Designer as Consultant Part 2: Grow your Innovation Teams’ Design Thinking Skills

Ann Niou
9 min readMay 27, 2020

Co-written by Lavanya Kumar

This article is the second in a series about the designer as a consultant.

In our previous article, we introduced how the IBM Garage approached helping an enterprise organization kickstart their innovation practice. This post will cover key activities in our approach to teaching design thinking throughout the term of the project.

Stay tuned for Part Three on the Customer Intake and Design Strategy Process!


Design thinking facilitators are often called to not only be doers of design thinking but also teachers and advocates for design thinking. One of our client’s biggest pain points was that they had seen but never learned to facilitate. Our main goal was to empower the new team to become strong facilitators.

We focused our efforts on the questions: How do you start learning the art of facilitation and what is the journey to becoming a strong facilitator? And how can we foster a sustainable, scalable practice beyond our engagement?

We approached tackling this challenge with a progressive set of steps, measured by key metrics that we felt the client should be able to achieve:

  1. Establish a Common Language. How do we refer to various design thinking activities? What are they, how do you execute them, and what kind of outcome should you expect for each?
  2. Understand The Why. How do we better understand the purpose of each activity so we know when to use them, how to tailor them to a specific audience and objective, and how to pivot as needed during a workshop?
  3. Define the Red thread. How does each activity progress the conversation productively to reach the end goal?
  4. Continually Iterate and Sustain your Practice. How do you continue a culture of learning, adopt and evolve activities, and create a journey for new hires and members outside of the design community to follow? Also, how do you evangelize design thinking among your organization?

1. Establish a Common Language

As a new team with a range of design thinking experience, we held a design thinking boot camp on running a design thinking workshop (meta, I know) to help everyone speak a common language of this unique way of working. This activity allowed us to:

  1. Gauge the skillset of each team member and better understand each other’s facilitation and communication styles.
  2. Establish a common vocabulary and understanding of design thinking activities.
  3. Get “buy-in” from participants on the value of design thinking, a message they could use to impact the culture of the organization.
  4. Introduce design thinking and the Practice to the larger organization. In addition to our client team’s innovation group, we highly encouraged organizational stakeholders and managers across product teams to attend as well. What better way to create a culture of innovation than to spread the value of design thinking across client verticals? Ultimately, we hoped these managers would be able to execute basic design thinking activities and reach out to the practice for help when scoping internal projects.
Sample Bootcamp Agenda

The structure of our boot camp was fairly consistent each day:

Explain. For each common design thinking activity, we detailed: What is it? When and why do it? How do you successfully facilitate it? How does it help you reach your end goal?

Practice. Then we practiced each exercise with staged prompts, making sure to coach throughout.

Reflect. Each day concluded with discussion: What worked, what didn’t, what was confusing? How could we modify activities to accommodate various situations?

“There are many places online where you can learn individual activities. A bootcamp is designed to explain how activities feed into each other to deliver valuable insights that the team can use to innovate strategically.” — Molly Bigelow, Designer IBM Garage Copenhagen

It was important for us to begin with the basics and create a level playing field to ensure there was alignment among the team across all the activities. However, boot camps can be repurposed to define internal culture and practices and should be held to initiate organizational/team efforts as well as periodically as a touchpoint.

2. Understand the Why

Notes from an agenda planning session

Understanding the why, or purpose, is one of the most important aspects of any design thinking activity but also the hardest to grasp and articulate. It’s risky to simply go through the motions of each activity without understanding the purpose because you could miss out on significant conversations that would contribute to an optimal end result. It’s this understanding that differentiates a beginner facilitator from a more experienced facilitator, and a decent outcome from a great outcome.

At the end of the day, design thinking activities are simply a framework for a conversation. Understanding the value of each activity in reaching the specific goal of the workshop allows you to know how to apply it in different situations. In other words, the why should drive what and how you carry out an activity. It’s up to the facilitator to steer the audience in the right direction, pivoting as needed, and effectively communicate the value along the way.

“I remember in one workshop with many technical participants, we added a data portion to the As-Is Scenario. While this is not typically included, it was an extremely helpful way to bridge the gap between the participants’ technical lens and user-focused lens we were looking for.” — Ann Niou, Designer IBM Garage Austin

Creating outcomes decks are a great way to practice understanding and conveying the “why”. These decks are created after a workshop is completed to document what was accomplished in the workshop and more importantly, how we got there. This is an opportunity for the facilitator to reflect on what was gained from each activity and how it contributed to the end outcome. The more you practice this way of thinking, the easier it is to then understand what questions to ask, what to anticipate, and what to look out for before and during a workshop.

