Don’t just play to your strengths. For aerospace and defense (A&D) companies undergoing big technological changes, that’s good advice — even if it’s counterintuitive.

That’s because the main strengths of A&D companies are technological know-how and engineering prowess. Under normal circumstances, these skills have proven highly effective. But today’s conditions are anything but normal. In the era of transformation, A&D companies are moving systems to the cloud; integrating 5G; adopting artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and other emerging technologies; and using data analytics to speed and improve their decisions. Unfortunately, these projects can take too long, run over budget and even fail to meet their most important goals.

It’s time for design thinking, a new approach to problem solving which recognizes that transformation is about more than tech. We need to understand the human element of change management and reorder our organizations to promote collaboration and facilitate effective decisions. Design thinking draws on innovation, strategic leadership and change management to achieve long-term outcomes. This approach breaks down complex development pieces into increments — smaller pieces that are achievable in short time frames.

Lead with people

Design thinking looks at the people involved, identifies the root causes of their biggest pain points and then imagines a better future. From this future-state vision, solutions are designed, built and tested. Success is measured by the ability to deliver the change, not by how much money was spent or the completion percentage of the project.

A design thinking project first engages all involved stakeholders. The aim is to fully understand their challenges and define the project’s scope and goals in terms of what “good” looks like to them. This drives buy-in for the solution. In this way, design thinking essentially transforms a business or technical challenge into a human effort.

Another key element of design thinking involves breaking big projects into smaller increments. By leveraging the minimum viable product (MVP) concept from agile development, the team can make adjustments quickly and easily, saving both money and time, and preserving executive confidence and support.

Design thinking also employs the discipline of the scientific method. Prototypes are built to bring the solution to life, tested against outcomes defined in the first stage of the process. If the idea delivers the target outcome, the prototype is evolved to test the next idea. If not, the learning is incorporated into a new prototype that takes its turn at solving the problem. This allows for both rapid learning and intelligent investment.

Design think your way to the cloud

Consider the successes one large A&D manufacturer achieved when it used design thinking to rescue a troubled effort to move thousands of applications to the cloud.

The company had originally embarked on the three-year project with a basic engineering approach, mistakenly believing that the migration of these applications to the cloud would be a simple and straightforward technology project. Only after the effort faltered did the company realize that what initially seemed to be an engineering challenge was in fact a human challenge.

By adopting a design thinking approach, the company shifted gears, focusing more on the people. The company was able to uncover technical skills gaps, cultural hurdles, security vulnerabilities, change management resistance and more.

To deal with these issues, the A&D manufacturer used the MVP approach, rearranging a massive project into modest and discrete elements that were completed not in long months or years, but in quick weeks.

Design thinking could be the force that helps A&D companies thrive through transformation and ultimately generate more revenue, reduce costs, achieve better control of supply chains and inventories, and produce better services and products. A&D firms can use these strengths to usher in a new transformative era.