Global Sourcing Association
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Danny Williams is Chief Innovation Officer for IBM UK, and a member of the GSA Council. Ahead of his Design Thinking workshop on May 24th in Manchester, we got together with Danny to find out more about this topic and why it holds such potential for sourcing professionals…


GSA: Danny, thanks for joining us. Let’s start at the beginning: what actually is design thinking?

Danny Williams: Design thinking is, essentially, all about thinking about the user of a product or service that you’re creating. It’s not new – design thinking has existed for a long time – and it’s not just about things like product design: it’s about the overall experience someone has when they’re consuming a product or service – or pretty much anything else. It could be designing the experience of going on holiday: from choosing where you want to go, through researching hotels and flights, to packing your bags and the experience at the airport. It can also be, for example, around designing a mobile phone and how it’s used: someone who’s less familiar with technology would need to have a different interface and a different way of working from someone who’s incredibly familiar. The essential point is that design thinking is about building empathy with the people who will be using whatever it is that you’re going to produce – and producing it in a way that gives them what they need.

GSA: There are a number of different ways of approaching design thinking. What would you say is the key commonality between them?

DW: I think it’s the empathy: putting a huge amount of effort into understanding the users. Another part of it is spending a lot of time understanding how things are today: what I’ve found in all the years I’ve been working is that when people are trying to come up with something new, or to solve a problem, typically they don’t spend that much time thinking about the status quo. With design thinking, when it’s done well, you spend a huge amount of time looking at how things are done today so that you can really understand what is and isn’t working, and you can then prioritise where to focus your attention. Otherwise you’re at risk of making assumptions about what merits attention and what doesn’t – and those assumptions would be based on your perspective and experience, and that’s not actually what matters. What matters is the person who’ll be using it.

GSA: So one of the advantages may be that it enables people to see (and remedy) flaws in certain aspects of processes rather than having to throw out a whole process because overall it’s not fit for purpose?

DW: Yes, exactly. There are always going to be things that work and things that don’t work, but my recommendation would be that when you’re trying to make something new, or something better, you should invest what might feel like a disproportionate amount of time in getting to grips with the way things work today.

GSA: Why is this something of particular interest to sourcing professionals and this space?

DW: I think because it’s not particularly common for people to think about the experience of sourcing from a number of different people’s perspectives. Often there is a huge gap between the person who is paying for the service and the person who’s actually using the service. Often the former will be a CFO, or a procurement person, and what they’ll be looking for – understandably – will be particular metrics around productivity, throughput, cost, things like that. But if that’s all you think about, you’re not necessarily going to get to the right outcome for the people consuming the service. Thinking about the bigger picture, and asking why the organisation is looking to source this particular service, and what do the people consuming it hope to achieve, can allow you to be more innovative and creative in looking at the nature of the services that the sourcing provider is offering and how they work. Let’s say you are providing what some people might consider to be a commoditised accounts receivable process, or a commoditised call centre service, or a software testing service – all things which it’s very easy to believe are commodity off-the-shelf processes. If that’s all you want to consume that’s absolutely fine, and as technology improves you should be able to consume them essentially through automation; you shouldn’t need too many people. But if you’re looking to the sourcing provider not just to provide you with a low-cost service, but to be an organisation that genuinely compliments what you do, and helps you to achieve your overall objectives, you might actually design the sourcing contract differently. You might be looking for different metrics; you might look for different services, and a different focus.

GSA: It sounds like the onus for bringing a design thinking approach to bear sits on the buyer of services here. But, of course, this is work that you personally are doing for a supplier. So do both sides need to be actively engaged in this – that’s logical for any agreement, no?

DW: Absolutely, for both sides. I think the reality is that the suppliers are probably slightly better placed to provide leadership in this space, purely because each customer is only going to go through the process of identifying and contracting for a particular service once in a blue moon; and whilst they may be bringing in lots of new types of services, they aren’t doing it on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. They have contracts of certain lengths and it doesn’t make sense to do it too often. Therefore leadership sits with the suppliers because they’re doing all this, and having the conversations with people they’re doing business with, on a much more frequent basis.

GSA: Would you recommend that both sides of any agreement have design thinking specialists on board?

