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Human-centred design, Appreciative Inquiry positioned to transform business thinking, says leader
‘It’s an exciting time for the fields of design and sustainability and business design’

Two methodologies are positioned to lead the way in transforming business as economic challenges promote intense rethinking about the meaning of business and the way it should be done, according to Peter Coughlan.

“It’s an exciting time for the fields of design and sustainability and business design because we all realize that we’re at a crossroads and if something really dramatic doesn’t happen in the next few years then we’re not going to have anything to practise,” says Coughlan, a partner at IDEO, a design consultancy.

Coughlan co-facilitated large-group design sessions at the recent Global Forum for Business as an Agent of World Benefit (BAWB), which explored the potential of design, business, management education and sustainability for creating massive change in the business world.

What Coughlan brought to the table was his experience with human-centred design, which involves creating products, services and organizational environments based on human needs.

This approach differs from traditional market research, which simply asks people what they need. Instead, designers spend a lot of time with end-users in the context of their environments, getting to know them and understanding the world from their perspective.

Coughlan notes a key trait of designers involved in this work is the ability to empathize as well as see end-users as intelligent and having something valuable to contribute.

Several years ago Coughlan stumbled on the methodology of Appreciative Inquiry developed by David Cooperrider and was struck by the similarity it has to human-centred design in that both approaches are geared to helping clients become more innovative.

Coughlan notes that the focus of human-centred design on truly understanding what people care about provides an excellent linkage to Appreciative Inquiry’s development of organizations based on what is already working within them.

“If you really understand what people care about that’s really going to be the best way to marshal the energy and the resources needed to transform a large system,” he says.

Cooperrider and Coughlan have been working collaboratively for several years, most recently at the BAWB forum where the two, along with Ron Fry, facilitated design sessions to advance the BAWB mission within four core areas.

“It’s an exciting stage to be at right now; bringing together these two very hopeful methodologies, design thinking and Appreciative Inquiry, as leaders in transforming the way we think about business,” says Coughlan.

He adds that he’s fascinated by the related discussions around sustainability as the current economic challenges drive businesses to restructure.

“These opportunities to revamp the business structure itself I think will lead to people asking what is sustainability really,” says Coughlan, noting that in his experience organizations’ definitions of sustainability range from focusing on packaging with more recyclable content to taking work-life balance into account.

“That becomes fascinating as well because as you start to think about work-life balance, you can start to ask, how does that impact the economy?

“If you’re no longer working 80 hours a week, does that create more space for someone else to work and what does that do to an organization’s performance?”

In terms of the forum itself, Coughlan says he found it most exciting to hear the many compelling stories from business leaders gathered at the event about how it’s possible to behave differently as organizations, to “take a positive approach on the world and think about sustainability” and “still survive and thrive.”

His vision is to see, and support, more organizations taking steps towards becoming agents of world benefit and having these stories begin to accumulate.

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