How design thinking can transform your career


19 December 2016

Traditionally, when accountants got too creative, they got themselves in trouble.

As the 21st century business world becomes ever more complex, creativity – specifically the ability to innovate via complex problem solving – is becoming an increasingly precious ability among professionals, accountants included.

Design thinking

Perhaps the most famous approach to professional problem-solving is design-thinking.

Whereas critical thinking breaks ideas down, design thinking builds ideas up. Design thinking uses deep customer understanding, problem framing, a range of ideation techniques, iterative prototyping, and critique to generate and develop concepts that meet user needs.

In a nutshell, design thinking is a problem-solving strategy that any business or profession can use to achieve extraordinary results.

Popularised in the 1990s by Stanford University, design thinking became mainstream in the business press at the beginning of the century. The so-called Stanford University approach takes in the following stages:

  1. Empathise: observe, infiltrate, collaborate and engage
  2. Define: find root cause and explicitly frame the right problem
  3. Ideate: focus on idea generation through diverging and converging methods
  4. Prototype: iterative generation of low-resolution artefacts
  5. Test: reflect on results and refine prototypes

Accountants are usually blessed with impressive analytical skills and work ethics Dana Born, the former President appointed Dean of the faculty for the U.S. Air Force Academy and a Behavioural Sciences and Leadership Professor, noted that at the threshold of an IQ of 120, the only thing that can sustain individual success is emotional intelligence, defined as the ability to monitor your own and other people’s emotions, and the ability to use this information to guide your thinking and behaviour.

Let’s have a look at phases one and two of the design thinking process.

Empathise

In a rapidly changing profession, clients increasingly value more personal, customised insights as well as integrity. To build a trust relationship, accountants need to go beyond their expertise and embrace a human-centred approach to their work.

The Empathise mode is the work we do to understand people, within the context of our professional engagements. It is the effort we make to understand the way they do things and why. To appreciate their physical and emotional needs, how they think about the world, and what is meaningful to them. Empathy is understanding what others are feeling. This is by far the most effective way to build genuine trust with our clients.

Define (the right problem)

Our success in a professional engagement is measured by the quality of the deliverables we produce.

Good quality deliverables solve clients’ problems. Producing good quality deliverables starts with identifying the right problem. And more often than not, the way the client presents the situation is not the true problem. The Define mode of the process is all about bringing clarity and focus to the problem to solve. It is our responsibility, as professionals, to define the challenge we are taking on, based on what you have learned about the client and about the context.

By leveraging our expertise and gaining invaluable empathy for the client, this stage is about making sense of the widespread information we have gathered, and make a true, sustainable difference to the client. The use of techniques such as the five Whys, Personas…will help identify the root causes.

Each step of the design thinking process can be analysed in a similar way to steps one and two, and leveraged to provide us sustainable competitive advantage in the long run both at individual and firm levels. The world is changing, and so is the professional services industry. Disruption is around the corner and whether we acknowledge and act to adapt to the signs of change or not will determine our future as the next generation of professionals.

Top 10 skills in 2020

  1. Complex problem solving
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People management
  5. Coordinating with others
  6. Emotional intelligence
  7. Judgement and decision making
  8. Service orientation
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive flexibility

Author: Kadar Kaneye, HLB KMC West Africa

About the author:

Kadar Kaneye is the HLB Partner for the UEMOA region in West Africa. A CPA and MBA, he is currently pursuing a Master in Public Administration at Harvard University. Kadar is President Obama’s YALI Fellow, Business Person of the Year 2015 by ORTN, the National TV of Niger, and Young Accountant of the Year 2014 by IAB.

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