Design thinking: a way forward for the outsourcing and offshoring industry

Posted: 04/22/2016 - 20:30

A look at the picture below shows that design thinking is all about starting with the customer and ending with the customer. This really sounds like very old wine in a new bottle. But, please do remember: a lot of very old wine actually tastes really good.   The offshoring/outsourcing industry has grown significantly. However, the industry still struggles to show the value-add - and more so prove that it is adding value to its customers. There are some exceptions but these are few and far apart. The typical comment we hear is that the players in the industry are great at cutting cost, providing some productivity improvement and some incremental improvements… Nothing really cutting-edge or breakthrough. Some customers are quick to point out that they have pushed out low-value work offshore. This is actually totally rules-based work only. And to a large extent this is correct. A few generations of employees have actually been doing only rules-based work and, given the demand and supply, gone on to become people managers. These managers/leaders are so far removed from the customer that they do not think "customer" at all. So, solutions that we see for problems are typically operations driven, process tinkering - and some driven by service level agreement outputs and not customer outcomes. In today’s world, there is a need for adaptive solutions - but we seem to get linear and technical solutions. This is primarily because the whole workforce is working to rules-based processes and have started thinking that all problems are technical problems, while actually most of them are adaptive challenges. This is where design thinking fits in beautifully. Employees who are so far removed from the customer do not understand the customer situation, products, issues and what are the outcomes that they need. They are not able to empathise with the customer. Because of this, they are not even able to name the problem - and if you cannot name the problem, what are you solving, then? It is, therefore, essential to work with the customer, bring them in to your work environment and ideate not for solutions but to define the problem clearly. Once that is done, then search for possible solutions, and test out solutions in controlled environments. I believe that design thinking will help organisations:

  1. to empathise with customer problems;
  2. to design with the customer in mind;
  3. with teamwork and collaboration;
  4. with effective communication; and
  5. with execution excellence.

The most important aspect is to collaborate and bring the customer in to the solutioning part, which is quite different to the practice of today where suppliers tend to go to customers with solutions without actually understanding these fully. In my experience, the best solutions have been when we have worked with customers in the room ideating with us to come up with problems and solutions. A Design Thinking Program in an organisation can also help lift the mood within that organisation and make people think differently - because they are now seeing their roles more from a customer perspective than from a “getting the job done” perspective. In the long run, design thinking will help come up with breakthrough thinking for organisations. A few years ago, while my team and I worked with the server team of a company, we managed to re-define the design of a server in a server farm - and actually came up with a revolutionary set of designs for servers. Similar such work was done and we were able to come up with completely new ideas when we worked with the customer for solutions and collaborated across boundaries within the organisation. Design thinking is a powerful skill and, now, a methodology. Infosys, to take one example, has realised this and is training close to 40,000 of its employees in design thinking. Many other companies in India are beginning to follow suit. If done well, this should lift the game of outsourcing significantly in the years to come.


About The Author

Ravichandran “Ravi” Venkataraman is the Founder of Alive Consulting, specializing in leadership development and shared services consulting. He is a leader with a track record spanning 30+ years having worked in India, London and Bahrain. Leading large, remote, multicultural teams, developing and executing business relevant strategies and developing key talent are Ravi’s core competencies. He is also the Director & Co-Founder of Floretz Academy which manages two Montessori Schools in Bangalore; and a Trustee in eVidyaloka, a non-profit social enterprise in to remote education for rural children in India.Previously, he was the Senior Vice President of HP’s Global Business Services managing a multi-function shared service covering finance and accounting, human resources, supply chain, order management (product and services), marketing and communications. He led a team of 18,000 people spread across 14 global centres and co-located in 58 countries. Ravi joined Hewlett Packard from ANZ Bank’s global back office where he was the Managing Director, responsible for managing a team of over 5,000 in technology and operations.He blogs at and has a YouTube channel: Leadership in Real Life -