Preparing for Design Thinking Through Cultural Change

Introducing the art of strategic conversation to revive stagnant cultures

To really embed design thinking we need to shift the culture of the organisation, and the best way to do that is by changing the way it thinks, communicates and interacts. We must shift work practices right across the organisation away from the stiff formality that characterises many practices towards the more humanistic and informal systems that characterise an entrepreneurial culture. This will humanise the organisation and make its thinking and communication processes more agile. We will then create a great foundation on which the dialectical organisation can be built.

2nd Road achieves this bedrock shift in culture by introducing the power of conversation into the organisation as a precursor to introducing design and innovation. Unfortunately the modern organisation has put its faith in documentation and presentations as a way to advance thinking and decisions, particularly at senior levels. Executives are used to getting heavy PowerPoint packs in order to advance business cases. Board meetings are heavily prepared and directors are inundated with briefing packs that often number hundreds of pages. Everyone gets overloaded with information and they usually cannot see the wood for the trees. There is way too much data, and far too little insight. As a result everyone is on the back foot. People feel that they must read volumes of data before they can make a comment, let alone a decision. In this all too familiar environment, no-one dares admit that they are actually overwhelmed and confused, and probably did not even get to read the input documents. And the people who did read the documents were the workaholics on the committee or board who have a great eye for detail but not for inspiration or synthesis. The meetings we inflict on ourselves as senior managers are the other side of this dark story. Agendas are stilted and noun driven. Chairing such a meeting is more like directing traffic than facilitating great thinking. At the end of meetings we produce minutes that chronicle actions but not ideas, nor passion.

All of this habituates a culture in organisations that is too formal, too mechanistic and too controlling. And it is much more like taking medicine than having fun. An organisation whose management is mired in these kinds of work practices has no hope of sustaining innovation or design. You simply would be trying to build a castle of creativity on a bed of sand.

So we need to start by revolutionising the way management works at a senior level. Leadership work practices need to become more flexible, more open and more human. Once executives have tasted this way of working, they will be much more qualified to lead and support a design transformation. But how do you revolutionise the management practices that have dominated executive life for many decades? One powerful way is by introducing a process that we call strategic conversations. This process introduces a taste of design thinking to senior levels in the organisation in a matter that is close to their heart — the planning process. We get senior teams to create strategy and vision by dialogue and visualisation rather than the traditional manner of document driven presentations and meetings which we sketch above. In doing this, the most senior people in the organisation taste design thinking in a way that is deeply relevant to their roles and accountabilities — i.e. charting the future of the organisation. We engage them de facto in a design thinking process albeit at their level not a product level. They are designing the organisation rather than a product and we create this experience for them and support it with new tools.

We use three key tools or practices in these strategic conversations;

  • Conversation — i.e. a structured and facilitated dialogue session framed by questions and open exploration. It is unscripted and genuinely exploratory.
  • Visualisation — we diagram and model this conversation as it is happening, in real time on large electronic whiteboards. The group of leaders gets transformed by the process into a working design team.
  • Heuristics — we guide and lead the process by ‘heuristics’ not data or spreadsheets. Heuristics are the toolkit of creatives — a bunch of models that help us discover and create fresh ideas.

By Tony Golsby-Smith
Illustrations by
Huw England

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