Forbes - Leadership

What’s Your Design Thinking Team’s Superpower And Achilles’ Heel?

Yamini is the Founder of Celebrus Business Strategies, advisor to senior leaders on business growth and author of “The Sales Accelerator.”

I was exalted at landing my first sales appointment. I figured it would be wise to ask for help and invite my coach to join me in my first ever sales conversation, secretly hoping that she would seal the deal for me. I prepared thoroughly for the meeting, laid out all the challenges and problems my services could solve and designed the perfect solution for my prospect both in my head and on paper, only to have my coach say, “go with the flow and be open to wherever the conversation takes you.” Being a left-brained, data-driven consultant, that didn’t quite resonate with me.

And so, on the day of the appointment, I stuck with my default modus operandi “be the knowledge expert and stay in control of the situation.” I listed all the benefits and proposed my solution excitedly as the prospect looked over at me with glazed eyes. Watching his agony, my coach jumped in and took over. I watched in amazement as she conversed with the prospect, empathized with his business issues, dug deep into the real problems and co-created a solution that fit his situation. By the end of that meeting, we had a new client who was excited about working with us and could not wait to start the process.

That was my first lesson in design thinking. I didn’t even know what that term meant 15 years ago. Design thinking involves these five steps:

• Empathize with your users.

• Define your users’ needs, their problems and your insights.

• Ideate by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions.


• Prototype to start creating solutions. 

• Test solutions.

Look closely and you will see how design thinking is inextricably linked to solution selling. If you are looking to apply and embed design thinking skills in your organization, your top salespeople might be the best mentors. Have your design team shadow your salespeople and score themselves on the skills below.

Step One: The Empathy Test

Empathetic salespeople know that you must intentionally align yourself to your prospect’s perspective — not just be open to seeing facts in a new light but also feeling the emotions they are experiencing. In sales, there is a common saying: “People buy on emotions and justify with logic.” If you are running into resistance getting your users to share the real issues, step back and ask yourself if you addressed only the tangible outcomes but perhaps downplayed the intangible outcomes for them.

Did you listen with your whole body and pick up on how their body language shifted in response to your conversation? Can you be in the moment and empathize in real-time? If at any level you think that the emotional experience plays a secondary role to the business use case, that is probably a big challenge in adoption.

Step Two: The Expert Status Pattern

Defining problems is at the core of the design thinking process along with identifying and understanding your prospect’s pain points and key issues. Consider the questions you are asking your users. Do they uncover the real problem or skim the surface? Do they address the business and personal impact of the challenge? Do you need to dig deeper to understand the true impact on the business and the person? Are your expert opinions and knowledge getting in the way of defining the problem and building bias? Is your expert status blocking your ability to start from a place of “not knowing” and trusting that your questions define your expertise in the user’s mind?

Step Three: Your Disruption Muscle

A key principle of solution selling is to disrupt the status quo and break through the inertia to shift your prospect’s thinking in a new direction. Some years ago, I attended a talk by Tom Chi, the ex-Google X founding team engineer, and his message stuck with me. It went something like this: If you’re trying to build the same car, you need experts who have done that before. But if you’re building something completely new, you need to operate from a place of learning and be willing and unafraid to challenge current assumptions to breakthrough new ideas. Are you buying into your user’s objections or are you willing to push the boundaries, challenge their thinking with empathy and pave the way for new ideas in the ideation stage of your process?

Step Four: The Premeditated Solution Hangover

The best salespeople look at solutions from their prospects’ points of view, create unique solutions and go to bat for their clients — letting go of premeditated solutions. They have an uncanny ability to include multiple perspectives and involve decision-makers early in the sales process to get engagement. The prototype process in design thinking calls for the same ability to create solutions from a holistic perspective. Consider the times your prototype didn’t fly. Did it take a 360-degree approach? Did you look beyond the obvious champions and stakeholders to test your ideas and solutions and question your prototype from their points of view?

Step Five: The Follow-Up And Feedback Loop

Salespeople will do their best to get in the door and start a relationship so that they can learn more about the organization and craft multiple solutions. They aren’t afraid to deal with their customer’s feedback and advocate for change internally in order to deliver the best outcome. Are you caught up in trying to find the perfect solution versus the most viable one? How willing are you to use the testing stage as a learning opportunity and trust that you will find new answers to improve upon it? Could your feedback loop with your users use some work so you can act with speed and better information?

Both design thinking and sales are fluid, iterative and flexible. They both require developing the skills and the mindsets to be uncomfortable, uncertain and courageous in order to truly succeed. Which superpower can you further harness and how could you strengthen your Achilles’ heel?

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