The human challenges of design thinking

Shammy Jacob 5
Article by: Shammy Jacob
The human challenges of design thinking

During my time in the THNK Executive Leadership Program, I conceived and built the Saaf India Foundation, which uses design thinking to develop holistic solutions for complex societal issues.


When I completed the program in 2012, I set out on one of the first projects for the foundation: to clean up the polluted Indian railways. After moving to the Pacific Northwest from India, I realized how beautiful our cities could be and how passionate I am about a clean environment.




Exploring for solutions

As part of my work, I crisscrossed the country by train, talking to various members of the railways – from engine drivers to cleaners to senior officials – about how to design a simple system that would educate the entire ecosystem. The best part of the challenge was that solutions existed for every step of the problem, from writing the request for proposal (RFP) to designing the materials used onboard to communication with passengers to training the onboard housekeeping staff.

Through rapid prototyping and storytelling, we designed an entire process that could be tried and tested in three stations. We proposed designated locations for segregated waste, color-coded so people would understand how to organize their rubbish. We also suggested that the waste collected in the trains could be stored in vestibules until the train reaches the next station before they are offloaded.

It was an easily executable idea, which could have proven – in a short period of time – that the materials used in the stations and on board the train could be used, collected, and disposed of responsibly.

It was, however, not openly accepted. Our biggest hurdle was the bureaucratic, “it can’t be done” attitude of the management of the Indian railways.

human challenges of design thinking

Through rapid prototyping and storytelling, we designed an entire process that could be tried and tested in three stations. Our proposed solutions include creating designated locations for segregated waste and putting vestibules in trains for waste collection.

The benefits of Sensing and Prototyping

As a government organization, Indian Railways would only take advice at a national level, from agencies like McKinsey or PwC. But as the world faces more and more complex problems, it is important to be agile and rigorously explore the problem – what THNK calls Sensing – and then engage in rapid prototyping.

In the Sensing phase, creative leaders are driven by curiosity; asking questions and truly listening to understand all perspectives. Once you have collected these insights, you can then proceed to the rapid prototyping stage.

Prototyping is all about quickly fabricating the envisioned solution, then going through multiple iterations of testing with users. The cost of prototyping should be low and the process should be fast.

human challenges of design thinking
As the world faces more and more complex problems, it is important to be agile and rigorously explore the problem. #agile #complexity #socialimpact #creativeleader #sensing #prototyping #designthinking Click To Tweet

How to make design thinking work

Six years later as I walk through the Chennai Railway station, I see traces of our proposal being incorporated in the stations. That’s six years lost, and who knows how much in resources applied to the project meanwhile.

For organizations that are not used to design thinking, a high-level solution to the problem is generally top-of-mind, but they usually lack the capacity to find solutions from the people within the ecosystem. Instead, they default to outsourcing to large consultancies, losing the opportunity to identify customer-centric solutions, often minor details, which can lead to large scalable impact.

Today, large organizations like Indian Railways cannot afford to miss out on design thinking opportunities. If implemented correctly, Sensing and Prototyping helps organizations learn from the environment and users and implement solutions in a fraction of the time it would take compared to large-scale studies and slow solutions. In other words, if organizations embrace design thinking, they could implement solutions at a much faster rate and at a lower cost. Otherwise, they risk achieving the end result at a much slower – and expensive – rate.

In large organizations like Indian Railways, it’s also important to advocate for a top-down, collaborative approach; it has to start at the top and you have to have faith in the process.

Fortunately, the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is initiating a shift in the country when it comes to the environment. Under his leadership, India has pledged to eliminate all single-use plastics by 2022.

Shammy is one of many inspiring leaders who participated in the THNK Executive Leadership Program.

To build an effective design thinking solution for social impact, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.