3. Define the Red Thread

As design thinking coaches and facilitators, we come to sessions with several assumptions on what our audience knows (or doesn’t know). How do we show that our participants have found value in our workshop and show how we guided them to achieve their ultimate objective?

Advanced facilitation involves the ability to show participants the “red thread” or pathway that takes the team from their initial opportunity statement to their final goals. It’s a great way to validate the specific activities used to build the workshop agenda but also convince the room why certain pivot points occurred or key decisions were made. It tells the story of the design thinking workshop and is beneficial to stakeholders who weren’t able to attend the session. While learning to capture the red thread is one of the many skills of an advanced facilitator, the following activity is a way to capture the one-off tips and tricks needed to take one's facilitation skills to the next level.

We found that curating “Ah-ha Moments” proved to be an eye-opening exercise for validation throughout the workshop. Attendees would post questions or key takeaways during the duration of the boot camp and at the end of the day, all questions would be answered in a collaborative environment and key insights consolidated in a single document as a workshop cheat sheet. Capturing “Ah-ha” moments was not only a huge boost to morale, but it also quantified the holistic benefits of the workshop and provided an artifact for team collaboration.

This particular exercise also helped improve our overall facilitation skills; we were now thinking about activities on a much more analytical level based on the “Ah-ha” moments that we were having as a group. For example, an Empathy Map at the start of your workshop doesn’t have to be static — you can redraw your end-user as you learn more about them. Or, when prioritizing Big Ideas, the ones that aren’t used shouldn’t be thrown away. They can contribute to a larger roadmap or second version of the final product. After talking to Bootcamp attendees who were fairly experienced in facilitation, they felt they were leaving with more expert knowledge on linking, pivoting, and modifying activities. These physical artifacts, as well as a follow-up email summarizing all resources and high-level takeaways from the boot camp, helped create cheatsheets for many of these facilitators which they carried with them through their design thinking careers.

“Ah-ha moments are not the facilitator’s, they are the participants. This is a great way to rapidly solicit audience buy-in, spur conversation, promote design thinking collaboration, and capture key learnings that the audience can use outside the workshop.” — Justin Owens, Sr. Consultant at IBM

4. Mini Modules: Sustainability and Continuous Iteration of the Practice

Co-written by Justin Owens

To build upon the established design thinking foundation, we organized a series of “Mini Module” training forums targeted to internal Design Strategists. The goal of these bi-monthly forums was to foster a sustainable environment of “learning by doing”. Each 1–2 hour-long session was planned and led by a junior and senior facilitator pair and allowed teammates to explore a particular design thinking topic through engaging activities. This quickly proved to be a safe space for new facilitators to hone their skills while reinforcing key design thinking learnings.

This is a critical time for a new practice team to fine-tune their method as they execute on projects and integrate their approach with the larger organization. Ongoing collaboration and increasing buy-in are integral ingredients to design thinking sustainability.

Here are a few examples of Mini Modules we conducted with our customer:

  • Agenda Building: How to craft a relevant workshop session to meet the specific needs of a customer while also leveraging a reusable template
  • Addressing “Bad Behaviors”: Learn techniques to deal with disruptive participant behaviors so as to drive towards positive session outcomes (e.g. The dominant voice Participant, The uninterested participant, The email distracted Participant, The disbeliever Participant)
  • Finding the Red Thread: Discover ways to link key insights amongst different activities within a workshop to promote participant buy-in
  • User Research and Usability Testing: Structured approaches based on limited resources, whereby emphasizing the value of continual user feedback
  • Technology in Search of a Problem: Aligning human-centricity to technology by driving towards interactions between the two

For our engagement, Mini-Modules were a sustainable experience that the client continued as it established a culture of meeting often but efficiently across interdisciplinary teams. This further strengthened and expanded the reach of the Design Strategists as they intersected with other constituents in various parts of the company.

The Supply Chain team that I was leading decided to change everything from the roots, not only by creating a better product, but also changing the culture of delivery by including end-users in the process. They immediately understood the value of Design Thinking and focused on user needs rather than just the outcome. Soon, the appetite from Duke [for Design Thinking] was so big, so we had to train internal facilitators by running small modules.” — Edvinas Narbutas, Designer IBM Garage Copenhagen

Onwards and Upwards

As our client’s design team continued to grow with members joining from various levels of experience, it was important to establish a career ladder for facilitation. This helped us measure how knowledgeable the team was when it came to design thinking and became integral in staffing projects. Creating junior-senior facilitation pairs as well as a concise step by step process for advancing their skillset helped define the practice and allowed others who weren’t directly hired to the team to transition into a design role. Much of the work from our boot camp influenced the final stages of our engagement.

Stay tuned to view Part 3 for our series on Designing for Culture Change: Documentation on the Customer Intake and Design Strategy Process!

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