How Design Thinking Creates More Effective Leadership Training

By Marley Pillon - September 28, 2017

As a recent summer intern at The Regis Company, it quickly became apparent to me that design thinking played an integral part in building effective leadership training and professional development programs. Naturally, I wanted to learn more, so I interviewed Dianne Miller, the Head of Design. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

What is your background in custom learning designs?

I have a Master’s degree in clinical psychology and I started working in learning for organizations that provided services to people with disabilities. It was a formative experience for me because compliance around services for people with disabilities was, “Did we provide the right service for people?” as opposed to “Did we actually make people’s lives any better?”

However, the accrediting body that I worked for was really focused on outcomes of services, so rather than looking at files day in and day out, we would actually talk to people who were experiencing the services and say “How is your quality of life improved by way of the services that people are providing?” That was my start in learning around “Are we actually achieving what we are setting out to accomplish with learning?” It was outcome focused which was the early stages of design thinking.

Can you give me an example about how design thinking allowed Regis to provide effective leadership training?

A client came to us wanting to develop senior leaders to maintain an innovative edge and be strategic thinkers. We started with empathy interviews and one of themes that emerged was that the organization was very risk adverse.

We identified that they had a balance point between innovation and risk management, and they needed to consider how to get people to take small risks. We suggested scenario planning so people can plan for uncertain futures. That was different than they were expecting coming in but was valuable to them in terms of developing their high potential leaders. We wouldn't have known that if we had just built what they asked for. That was a surprising result that led to effective leadership training as well. 

How does Regis’ design process standout from other design processes?

Design thinking is becoming a bigger and bigger topic for learning professionals, but I think there are some misunderstandings about what design thinking really is.  A lot of people think “oh it’s the fun post-it activities” but it is more than that.

At Regis we focus on: who are you solving the problem for, what do they really need, and what really is their problem? Their problem might not be what you think it is.

People also talk about a rapid start which is all about getting people together and quickly generating ideas and prototyping. I think people sometimes think that that's design thinking, and it’s not. It’s a great way to make sure people are aligned but it’s not focusing on determining the right problem. That’s how our process stands out. 

Our design studies sometimes result in helping people understand that their problems might be different than the problems they think they are trying to solve.

I would also say that other design processes are not focused on mental model shifts. We can create programs that get people to think differently or more effectively and have those insights. That’s the moment where you feel like you've done a good job, when you tell the client something and they say “I had never thought of it that way but it makes a lot of sense.”

Can you take us through your process of developing a design study for a client? What does a typical design process look like at Regis?

A design study is a very specific product, it incorporates several ideas around design thinking. Our design studies are focused on how people learn and how people perform. They are thinking about multiple people in the system, empathy for learners, empathy for facilitators, empathy for administrators.

We started by talking to high performing people to understand how they think about their job. It evolved into thinking about what do we want people to do well, and what does it look like when they are just starting to learn how to do that? Then what does it look like when they're doing it well and when they are really excelling at it?

That started to give us our benchmarking for the performance we needed to see in a business simulation or a training and professional development program. Then we can retro- engineer the types of tasks we need to build in to give them an opportunity to get there.  

Are there instances when a client has done a design study but has not followed up with a larger program or business simulation? If so, why? How can a design study without a follow-on program still benefit the client?

Yes, there have been cases like that and we've gotten feedback that we are solving a much more strategic problem for the client than they thought they needed to solve.

This puts us in a challenging position as a business, but allows us to truly partner with clients and help them address fundamental, often much bigger challenges than they anticipated. While the nature of the underlying problem may or may not be a fit for a Regis program, there is great value in the design study because it allows us uncover the root problem and help the client find the most cost-effective way to address it.

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