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Exploring Design Thinking for Startups with Bosky Mukherjee

At Vancouver Startup Week, we’re grateful to work with our network of sponsors and event partners. VSW would not be what it is, without their support, expertise and willingness to share their experiences and participate in our events and promotions.

This year, we’re thrilled to be working with Bosky Mukherjee, CEO & Founder of Spark & Substance, specializing in designing and scaling businesses in using human centered design. She also coaches and enables start up and growth stage teams to define and operationalize lean and effective frameworks for businesses in every industry.

We spoke to Bosky recently to get an in-depth look into design thinking.

What exactly is design thinking?

Design Thinking is a way to think and solve complex problems creatively, analytically and collaboratively. It draws on its learnings from multi-disciplinary fields of behavioural science, psychology, strategy, product management and design among others. It makes us look at these problems from a user’s perspective versus internal processes. More importantly, it codifies a highly creative framework to bring about a shared understanding among stakeholders so that everyone starts with the same description of the problem. There were several great minds that came up with design thinking that saw its early days in the 60s in an attempt to “scientize” the “design process”. In recent times this methodology has become hugely popular, thanks to the people at IDEO and Stanford d.School. We believe and practice design thinking as a way of thinking and being deliberate about how decisions are made and de-risking assumptions early on – I use it regularly with businesses to validate their hunches quickly rather than going down the road with the status quo only to realize challenges much later.

For entrepreneurs just starting their businesses or a startup, how does design thinking play a part in developing a framework for business?

Starting a business is hard work; there is no denying that. The decisions and challenges that entrepreneurs need to work on getting it right hinges very closely on their ability to have enough empathy and care for the problem at hand versus the solution itself. Design Thinking enables entrepreneurs to test assumptions they might have or brainstorm ways to define first and then second solve the problem collaboratively. This step that is widely known as “How Might We…” simplifies the ways to solve problems without getting too specific about the actual solution. I always tell the teams to "fall in love with the problems first- only then can we solve them.". We as humans are hardwired to solve problems and more than often when I am working with teams, I have found we quickly start jumping into solution mode. I have been guilty of this myself early on in my career. Design Thinking helps prevents this mindset and enables entrepreneurs to spend the needed time to critically thinking about the context of these problems by staying in the problem space. By using the plethora of tools available within design thinking, entrepreneurs can solve many of the wicked problems they encounter such as:

  • How do we know if my “idea” will work?
  • How do I continue to evolve my MVP?
  • How do I understand the users and test the market demand?
  • How do I expand to another market?
  • How do I define and validate my business model?
  • How to I test the pricing model?
  • How do I build a roadmap that will increase my odds to succeed?
  • How can we define this problem?
  • How can I create programs to retain my customers?
  • How do I grow, build network effects or find growth channels?
  • How do I build my team?

How does developing a business around human centered design & the customer journey change how businesses approach everything from sales, marketing and customer service?

In the end, “humans” who dare enough to dream big build businesses around the world, hire other humans and work. with other humans. It is humans who are using and interacting with products and services as well. As anyone can see, taking effort to think through the entire flow or journey needs a great deal of empathy. We need empathy or deep understanding of the customers/users, the market, our team, peers and leaders, shareholders, our community and ourselves. This comes from making a deliberate mental shift in how we think – it’s about acknowledging that a single person might not have all the answers and including others who might have a different perspective to collaborate in the journey – this way of working has been highly effective, productive, profitable and sustainable. There’s examples everywhere including companies such as Pixar, NASA Jet Propulsion, Atlassian, IDEO, Google, Pepsi – it’s frankly really amazing!

You've previously run workshops focused on gamification to solve business problems. How does that work and what kind of outcomes do your clients see from that?

This is one of my favorite topics. There are several games from our toolbox that I use at Spark to Substance with businesses. I have found that certain games are better suited for certain situations and sometimes, certain games might not do well given the temperament and/or personality of the people participating. Like all things in life, the selection of the game(s) depends on the problems that people are facing. We have used aspects of Monopoly, card games, Icebergs and Gardening among others to co-design a product concept, prioritize projects for the quarter to defining a vision for a company.

What gamification enables us to do is to change long and boring meetings where there is so much stress to turn decision making into fun creative plays or games and co-design the decision making process.

What fundamentally changes the dynamic of decisions is removing biases and politics and focusing everyone’s attention to the problem at hand while making it fun, engaging and non-threatening such as:

  • Deciding on top x things (features, projects etc) the business as a whole or a team will do for the quarter
  • Deciding how likely customers will pay for a new feature/service offering
  • Kick off projects
  • Leadership Offsites
  • Building excitement before a release or a funding round
  • Building a roadmap among several others

__How would you recommend a company start to transition into thinking about design thinking? __

I believe we can all do this – we have started using concepts of design thinking at home with our toddler to help with creative problem solving. For people looking for more resources, I’d love to have them attend our workshop during Vancouver Startup Week called “Using Design Thinking to Humanize Wicked Business Problems”, follow us on I am a passionate practitioner and an advocate on this subject and often can be found on other panel talks, workshops or working with teams on this fascinating topic

Don't miss Bosky's workshop on how to humanize business problems using design thinking at VSW!