HiPPOs & Grey Matter — The Problem with Design Thinking

A mindset first approach

More often than not we hear about the success stories of Design Thinking and how great it is for innovation, but rarely do we hear about the challenges of implementing it in an organisation. I believe that we need to embrace it as a way of thinking and not a framework in order to embed it as part of the culture. Before we explore how we might go about doing that, what is it?

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking isn’t anything new. The term was probably first coined in 1965, but it existed long before then. Looking at the likes of Henry Ford who encouraged thinking big before focusing on a solution. Even before Ford, the father of the Early Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci demonstrated this way of thinking in thousands of his sketches and scriptures.

It has been described in many ways from a large variety of people and organisations, but I prefer the way CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown frames it:

“It is a human centred approach to innovation that draws from a designers toolkit to integrate the needs of people to possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success.”

Embrace Design Thinking as a mindset and not a framework

Before trying to implement Design Thinking in your culture, people need to understand what it is. Very often the biggest problem is that people will express their excitement about innovation, but they don’t know what it means, and when they don’t know what it is, they get nervous.

By understanding the core principles of Design Thinking, and spreading them throughout the organisation, you are increasing your chances of successfully implementing it. Let’s have a look at some of the core principles.

Principle One

Our educational system largely focuses on teaching us how to think convergently; to take the best out of a set of available choices, narrow down on that choice and then execute…

Convergent thinking — picking the best out of a set of available options

Design Thinking encourages one to think divergently and potentially create new choices that haven’t existed before and apply those…

Divergent thinking — create new choices that may not yet exist and then converge on those ideas

Principle Two

Design Thinking is about thinking in an integrated and holistic way. That is the capability to hold several tensions in your head simultaneously and then find a solution for those tensions with an idea.

The classic tension we face in design and innovation is between:

Desirability— what meets the needs of the people that we might be designing for?

Feasibility — what can we do with technology to make it possible?

Viability — What makes it a profitable and sustainable business solution?

Principle Three

I left this principle for last because it needs to exist within the previous two as well as at every stage of your process, and that is asking great questions.

It’s more than just creating. Innovation doesn’t come about unless you understand the problem you are trying to solve for. Ask great questions until the solution seems so obvious.

Think about it for a second, all workable ideas have to solve or accommodate for all three of these principles. We should be keeping these at the back of our mind at every stage of the process.

Some challenges you may face when trying to implement Design Thinking

“We’ve always done it this way” — Companies that are six feet under

This is one of the most dangerous phrases and it has literally destroyed companies. By doing only what you’ve done before, you are just repeating and refining your methods, this completely strangles the possibility for innovation. Changing this way of thinking requires a shift in culture.

The HiPPO in the room

All too often has there been a scenario where a high ranking senior has not been able to actively participate in the whole session for whatever reason. When they do enter the workshop, questions like, “Have you considered this?” or “what about that?…” pop up. In the end they’ve got to make important decisions without having any context to the work that had been done — often, making the incorrect choice.

Lack of understanding, action & persistence

There have been many instances post session where you’ve got all these post-it notes and sketches or a prototype but have no idea how to proceed — everything just comes to a standstill because people have given up too early; forgetting that at the core of the Design Thinking process is understanding that it take’s multiple iterations.

How do we get there?

Cultural Shift

Adopting Design Thinking into your culture requires acknowledging that failure is part of the process. Failing fast means discovering breakthroughs sooner. Seniors need to trust that their teams are doing their best work and not doing everything correctly. Failures will occur often, celebrate them.

Convert doubters by discussing a given failures cost savings and learnings relevant to other project’s. At Cohaesus we like to include executives, stakeholders and others who aren’t designers in the design process. This helps them open up their imagination, creativity, as well as allow for early buy-in and spread the initiative across teams. These small wins lead to bigger transformations.

“Small wins fuel transformation changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.”
- Charles Duhigg


An important part of the Design Thinking process is facilitating workshops. Managing people including the HiPPO in the room can be a daunting task but by understanding what makes them tick: Are they visual or narrative? What are they most concerned about? Finding the answers to these sorts of questions can help you anticipate potential issues before they arise.

Always explain your work, they likely haven’t seen the hours and hours of research and design. If there is a good reason a particular design has been used, present it with the rationale as it will be more difficult for the HiPPO to shoot it down. Or better yet, present meaningful data.

Design Thinking is iterative & a long term game

It is important to understand that the Design Thinking methodology needs to be considered as an iterative process. Thomas Edison famously failed, learned and iterated thousands of times before he was successful.

Another famous example is the penetrating oil and water-displacing spray WD-40, which got it’s name after the creators successfully developed the formula on the 40th attempt.

We find that organisations are used to working on elementary problems and finding quick fixes but that is not what Design Thinking is for. It combats tough, human-centred needs working on one iteration at a time.


Successfully implementing Design Thinking is about having a shared understanding of the principles, involving stakeholders and members outside the design team to allow for early buy-in. It is an iterative process and it’s not a quick fix to your problems.

Happy creating