As I continue to crusade for women’s voices to be heard in some of our largest businesses I nearly always come across the common complaint that women feel unheard and undervalued. This isn’t a new problem. 

You find it in the earliest writings by women beginning around 1000 BC.  The first novel written by a woman dating from that period, The Tale of Genji complained about being an invisible wife to a polygamist husband.  So yes, feeling undervalued has a long and rich history.

Just last week a Ph.D. woman engineer told me about a recent conversation she had with a male engineer in which she suggested a solution to a problem that was driving a key customer crazy.  She said, “Within two minutes the guy I was talking to said, wait a minute what if we try…and it was my damn solution.  No one else was on the call. But he couldn’t help himself.  He just acted like he was the smart guy who came up with it. He didn’t even bother to rephrase my solution…he just claimed it as his own as if I had said nothing!”

Sound familiar? Well, consider this.

Design thinking is a red-hot, seemingly new problem-solving process being adopted throughout major corporations.  My clients are in love with design thinking. What no one seems to realize is that design thinking is the same process women have been using to trying to create better lives for themselves and their loved ones from the time of clans and war lords to today’s corporations. Yet once again men are taking credit for a process that women have already been using for thousands of years.

Here’s what the process basically looks like.

  1. Design thinking starts with empathizing with the users of whatever you are producing.  Empathetic thinking is fundamentally visual.  That means you can visualize how your product or service might have both positive and negative impacts on your users or customers.  Of course the idea is to come up with ways in which your customers can get more value without more effort.  The most valued outcome of customer empathy is to identify unseen needs so you can visualize unexpected solutions. This first step of design thinking is often difficult for analytical thinkers.(According to psychology research at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, empathetic thinking is most often developed when the motivation to help others is present. This motivation has been proven to be highly correlated with brains charged by estrogen.  This is not to say that men cannot be empathetic, however, it seems to be harder for testosterone-charged brains to stay focused on empathetic considerations. A brain designed for empathy thinks win-win.  A brain design for dominance simply thinks…I win.)
  1. Define the ideal state for the customer.  This is often called the target state. When you contrast the target state with the present state you have defined the opportunity. Most often the target state is quite ambiguous, especially if you’re trying to solve a chronic or complex problem. Most problems worth solving have many causes and influences.  It takes powerful contextual intelligence to really understand the nature of complex problems. (Research at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that male brains tend to try to simplify complexity in order to get into action.  Oversimplification leads to being surprised by unintended consequences of quick decisions. Because female brains tend to be wired for high contextual intelligence they tend to be better at evaluating risks and minimizing them.)
  1. Ideate many options.  This is where cognitive diversity comes in. The best decisions are usually the result of considering the largest number of different options.  This requires seeking collaborators who may disagree with you or have data and knowledge you don’t. This collaborative process is called universal inclusion in which every collaborator is directly asked for their best ideas and concerns.  This process is a key finding of the Aristotle Project conducted by Google on their most high-performing teams. (Research from Bain and Company reveals that women tend to have higher levels of Relational Intelligence, which simply means they more easily understand what’s going on with team members and are more likely to keep them engaged.)
  1. Synthesize best ideas.  This requires moving from divergent thinking to convergent thinking to gain alignment so action can be taken. (This again is a skill powered by Relational Intelligence.)
  1. Prototyping and testing solutions.  To discover whether your ideas are any good you have to test them in a spirit of learning.  Prototyping is like playing horseshoes.  Getting close to a solution matters because improvement will be constant. Encouragement of thoughtful and honest effort is critical to keep the team motivated through the ups and downs of iterating solutions. (This takes a lot of Relational Intelligence.)
  1. Commercializing the solution.  This requires figuring out how to move out of prototyping and into something you can actually sell that customers can use and love. (This requires Operational Intelligence, another female strength identified by Bain and Company.  Operational Intelligence is the ability to develop an entire process of engineering and implementing a new product or solution without losing the value the creators intended.)

What I find kind of amazing about design thinking is that its major proponent, Tim Brown of IDEO, a famous design firm, acts like it’s a new revolutionary way of thinking.  When actually every woman who’s been a mother or wife has to use design thinking every day to just get through dinner.  Every family vacation is the result of design thinking.  In fact when it comes to coming up with new solutions to solve highly complex problems women have been using design thinking since the first female novelist wrote about solving the challenges of family life in a polygamist, patriarchal society.

Maybe we should change the name of design thinking to FVC… Female Value Creation.

Actually, I love the fact that the power of the feminine brain is being harnessed by both men and women to design new solutions to the problems that plague us and the opportunities before us. SMART Power training is design thinking applied to leadership.  I just want to point out it’s not a new way of thinking or creating–It’s as old as Eve.