4 Things I Learned at Harvard


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finally have an excuse to sport a Harvard T-shirt because two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of embarking on a two-day Design Thinking workshop at Harvard University with my colleagues from Cookhouse Lab. The workshop is part of Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education & Professional Development Programs and was led by Dave Power and Jon Campbell.

Attending the Design Thinking workshop was two-fold. On one hand, it provided me with the theoretical knowledge so that I can effectively market the Cookhouse Lab innovation methodology. On the other, it allowed me to experience the practical aspects of Design Thinking so that I can integrate this approach into our internal on-going innovation framework at LOGiQ3 Group.

There are various ways to define Design Thinking. To me, it’s a repeatable approach to problem solving for humans that involves 4 key components.

Key components of design thinking

  • Understanding and empathizing with who you’re trying to solve for
  • Designing probable solutions for the problem
  • Iterative testing process that begins at an early stage
  • Learning from that process to improve and come up with the best possible solution.

The Design Thinking approach can be put into practice for any industry but is best when used to tackle ‘wicked’ problems. You know those problems that are just so big, or complex that if you tried to draw it out on a piece of paper, it’d be a giant web of goop? Those are ‘wicked’ problems and they exist in every industry. While it can feel overwhelming to tackle such problems, implementing the design thinking approach can play a role in discovering solutions.

We’ve seen first-hand in Cookhouse Lab that this is no easy feat – but it wouldn’t be a wicked problem if it was easy right?! If you are new to design thinking or are eager to learn more on the approach, here are four things I learned during my very inspiring two days at Harvard.

4 things I learned at Harvard

1. Continuous Innovation

We often talk about companies like Tesla, Amazon, and Netflix, and how innovative they are. What are they doing that is innately different than those who are considered less ‘innovative’? An underlying commonality is that they approach innovation as a continuum. It’s not one time static event or investment, but rather, a continuous effort to make enough bets (quickly) with the aim of finding the next ‘new’ product to add to their core product offering.

Aside from persistency, speed, and capital investment, these companies also have a repeatable innovation methodology. Design Thinking is one approach that can be adopted to iteratively learn, analyze, ideate, design, test, and eventually build and market.

2. Uncovering a Customer Problem

I’m most amazed when I learn about the stories behind how revolutionizing business ideas transform into successful businesses. Often, many of these innovative solutions came to be because a simple customer problem was solved in an extraordinary way. The case studies shared during the workshop always led with identifying a customer problem to solve (even if the customer doesn’t know it). 

We’re all guilty of coming up with a solution or developing an idea simply because we either thought: “oh, that would be cool” or “all we need to do is write a few more lines of code and that feature can be added”, or “they definitely NEED this”, without uncovering what customer problem we are trying to solve, or let alone, if there is a problem at all.

During day one of the workshop, I learned that the best approach to uncovering a potential customer problem is to conduct contextual research. Meaning, to go and spend time with customers in context, not only through surveys and polls, but to sit on their couch, at their desk, and travel with them to truly understand what problems the customer is facing today.

3. Illustrate vs. Envision

An example was shown during day two to demonstrate the differences between illustrating an idea vs. envisioning one. An illustration is a drawing used to reveal the function and features of a solution. It is typically not clear how the solution is used and provides little context about the users. However, when a drawing is produced that shares the vision behind the solution, it depicts emotion, tells a story, and is often human-centric.

Below I included the examples that were used in class. Both drawings were used to describe the chair. The first illustration requires guess work in terms of why the two panels flip downwards. What were the panels used for? Why do we need them? Meanwhile, the second drawing eliminated ambiguity. Not only does it tell a story, but it also generates emotion and feeling (not sure about you, but it left a smile on my face!).

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4. Testing, Testing, Testing

How many of you have been involved with developing a new product or offering? Ever launched a new endeavour and wonder why people aren’t receptive or not generating enough sales? I can certainly relate to this.

Before you start to go full throttle on development plans and a big launch, ask yourself and your team whether you’ve tested the solution with ACTUAL customers. I understand the importance of testing; we all do and it is even more apparent in the software development world. But integrating an iterative testing process that involves the customer into our psyche is easier said than done. It requires persistency and a humble spirit.

I asked Dave, when you’re given a budget to produce a solution how much of that budget (or time for that matter) should be spent at each phase of the development process (i.e. learning, designing, testing, and modelling). If I were to answer that question, I’d say to spend the focus on building the solution and launching it. However, his response was, majority of the effort and spend should be used at the early learning stage and then for iterative testing and building, with the objective to produce as many iterations of that prototype before coming to a ‘final’ product.

It was refreshing to hear Dave’s perspective on the development process and a great reminder why continuous learning should be a priority throughout your career. It gives you the chance to think outside your work environment and learn through the eyes of other people. You never know where an ‘aha’ moment or shift in perspective can lead to. (I also learned it is never too late to go back to school!)

Eager to tackle wicked problems?

We are all surrounded by wicked problems, the insurance industry is certainly no exception. Design Thinking is just one of many effective approaches to problem solving and innovation.

If you’re keen on tackling BIG insurance industry problems and challenges, I invite you to join our Cookhouse Lab team on the next set of innovation projects. By using a combination of Design Thinking and Lean, you and your team will have the opportunity to experience the power of empathy, creativity, and design.

insurtech innovation lab

Natalie Ho

Written by Natalie Ho


Topics: Innovation, InsurTech

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