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A nonlinear approach to problem-solving is a key ingredient to adapting to a new culture. Singapore's Defence Science and Technology Agency uses nonlinear thinking. So do the U.S. Army, and even a classroom I've heard about. These three practitioners have all embraced this nonlinear approach — called "design thinking methodology" — to spark change. What is design thinking? It's solution-focused and begins with the end-user in mind; it also relies on concepts and relationships, as opposed to reports and suspected problems.
Design thinking methodology isn't limited to industries or even departments and projects. Many companies already recognize the methods associated with product design, but applying those same principles to innovative products can also help those companies achieve a more strategic outcome with their products and services: in short, adaptation by a global audience.
Related: Design thinking — Is it for you and me?
Rewiring your global strategy
Design thinking enables the practitioner to avoid, for example, the faux pas inherent in communicating in an inronic tone in a country where sarcasm can be misinterpreted; it keeps powerful business products from falling flat owing to foreign customers' misunderstandings about the nuances of the culture of origin.
The Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede noted that most cultures have six dimensions, illustrating the complexity of meaningful global interactions and competence. To solve the underlying issues of meeting global customers where they live, figuratively speaking, leaders should be willing to solve every puzzle from a design-thinking perspective.
That said, if your business's problem-solving structure is linear, it's likely crippling your ability to connect with a global audience. You need to enable new strategies that embrace the nonlinear, creative approach of design thinking, which begins with three steps:
1. Next-level stakeholder mapping
Deeply understanding the needs of anyone that the company's actions affect is at the core of all businesses, not just those with a global focus. This method emphasizes discovery, the recognition that people experience the world differently. It points you in the right direction, meaning that leaders should tackle this step before moving on. In IDEO's design-thinking process, for example, observation is the first item on the to-do list.
Going global, overall, involves much more robust mapping than entrepreneurs might be used to. The stakes vary greatly, even when the stakeholders share the same flag, so they'll naturally differ more across borders.
Leaders need to consider time constraints, geopolitical considerations and faith-based beliefs. Your own team should be ready to address all of these factors, creating comprehensive maps of your global stakeholders, as well as their own customers' motivators and detractors. If you have trouble honing in on what to map, services like MindTools can steer you in the right direction.
Without these details, you cannot effectively blend into international markets. With them, you're building a "family tree" of global customers.
Related: Journeying With Your Customer
2. Roots steeped in empathy
Seasoned business leaders know that any problem they have might be vastly different from the problems their customers need solved. This becomes especially true when those leaders' companies are expanding into different cultures. Empathy is the foundation of a human-centered design process, and without empathy-led design thinking principles, it's difficult to form a genuine problem statement.
Empathy starts with observation and conversation. This is a natural next step after stakeholder mapping. Ask yourself, What are my global customers tweeting about? What's going on in their countries, politically and culturally? In meetings, how do they come across?
Knowing your customers and appreciating their unique life experiences and sociopolitical outlooks results when you look through an intuitive lens, not a mirror.
The process of empathetic observation isn't just theoretical, either — it has relevance from the standpoint of revenue, says Northwestern University researcher Adam Waytz. In 2015 he found that the most empathetic companies he studied generated 50 percent more in net income per employee than counterparts that were perceived as empathetic. Additional research by Businessolver indicated that 42 percent of people surveyed actually considered a lack of empathy to be a reason to choose another vendor.
That alone should be enough motivation for any company — for your company. By exercising empathy, your company can reset its expectations and uncover the needs your global customers actually have. It can open the door to designing innovative efforts, guided by an accurate identification of customer emotions, experiences and problems.
3. Iterative abandonment
Without agility, it's impossible for companies to keep up with a dynamic global marketplace. Design thinking's emphasis on iterative problem-solving is what makes the method so agile. Encouraging this approach should become routine when a company is strategizing on how to connect with global audiences.
Constantly reframing and refining a problem brings the problem-solver a step closer to a better solution every time. In stakeholder mapping and observing, don't hesitate to let go of strategies you realize won't work, and don't be surprised if the beginning problem statement bears little relation to its several-iterations-later counterpart. This will showcase that you're targeting the right challenge, not getting sidetracked by an incorrect hypothesis.
In fact, many leaders in one survey — 85 percent, according to the Harvard Business Review — stated that their companies struggled with problem diagnosis. Abandoning an old issue in favor of one that's been reframed is a step forward, not backward, so don't be afraid to rediagnose the issues you're tackling iteratively.
Related: 3 Signs You're Better Off Abandoning Your Idea
In a global economy, businesses need to adopt multi-sense approaches to attract and keep global followers. When they do, they'll be able to recognize nonobvious patterns and provide perspectives that potentially shape the future. Design thinking is what makes that possible.