To thrive, organizations should cultivate adaptability through design thinking

Kenneth Wayman

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September 2, 2019

In today’s business landscape, basing strategic decisions on forecasts of the future is a fool’s errand. To thrive, modern organizations must be capable of adaptation at a breakneck pace. The best way to develop this flexibility is to empower people to make decisions using the tools of design thinking.

In early 2004, the United States military’s Joint Special Operations Task Force was the best equipped, best trained, and most efficient fighting organization in the world. They spent billions of dollars forging recruits into soldiers and billions more equipping them with the best gear money could buy. Yet they were losing, badly, to a group of insurgents with almost no resources. Despite seemingly overwhelming superiority, the task force was unable to prevent attack after attack causing unacceptable numbers of civilian casualties. It seemed like no matter how many heads they cut off the hydra, they simply could not keep pace with its growth. Their enemies were shapeshifters whose tactics evolved continuously. The world’s most sophisticated military outfit was woefully unprepared to adapt to this new type of threat. 

Although you may never have been in a battle, you have likely faced a problem of a similar nature to the one faced by the Joint Task Force. To many organizations nowadays it seems like the ground is constantly shifting underneath them. Historically stable industries can be upended nearly overnight by an enterprising startup with an idea and a laptop. The creation of entirely new business models is a regular occurrence, and the rules get rewritten before you’ve even had time to learn them. While the obvious disruptors like Facebook, Uber, and AirBNB succeed radically, thousands of others struggle just to survive in an era where disruption is the norm. Today, if you can’t move quickly, you can wind up obsolete in a heartbeat. 

In the past, one of management’s most potent tools for managing uncertainty was strategic planning; executives could use forecasts to make their decisions months or years in advance. When an idea can go viral in less than a day, however, formulating detailed five-year plans is a rapid path to irrelevance. A decade ago, people still took taxis when they needed to get somewhere. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a functioning American city without Uber or Lyft. In 2009, investing in taxis might have made sense based on urban population models, but where would you be now if you’d done that? Today, an organization’s critical competency is its ability to adapt rapidly to changing conditions. The faster and more creatively you can respond, the more likely you are to survive and thrive.

For any organization looking to take advantage of constantly changing circumstances, incorporating the lessons of design thinking should be a priority. At its core, design thinking is a process for systematically generating creative solutions to correctly identified problems. A team going through the process talks directly to its users, fosters collaboration with targeted exercises, and repeatedly tests and refines its approach. By using these tools, a team arrives organically at an often unanticipated solution that has been thoroughly vetted by the stakeholders it impacts. Design thinking helps people to see problems in a different way, to not waste time looking at the wrong problems but get to the heart of the issue rapidly. And, because the process is a fast, iterative cycle, changing project requirements present no more of a hurdle than any other data. In short, if you want to succeed, empower your people to think like designers. 

In 2004, the Joint Special Operations Task Force faced a number of serious challenges. With a few key organizational changes, though, they were able to take charge of the situation. They began getting the right data into the hands of the right people. Where bags of intelligence had previously sat untouched for days before processing, analysts were now receiving pertinent news mere hours after operations. The task force’s members were collaborating like never before, with front-line soldiers embedded in partner organizations and intelligence officers in the field. And once people could collaboratively explore timely data, the situation on the ground changed. Before the shift, the task force ran 18 missions a day; afterward, they ran nearly 300. And more importantly, they began to win. A giant, hierarchical organization had changed its processes, and in doing so had radically enhanced its ability to respond creatively to difficult problems.


At Greatest Possible Good, we believe that a team with the right processes can drive monumental changes. We are dedicated to the triple bottom line and want to see thoughtful organizations thrive despite 21st-century complexity. We put design thinking at the center of our approach and teach others to do the same. Successful businesses empower their people to collect the right data, find the right problems, and collaborate creatively to solve them. 

(Note: The details of the Joint Special Operations Task Force’s story are from the book “Team of Teams” by Stanley McChrystal) 

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