DW: I could definitely see that being helpful. There is one discipline within design thinking which is called service design; I can certainly see how it would be helpful to have service design skills on both sides of the fence. If I think about an example of a design thinking workshop that I helped to run a couple of years ago, with one of our outsourcing clients, it wasn’t actually about the outsourcing contract: it was about a particular business challenge they had to solve. One of the things that really stood out was that there were, say, 30 people in the room, and apart from the individuals I knew personally I could not have told you who they worked for. Because what we had was a room full of people all following a set of design thinking techniques to solve a problem that they all believed needed solving. It was a really different experience from a lot of other workshops that one tends to go to – because it removed you from “them and us” and became about how “we, together” could solve the problem. You stop talking about what you’re going to provide, and what I’m going to provide, and start talking about what the person who’ll use the service requires. That’s what is so powerful about it.

GSA: Can you give examples of how this is working in practice?

DW: From the perspective of the extended team, it’s becoming an approach that we use whenever possible with our clients – either existing clients looking to contract for new services, or new clients where we’re going through the process of working out what they want and what services we could deliver for them. We’ll run design thinking workshops with those clients to scope out what the outsourcing service should be. You have the normal sales cycle that you go through. If it’s a new client, an opportunity will arise - either through salespeople building new relationships or the client coming to us and saying that they’re interested in looking at a particular service – and at some point once we’ve qualified that there’s a relatively good fit between the sort of thing the client is after and the sort of thing we can provide, then our sales leadership people may well suggest that we run a design thinking workshop where we can work together to define what we’re each going to provide, with the ultimate goal being helping the end user. In the context of sourcing it’s purely a set of techniques we use to help move the conversation forward, to work out what the customer wants to achieve and how to help them achieve it. We also use design thinking internally, of course, as part of our product development – so if we’re creating a new piece of software, we’ll have design thinking involved.

GSA: Are there any verticals or activities where you feel this is of especially significant value?

DW: It is everywhere. The reality is that experiences can be improved in every area. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about software used to maintain infrastructure, or the process of calling a help desk to get a problem solved. They’re experiences which can benefit from more thought about the person who’s having the experience. And we haven’t talked at all about the innovation aspects of design thinking, or the experimentation parts of it. Once you’ve taken all that time to work out what works and what doesn’t work today, and to understand what the challenges are that people are facing, there’s a whole idea generation and prioritisation and experimentation aspect of design thinking as well. You don’t just jump from problem to solution: design thinking expects you to go through a series of steps where you prototype things. You may start with a paper prototype, and eventually build a low-resolution prototype, followed by a high-resolution prototype, and eventually you’ll start to create something. I’m being relatively abstract here because you might be prototyping a process, or a piece of hardware, or a form that someone fills out: it could be anything, but the point is that by focusing on the person actually using the product or service and really understanding what they’re trying to achieve, and then by going through the experimentation process and actually trying things out, you can get feedback and then move to the next prototype stage. Remember, some people say that everything’s a prototype! You can always improve something.

GSA: How can organisations in this space encourage this kind of thinking?

DW: Part of it is just by doing, and part by teaching. So, absolutely, you can get taught and learn about design thinking. The basis came from an innovation consultancy called IDEO and from Stanford University Design School. Two brothers – Tom and David Kelly – published a lot of material about it, including a fantastic book they write called Creative Confidence, which tries to give people confidence to go and try its ideas in practice. It’s about encouraging a culture of experimentation which many people really struggle with in business, because business leaders often – not always – approach it from “OK, here’s the problem; what are the options? Let’s choose the right option by applying certain criteria, and then let’s go and do it.” Well, that implies you have perfect knowledge about the options, their impacts and benefits; sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you need to try things out – but people often don’t have the confidence to do that. With design thinking – maybe with an experienced guide – you should just go and try it.

GSA: That doesn’t sound too easy in the context of a multi-hundred-million-dollar deal…

DW: Well, the start point could be as simple as applying a few techniques to build some empathy with the different stakeholders of the deal and mapping out how things work today, so when you’re scoping out what you wish to source it fits in the right areas. It doesn’t have to be a big, complicated thing. These are lightweight tools which can be applied to a greater or lesser extent. And on an organisational basis, you can start by identifying people who are interested in these topics and get them to trial a few ideas out. Look at the next challenge that you have, and experiment by using some of the design thinking techniques to help to address it.

For more information on Danny Williams' Design Thinking workshop, May 24th, Manchester, see the event listing here.

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