In this three-part Q&A, we caught up with Seth to better understand problem solving. In part three we look deeper at the blend between systems thinking and design thinking, with practical tips for readers to get started with their own problem-solving.
James Perrin
James Perrin

What is a blended approach to problem-solving?

 

Seth Campbell is Head of Innovation at Etch Horizon. With over 12 years of experience delivering innovation programmes, Seth leads strategies for clients looking to transform their ecosystems, services, products and pipeline processes. He has worked with brands such as Coca-Cola, Volkswagen, Virgin, and Hargreaves Lansdown and high growth start-ups like Receipt Bank. 

As part of the Etch Horizon team, Seth brings a wealth of experience to organisations looking to innovate and grow. Problem-solving forms an integral part of this process, in which many organisations find themselves either tactically, or strategically considering. In part one we discussed why businesses should be thinking in terms of problem-solving, and in part two we introduced different problem-solving approaches. In this final part of our Q&A, we look deeper at the blend between systems thinking and design thinking, with practical tips for readers to get started with their own problem-solving. 

 When blending systems thinking and design thinking, what does this look like? 

 

The intersection is interesting because you can be both practical and strategic. You work on identifying how the system works, and what the key problems are and think about what the potential long- and short-term gains, costs and actors could be.

For example, with sustainability, a major challenge is how can an organisation or sector decouple growth from Greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting activities? How can you plan for growth, but at the same time reduce absolute GHG emission levels and function within finite planetary resources? There would be multiple different ways of trying to address the issue, with different actors and roles to play. So, you think about all those different stakeholders, the potential opportunities for leverage and collaboration, and what actions could lead to long-term impact.

 

 So, you’d start with systems thinking? 

 

The first step is really experiencing the need for change. You need to make space to assess the system, explore future scenarios, and rally around the challenges, opportunities and potential for change and what that means for you. A diagnosis of the system, including time horizons, is an early step. Defining and mapping it out to illustrate an organisation’s role within a broader context across time, looking at the whole value chain from the perspective of an interconnected ecosystem.

“You can take a watch apart and analyse its parts, but they won't tell you the time of day”.

 

Wilber 2017, A brief history of everything.

Within this, you would look at value flows, but also the power structures and feedback loops. It’s a wider-angle view when looking at a problem. What are the first, second, third consequences of our actions and behaviour? For businesses thinking about what actions to take now that will build sustainability for the next 5,10,20 years, this is essential.

 

 And where does design thinking tie in? 

 

From this mapping process, then comes the need to identify points to intervene and act. This goes back to Donella Meadows work on leverage points in systems thinking. Once you have identified realistic points of leverage, you can work through an innovation process, to prioritise initiatives, which can be worked on using practices taken from design thinking and lean startup or impact for example.

The system view can mean concepts such as ‘How Might We Statements’ (HMWs) are coming from a place that is thinking about prosperity and wealth beyond the single organisation or institution and is thinking about the wider social and environmental systems, as well as economic. For example, a May 2021 paper from Imperial College proposes to place integrity before classic innovation components of desirability, viability, feasibility and so on.

 

 What does a typical system design process look like practically? 

 

There are initial key questions to answer:

  • What are the boundaries of the system? You can’t map everything.
  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • What are the power dynamics, values and information flows?
  • What is the appetite for change?

This allows you to start mapping all the different elements that interact in the current state and considering future scenarios. The process is as important as the end product, and it’s important to draw on a diverse group of individuals and gain domain expert insight to help build up an accurate view.

Then think where you can intervene and where leverage points are. How can your problem be addressed or attacked from different elements, and what might the consequences be from changing the value exchange in different areas? Then you need to prioritise, based on for example impact, ease and complexity.

 

 Once this has been mapped out, what are the next steps? 

 

In a design thinking style process, we would start by diverging from the prioritised design challenge e.g., generating many ideas. We’ve determined that we’re solving the right problem, and then we think about how to solve the problem in the right ways. So, we start with lots of ideas and then we choose which one to take to the next level of concept development or experimentation through exploration and prioritisation. It might be that we have more than one. Then you need to think about how you will find out if this is a viable option, what would have to be true for this to succeed. You would then run into prototyping, proof of concept or piloting phases with some of these initiatives, continually co-designing or gaining feedback from the users that proposed solutions are designed for.

 

 So, thinking more user-centric? 

 

Not only is this useful at all stages of development and the whole cycle of iteration, but very early on trying to decipher the problems that people are facing from their perspectives. This can help you to work out what progress would look like in the eyes of the people that you're trying to serve. I think the value of end-user input is well accepted by most organisations now, but many still struggle to embed it as an ‘always on’ process to be used at every stage of developing new initiatives.

Very early on in a business problem, if the business is designed to serve customers, or if it's a non-profit organisation to benefit beneficiaries, then you need to go out and find out what their perspectives are and what progress looks like for them and use this to inform your problems. 

If you want to be more focused it always starts with understanding and appreciating what's going on at a user level. Not to tell you what to do next, but to understand what progress they are trying to make. This, combined with a system design view that explores future combinations can yield new areas for exploration and innovation.

 

 What practical tips can we give our readers to get started with problem-solving?

 

  1. Don’t spend time planning, sketch out what you think the problem is and start gathering rich external data. Write assumptions on what you think the current or incoming gap is: where are the emerging trends that are diverging from what is currently being intentionally addressed by the organisation?

  2. Find people that might have contrasting perspectives to strengthen your thinking.

  3. Speak to the end-users, seriously. Find out more about what is going on for them now. Make sure you’re not removed from truly understanding the most important problems for the people you’re trying to help.

  4. Understand what people are currently using to solve their problem. How are they solving it? How are they making progress? What would make them switch? Could it be worth the effort to try?

  5. Explore possibilities and prioritise the smallest possible experiment to check your assumptions about problem/solution fit. Make it real by testing and learning. 

James Perrin was talking to Seth Campbell, Head of Innovation, at Etch Horizon – a future-focused consultancy with an ecosystem-focused approach to problem-solving.  

 For organisations looking to problem-solve at speed, Etch Horizon’s Starter For Twenty model helps businesses to develop and rapidly test new propositions, assess value-capture potential, explore your route to market, and de-risk further investments. 

 

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