

The next stage involves meeting, interviewing, and observing people. This creates a sort of user archetype. “Here’s a potential customer, what could be this person’s problem?” When Amer was designing a fitness watch for Suunto aimed also for female users, they charted problems among people who exercised relatively little despite good intentions. How could they be encouraged?

Suunto has made similar observations as at the building site: instead of reinventing a product, sometimes it needs to be adjusted to the customer.

Prototypes are part of design thinking. “Quick prototypes are made before knowing whether there’s a problem at hand”, Antti Kujala describes. “They are tested lightly, at a fast pace. This results in valuable information on which direction to take.”

At Suunto, fake advertisements are created for upcoming products, thinking about how they would be shared on social media. “It shows whether we believe in the products ourselves.”

In the end, we make a decision: this is good, let’s head this way.

Antti Kujala recaps the thinking using another example. When wanting to develop a watch for Suunto aimed at people doing endurance sports, the customer’s main problem did not turn out to involve dramatic technological innovation but was much more down to earth: battery life during long trips. This could be corrected fairly quickly. “Instead of inventing new technology, it was about understanding the customer’s problem.”

For corporate leaders and managers, the Design Thinking for Business Innovation program from Aalto University Executive Education and ESADE Business School will take you on a seven-day deep dive into its practical and actionable methodology and show you how to make it work. Come with a problem and leave with a solution and boost your business potential with design thinking. Read more.

Currently reading: Aalto Leaders' Insight: Design Thinking Puts the Problem in Focus – Selling Solutions Instead of Inventions

Enjoy Insights on Your Email

Aalto Leaders’ Insight shares fresh stories, articles and views on different aspects of leadership, business and self-development. See a sample Highlights of Aalto Leaders' Insight newsletter that is sent maximum twice per month to the subscribers. Easy to unsubscribe. See a sample.

Your email is used for marketing purposes to keep you up to date with the latest business insights and information on programs that will help you enhance your career. By subscribing, you accept this. See our Privacy Policy.