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Tailor design thinking to suit your company

Cedric Christie

Design thinking may be the go-to approach for positive change, but all too often it fails to deliver.

This contemporary solution-focused, action-led system for innovation might need reworking to sit comfortably with the way your business operates, write Martin Kupp, Jamie Anderson and Jörg Reckhenrich for MIT Sloan Management Review.

Two academics and an artist, they have pinpointed major pitfalls of a methodology that often contradicts a business’s established habits. And to bridge that gap they have identified some key steps to help your company use design thinking effectively.


Understanding the ideal of design thinking in a business setting is a good starting point. According to the textbook model:

“A clearly defined innovation challenge is presented to a team trained in design thinking. The team conducts research to better understand the problem. Drawing on their insights, they propose a variety of solutions, start building prototypes and, in the end, identify a fresh, profitable business opportunity.”

It sounds simple, but the reality – in their extensive experience as business advisers – is that it rarely works.


Here are some of the structural reasons why design thinking fails:

  • Design thinking goes against the norm of fragmented corporate vision.
  • Employees frequently resist altering their mentality around change.
  • The methodology calls for self-starting, democratic teams – another anomaly in the average established business setting.
  • Many firms will appoint a manager to assign tasks to the design thinking team and take responsibility for outcome, rather than encourage autonomy.

“To make things worse, these senior leaders often supervise 12 to 15 design thinking projects at a time. This maximises the leader’s time but reduces the teams’ efficiency, hinders passion and commitment, and slows progress,” comment Kupp, Anderson and Reckhenrich.


In addition, these cultural roadblocks can hamper the process:

1) “Creative confidence”. Creativity tends to be seen as the specialist area for certain sectors of the business. In a broad-based design-thinking team, communicating vastly different viewpoints can cause conflict. Those who have never been encouraged to innovate – employees in accounting, for example – may struggle.

2) Risk aversion. Managers who are resistant to risk will often raise a barrier that can halt innovation in its tracks, unless they can be persuaded to buy into the positive energy of design thinking.

“It takes a special kind of leadership to enable this supportive culture in traditionally conservative and risk-averse functional domains.”

In a climate where employees are made accountable for failure, individuals are more likely to avoid taking risks. Their creative reluctance has a knock-on effect on the outcome of the team project.

3) Focus on profit. If monetary gain is the team’s principal focus – especially when notably novel ideas are explored – then creativity can diminish. Design thinking needs to be about increasing knowledge as much as profit making.


There are ways to conquer these hurdles to fully embrace and exploit the design thinking model. Leaders should take the following five measures:

1) Choose your champions. Let your senior managers oversee one design-thinking project at a time, rather than a dozen or more concurrently. Ideally they will have the opportunity to be proactive in initiating, enabling and enhancing the process, as well as following up the team’s learning by promoting their innovative ideas within the company. As advocates, they can establish a design-thinking model for your business.

2) Get the balance right. For design thinking to work, you need a team with a diverse set of skills and experience and in the right proportions. Pull in members from all key departments and encourage them to embrace their differences and play to their strengths.

3) Lay down the law. While it is imperative to allow a generous level of self-government in your design-thinking team, keep control with a brief set of rules that cannot be breached – no illegal activity, for example.

4) Make it integral. When design thinking is always part of the product-development process, your employees’ will regard it more positively.

5) Put knowledge before profit. Not every design-thinking project will give birth to a workable innovation, but it will usually have something to teach you for the future.

“By clearly defining learning outcomes through questions (such as ‘Why don’t patients sign the consent form?’), you can then define precise hypotheses (such as ‘because the form is too long’ or ‘because the language is incomprehensible).”

If you want design thinking to be part of your innovation model for the future, training employees in the method won’t be enough to sustain it – especially when they don’t see solid results. Take a close look at how your organisation works now and define any barriers that need removing to allow design thinking to succeed.

Source Article: Why Design Thinking In Business Needs A Rethink
Author(s): Martin Kupp, Jamie Anderson and Jörg Reckhenrich