Design thinking in a hybrid world

The biggest surprise during covid was that online design thinking journeys have proved far more successful than in person workshops ever were.

As innovation facilitator, my job is to harness and activate the collective intelligence of a team of people so they can create better ideas than their competitors and grow their brands.  I’m the author of The Workshop Book, and my agency leads innovation projects for global teams at Unilever, Diageo, GSK and Essity.

Pre COVID, we were all used to doing most stages of important innovation journeys in person, which meant that they were attended by the senior extroverts who were based in the right location or could afford to travel to meet for intensive in-person experiences.

When we moved all our innovation journeys fully online by necessity, we were both shocked and surprised to see how much more commercially successful the experience, engagement, and outputs were. The main reason for this positive shift was the change in our use of people’s time and attention.

Instead of the intensive 4-8 hour in-person workshop sessions where the most extroverted, confident people were heard, online meant we split the journey into smaller, tighter engagements across a week or two. This not only allowed a far more diverse group to join from other locations, it meant that people had downtime and reflection time between sessions, both of which helped introverts and neuro-diverse thinkers to participate in ways they weren’t able to before. I saw our workshops became far more diverse, global, democratic and, despite what many feared with the addition of tech platforms, far more human-centred.

However, as we come back to a past-pandemic hybrid world, where some teams will now be in-person and some will join online, our greatest challenge is to remember what we learned, rather than going backwards to the bad old days of an in-person team getting all the airtime and someone joining remotely from a spluttering conference call phone on a desk, completely forgotten about. New hybrid working models bring a fresh challenge to design thinking, particularly if you are considering some team members joining working sessions in-person and others joining remotely, because it creates an imbalance of power that needs to be addressed rather than ignored.

The reason fully remote, online design thinking journeys work so well is that every team member has equal access to information and an equally powerful voice to help to guide and shape the outcomes at each stage.  To put it simply, when we are all square boxes on Zoom (with cameras on and in full participation mode), we are all equal and included, especially when we are given time between sessions to refine our thinking and contribute ideas.  Particularly when user empathy, constructive challenges, rule-breaking ideation and prototyping are crucial, online brings better engagement for each of those stages.