Since 2010 Pranjal Henning has been working as an innovation consultant worldwide. With the method Design Thinking she found a way to combine her passion for the study and understanding of human behaviour with the development of innovations which are developed according to the needs of the customers. In the interview she speaks of how Design Thinking has enrichened her life professionaly and in private.
How did you get into Design Thinking and what do you believe is unique about this particular innovation method?
Pranjal Henning: I have personally always been interested in human behavior – namely how we interact and are impacted by our environment, relationships etc. – so I chose to pursue a BA in International Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. As a part of the university curriculum, I learned ethnographic and anthropological research methods to better understand human behavior through the lens of culture.
After joining an industrial supplies distributor in 2008, I had the opportunity to support, develop and supervise the user testing and usability of the e-commerce website the company was building at the time. In this process, I learned more about the Design Thinking methodology and how user research could be analyzed to extract deeper insights to create new products and services that customers (whether B2B or B2C) really want. This was very exciting to me as I felt I had found a technique that allowed me to combine my passions for understanding human behavior and creating new businesses. As a result, I chose to pursue my MBA at Babson College and completed courses in entrepreneurship and product design to dive deeper into learning Design Thinking theory and its hands-on applicability in new product and service innovation. Thus, these academic and professional experiences “sealed the deal” for me in choosing to pursue a career in innovation consulting with a focus on Design Thinking.
In the over eight years that I have been actively applying Design Thinking in diverse business situations, the one constant that stands out to me is that Design Thinking, first and foremost, brings the most important stakeholder of all into the center – the customer. In the end, it is the customer who (un)knowingly points us in the direction of what kinds of products, services and experiences they want companies to offer and not the other way around.
What was your executive education experience at Hasso Plattner Institut (HPI) like? What did you like most about it?
Pranjal Henning: To enhance and add additional skills to my Design Thinking toolkit, I completed the Design Thinking Coach Certification at the Hasso Plattner Institut (HPI - co-founded with the Stanford d.school) in Potsdam, Germany.
What I appreciated most about the certification program, was that not only did our cohort exchange learnings with one another, but we also captured how Design Thinking is creating tangible impact for businesses, including: team culture, innovation process efficiency and even sales. In fact, HPI is conducting extensive research in determining how companies who regularly apply Design Thinking are generating legitimate top/bottom-line benefits for their organizations. This kind of research is invaluable as it exemplifies why companies should genuinely consider implementing Design Thinking for product and/or service design and development.
What is an example of an especially successful Design Thinking project you led?
Pranjal Henning: In 2017, I had the opportunity to work with a client in the mattress textiles manufacturing space, to create new business models to pursue in various European markets. Our team conducted approximately 20 user interviews in several European countries and identified trends in our data. We then “workshop-ed” with the client and brainstormed five new business concepts adjacent to and outside of the mattress textiles manufacturing industry serving both B2B and B2B2C value chains based on our research findings.
What made this project particularly successful, asides from the fact that the client selected one of the business concepts to further build and test, was the collateral influence and impact on the project teams. Our team developed meaningful relationships with the client and genuinely collaborated together to create new solutions for some sticky problems their customers (and other stakeholders further down the value chain) were regularly facing.
In your opinion, what steps might an organisation need to consider to implement Design Thinking as an innovation process?
Pranjal Henning: As a consultant I have worked with organizations across industries and have anecdotally observed that some innovation leaders think they need to have all of the following in place to kick-off successful Design Thinking projects - the right team, environment, materials etc. However, from my experience, the first step towards successfully launching Design Thinking projects is…mindset change.
Like agile and Lean Startup methods, Design Thinking is also an iterative process. The goal is not product or service perfection from the start, but rather quick and continuous development via regular testing and interviews with real customers. Some organizations interpret Design Thinking as having to theoretically embrace a so-called “fail fast culture”, but this is much easier said than done. In my opinion, real mindset change is not about accepting failure more readily if it occurs when launching new products or services, but rather about practicing a “hypothesis-driven innovation culture”.
In a hypothesis-driven innovation culture the focus is on validating or invalidating assumptions via sound (qualitative) research practices and being open to learning from the customer. In fact, through this mindset change, an organization opens itself up to real innovation by letting go of “we know what the customer wants” thinking and instead exploring into the unknown with open eyes and ears.
You've led Design Thinking projects in various countries, is Design Thinking a method that is applied and practiced in the same way globally? If not, what are the differences you've observed and experienced?
Pranjal Henning: I have had the wonderful opportunity to lead and be part of Design Thinking project teams not only in the US and Germany, but also in India, Japan and Belgium, to name a few. How the Design Thinking process is applied globally remains for the most part unchanged, as the crux of the process is to: understand customers’ behaviors and needs, draw insights to form hypotheses, and ideate/visualize solutions to subsequently test. While the process is universal, what does change are which tools work best given cultural contexts.
For example, while leading a Design Thinking project in Japan to develop a new earthquake insurance product/business we worked closely with a local Japanese user research team. When we wanted to start testing the solutions we created, we learned through the Japanese team’s deep experience that it could be culturally intrusive to ask probing questions related to personal or financial loss, as they could resurface feelings of shame, failure and/or helplessness in the interviewees. So, along with developing a robust interview guide, we also crafted short stories inspired by Anime, a cultural staple in Japan. These stories described how our solutions could be used in calamities and took the pressure off of the interviewees, enabling them to describe their own experiences through the characters instead.
Therefore, it is critical to have a robust library of qualitative and quantitative testing tools to choose from, because taking cultural nuances into account and then carefully selecting the right mechanisms to gather insights makes for rich and informed innovation across geographies.
As you have regularly applied Design Thinking in your professional experiences, has this had a collateral effect on your personal development and life?
Pranjal Henning: The two most important skills that I have learned as a result of Design Thinking work that have impacted my way of thinking the most are: empathic listening and critical problem-solving.
Given that Design Thinking is also known as human-centered or user-centered design, in practice it really is focused on listening to and observing others’ explicit and implicit needs, emotions, desires, motivations, behaviors and pains. The more I conduct user research the more I learn to listen more empathetically and intently to different perspectives, thoughts and ideas. In fact, I now employ empathic listening beyond Design Thinking projects, for example, in mentoring colleagues and being a better friend.
Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions”. Since Design Thinking is a hypothesis-driven methodology, I have learned a great deal through this process to challenge my own assumptions and to search for problems worth solving. Especially in this day and age where many repetitive tasks can/will become automized as a result of digitalization (ex: robotics, AI etc.), critical problem-solving and the ability to uncover compelling problems to solve will continue to remain an invaluable and applicable skill in arguably all industries.