5 Tips for Bringing Design Thinking into Your Organization

I recently gave a presentation to a group of executives titled “Agility in the Enterprise.” One of the questions posed during Q&A was, “how do you change the mindset around innovation within an organization?” My response was, “start with Design Thinking.” Design Thinking is an approach to innovation that infuses business strategy, human-centered design and, in some cases, technology to help come up with creative solutions to problems. At EX3 Labs, we host as many as six Design Thinking workshops a month for various organizations; from large enterprises to non-profits. However, while the process is simple, helping companies get buy-in, maintain focus and achieve long-term adoption isn’t easy. Here are five tips for bringing Design Thinking into your organization.

1. Get Clarity — Understand the Framework

Design Thinking is an ideology — within that ideology is a strong framework. You might find minor variations with how various organizations work through the Design Thinking process, but the fundamentals are the same: (see figure below)

I’ve seen companies incorporate the activities within the Design Thinking framework as a half-day workshop, a three to five day “sprint” or even a full two-week cycle. Some companies resort to a compressed single day because it’s a challenge to get a group of stakeholders to commit more than two days, fully dedicated (more on that below). Regardless of your approach, it’s important to use research and detailed walk-throughs of the activities to gain an understanding into how to run a Design Thinking model most effectively.

2. Communicating the Benefits

Quantifying ROI from innovation initiatives is difficult but not impossible. In order to bring Design Thinking into your organization, chances are you’ll have to get some sort of buy-in from key stakeholders. When resources are a challenge, managers tend to look at new projects through a restrictive lens. The ability to articulate the benefits of the framework as it relates to business challenges your organization is faced with is critical. For starters, Design Thinking, when executed correctly, can yield multiple tangible outputs and intangible benefits.

Tangible Outputs

  • Developing deep customer insights through research, interviews, empathy maps and personas
  • Performing analysis on the market viability of various ideas
  • Designing mockups and storyboards that visualize a user interface for digital products or an experience within a specific business scenario
  • Building prototypes that can be used to test ideas with customers, seek buy-in from stakeholders or showcase during road shows

If you are saying to yourself “our organization already produces these types of outputs,” you are certainly not alone. Many companies have an ideation process through their product strategy or innovation teams. If that is the case, I would challenge you to think through ways in which the intangible benefits of Design Thinking can help your organization.

Intangible Benefits

  • Gaining an outside perspective
  • Getting individuals and teams out of silos
  • Increasing delivery through rapid cycles
  • Improving efficiency through a structured framework
  • Stepping away from the day-to-day to look at the bigger picture

3. Take It Seriously — Don’t Half-Ass It

This sounds like an obvious step but you’d be surprised how many people don’t take the process seriously. As with many frameworks, Design Thinking has been diluted thanks to people/organizations who take shortcuts. I recently received a request to host an “informal” Design Thinking workshop for a company looking to introduce the process to their leadership team. Beware of Design Thinking activities that feel too casual. You certainly don’t want to create an environment that feels stuffy and prevents people from enjoying themselves, but activities that are too unstructured can face the law of diminishing returns.

“Taking it seriously” doesn’t mean spending a ridiculous amount of money to have an army of experts come in. However, trying to run sessions on your own can be challenging, especially if you are new to the framework. I’ve seen too many companies try to host Design Thinking workshops without the aid of an experienced facilitator where the effort resulted in a waste of the participants’ time and outputs that were trivial. It is hard work getting buy-in, especially if you are looking for your organization to adopt Design Thinking long-term, so don’t half-ass it! Commit to the process, dedicate the time and resources necessary and, when in doubt, don’t be afraid to bring in an expert.

4. Make the Theme Meaningful and High-Impact

Some companies introduce Design Thinking for developing new products. Some use it to come up with creative ways to solve a social challenge. Regardless of the output, it is important that you begin by emphasizing a challenge that your organization or your customers are faced with. This way, participants are invested in solving something that is meaningful and stakeholders don’t feel you’re wasting time on something they may consider immaterial. For example, blue-sky themes such as “Improving the customer experience” or more specific themes of “Reducing Customer Service Response Time” could have a significant impact for a company that has exceptional customer service as a core value. Be sure to bring in subject matter experts that have experience dealing with the end user or who can help speak to their pain points. Empathy is at the core of Design Thinking and those that are closest to the problem can help provide a point of view that is relevant.

5. Document & Quantify

Having the mindset that activities within the Design Thinking framework should be captured similarly to other meetings or projects could prove detrimental. The framework differs from typical projects in that everything takes place in a compressed time period, is highly-collaborative, fluid and includes multiple ways of communicating thoughts and ideas through design. This helps get communication out of email or project management tools and onto whiteboards and paper. While these techniques help improve transparency and collaboration during the creative process, it also poses a challenge of digitizing and synthesizing inputs. Having one person responsible for documenting everything is simply not enough. It truly needs to be a group effort.

Assigning roles and clarifying what should be captured is an important step before the project begins. Synthesizing key points from discussions, whiteboard drawings and Post-It™ notes in an organized, meaningful way is critical. Afterwards, take time to meet with participants as a group to get feedback on the process; learn what worked well and what could be improved. Use the inputs from the retrospective to not only feed the next set of challenges, but also to quantify the outputs for stakeholders. Set a formal meeting to walk the stakeholders through key findings, designs and prototypes and be sure to tell the story both with visuals and with numbers. Hearing stats such as “during our customer interviews, we discovered that XX% of target buyers would buy this product” can go a long way to helping prove the value of Design Thinking within your organization.

Adam Wisniewski | CEO, EX3 Labs

About the Author

Over the past decade, Adam has helped dozens of organizations, from start-ups to large enterprises, improve performance and increase efficiency through the training and adoption of Design Thinking and agile methods.

Specializing in experience design and digital product strategy, Adam has led major technology initiatives in the financial services sector, transportation, healthcare and government. He is currently the Founder and CEO of EX3 Labs, an experience design firm that helps companies create innovative digital products and solutions that wow customers, excite teams and help workforces be more productive.