Ten Design Thinking Workshop Principles — Part I

For some people, Design Thinking is only a method, for others it is a complete methodology. While the first group speaks of a “creativity technique”, the second only associates classical brainstorming with it. Design Thinking serves as a tool for the development of innovative products and services. At the same time, Design Thinking can also help establish a more innovative and creative (corporate) culture, or even function as a change management tool in developing a future-oriented organization. Finally, Design Thinking is a leadership instrument and can even be used for personal development.

Whatever “Design Thinking” is understood or used for, it requires the participants’ active involvement and their collaboration as a team, as well as new experiences on both the content level and the personal level, often outside of comfort zones.

Design Thinking cannot be taught in the classical sense but must be actively experienced. Design Thinking cannot be understood on a purely intellectual level (even if there are many good books one should have read), but must be conveyed in interactive and lively formats.

I would like to describe ten workshop principles that have become essential for me, based on well over 200 shorter and longer formats, which I have designed and implemented in the last few years for a wide range of topics, challenges, participant groups and (business) contexts.

For me, these principles have become an orientation and guideline for every newly developed format:

  1. Start with the people
  2. Integrate the whole human being
  3. Experience comes first
  4. Conscious working
  5. Pause and reflect
  6. Step by step
  7. Endure uncertainty
  8. Perfect preparation
  9. Let go
  10. Be a role model

I do not want these principles to be understood as strict rules that have to be applied only in the described way. I see them more as an inspiration to develop your “own” principles and to integrate them in the very own and personal way in which you plan, prepare and carry out Design Thinking formats.

I am less concerned with concrete methods (although I may refer to specific methods at some point or another), but rather the (inner) attitude with which I live and fulfill my role as a Design Thinking coach or facilitator.

This look at myself and my role as a Design Thinking coach is missing in my opinion all too often. If I can motivate and inspire a little with the following thoughts, I would be more than pleased.

In the following I will describe the first two principles, the others will follow soon as part of a small series of in total 4 articles.

Principle 1: Start with the people

“Sometimes it’s not the people who change, it’s the mask that falls off.” — Unknown

“When it comes to business success, it’s all about people”. — Richard Branson

In Design Thinking the user is known to be the main focus. It is him and his needs that have to be understood. For him, the best possible solutions have to be developed. Our work as design thinkers is centered around him.

This “user centricity” is good and important, but in my work as a Design Thinking coach, I prefer to speak of “people centricity” instead. We should not only try to find the best possible solutions for our users but should also look at all the other people that are involved in order to give them the best possible support for their work.

Therefore, I believe that every Design Thinking format should always begin with the people involved and with getting to know each other. This should happen in a way that gives space to personal aspects and should not only cover function and department affiliation.

At a planning workshop with the management team of an automobile manufacturer from southern Germany, each participant had to tell a small personal anecdote about what connects him or her to the car and visualize that in a short comic of two to four scenes. After initial resistance (“I cannot draw”), numerous surprising, funny and also touching stories have emerged that gave the entire workshop a personal touch of openness and respect.

At a workshop, where new offers and experiences for soccer fans were worked out, each of the participants had to describe himself with a personal football experience. The stories were about victorious World Cup finals, but also about very painful and tearful defeats.

At an event which focused on the future use of vacant military barracks, the participants had to visualize their “dream house” during the introductory stage. That task helped identify shared ideas and wishes and helped the team members bond from the beginning.

In a multi-day training session for future Design Thinking coaches, the participants had to present themselves to each other and, based on a short interview at the beginning, design a picture frame and content in a way that captures the essential characteristics, expectations and wishes of the interviewee. The resulting picture gallery is still in the coaches’ room today and shows at first glance, how colorful and diverse the team of coaches is.

The possibilities of personal presentations are almost endless, but, as the examples above show, allow the playful entry into the actual theme of the event and set the tone for the collaboration in the following hours, days or weeks.

Furthermore, you can make a decisive contribution to fostering a trust relationship between the participants, which is very important for creative work outside of comfort zones.

In such beginners’ rounds, I keep my own personal introduction very short in order to show from the very beginning that I am not important as a coach or moderator and that the focus lies on the participants.

Principle 2: Integrate the whole human being

“Your heart knows things that your mind can’t explain.” — Unknown

“Trust your heart, but use your brain.” — Julie Garwood

The “people-centered” work, which I as a Design Thinking coach already promote with a corresponding introduction round, lasts, in my opinion, throughout the duration of every Design Thinking format.

Design Thinking integrates both the left and the right part of our brain: It includes analytical and structured work steps, e.g. during the synthesis, as well as creative, visual and “haptic” steps, for example during the development of ideas or the building of prototypes,.

From my point of view, however, this is not enough to really activate the full potential of all participants and to integrate them into the content work. Where is the much-quoted gut feeling? The good old intuition? The heart and the body? The emotion?

I agree that Design Thinking is primarily concerned with the content-related work to a given task (our redesign YOU workshops are surely an exception, because that “content” work often consists of dealing with questions that are very personal). Despite or maybe because of this, I try to consider the whole human being. This can be achieved, for example, through the mentioned introduction rounds, through regular warm-ups that bring the participants into contact and, ideally, also into motion, or also through time for reflection of the experience, both in the team and alone.

Unfortunately, I have often made the experience that Design Thinking coaches like to “forget” these aspects, and to cut them for reasons of time or for being too “esoteric”, and generally limit themselves to the “hard” facts.

In my opinion, the results are all too often formats that perhaps bear the “Design Thinking” stamp (because it is hip now), but are, on closer inspection, not more than the more or less intensive use of post-its and the sitting on red couches. These methods alone can, of course, be experienced as new and different from regular workdays, but they in no way approximate the actual potential of design thinking formats.


Originally published at experience.sap.com on April 13, 2017.