How Design Thinking Builds the World’s Best Business

From creating products to building companies, the principles of Design Thinking are what drive success for today’s best businesses.

Photo by Rod Long

Design Thinking is how designers create desirable solutions to complex problems. It is often considered an exclusive tool for designers and other creatives, typically envisioned as a wall pockmarked with post-its. These are misconceptions.

The value of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is no one methodology, nor is it limited to designers. The principles that define Design Thinking should extend across multiple disciplines within a business. By adhering to these principles, all the moving parts that contribute to a project come together to create a product that is possible, purposeful, and strategically viable. At its core, Design Thinking is about good design, and good design yields powerful returns. According to the Design Management Institute, design-conscious companies like Apple, Coca Cola, and Walt Disney see 10-year returns yielding 2.19 times (219%) that of the S&P 500.

Statistics like this are why companies like Google and IBM teach Design Thinking frameworks in popular workshops around the world. However, despite these promising initiatives, universal adoption eludes industry titans. “Three years into the program… IBM Design Thinking has touched over 10,000 IBMers and hundreds of teams,” IBM’s Miroslav Azis says. “But in a 385,000+ person company, 10,000 is a drop in the bucket.”

IBM’s attempts are still impressive, considering their scale and established success. Unless something outright breaks, people and businesses often choose the safe, proven processes that got them to this point. With nearly a half-a-million employees and a century of success, a change in foundational principles, corporate hierarchy, and strategic direction needs to be accomplished in degrees. This pain point is why so many internal innovation labs fail. It’s also why Fortune 500s work with us: while they make course corrections, we scout ahead to find the real-world case for innovative ideas.

However, for younger, leaner, and more-agile companies, effectively integrating Design Thinking principles across their business is easier. A low-hierarchy environment built from the ground up is ideal.

Photo by Samuel Zeller

Applying Design Thinking to your team

Deploy a multidisciplinary team from day one. Though some of the businesses we helped create now employ dozens of people, our initial teams start as small as possible. Rarely are there more than 10 members on one of these teams. This lean approach saves an immense amount of the organizational bandwidth typically tied to large teams and tall hierarchies.

Once you have your team, extend Design Thinking throughout all stages of the project. Include engineers and marketers in the initial product definition stage, and include designers in the engineering process. This creates a shared understanding that contributes to a project’s success before, during, and after its launch.

The best team is a multidisciplinary one that has experience working as a unit, so they can fill the gaps between individuals and ensure agility. If trust within the team needs to be established, start with small, low-investment projects with little risk attached to failure. Have someone steeped in Design Thinking and Agile Development lead these small-scale experiments. From there, ideate, create, test, review, and try again.

Teams need to move together, but they also need to move quickly. In one of our recent projects, engineering hit a roadblock while implementing a core product feature. In a traditional hierarchy, the whole project is put on hold while the strategy team works on an altered direction. Thanks to the diversity of talent on our team, an aligned understanding, and the iterative approach of our product-building process, next to no time was wasted. The team, as a whole, quickly reacted and recharted the path.

A big reason our team was able to pivot so effectively is because they appreciate how important it is to be intentional about how the team is moving. Design Thinking puts a focus on prototyping, but once the big idea is on the table, it can be echoed through a small-scale Design Thinking session. These sessions are usually appended at the end of a sprint. We typically adhere to the traditional two-week sprint in Agile Engineering, but the project’s needs and our team’s resources dictate our cadence.

Regardless, at the end of every project sprint, teams reflect on research, vision, prototyping, and scale. The multidisciplinary team has a small-scale Design Thinking session, either as part of the retrospective or while designing the next Sprint.

Each sprint is different and our process is always changing to be as good as it can possibly be. However, regardless of these changes, we always work in service of the proven principles of Design Thinking. While we are always willing to question and reiterate, it’s necessary to have a strong foundation to continually build from.

Photo by Delano Balten

It’s important to go from thinking to doing

Much has been said about Design Thinking, but for it to work as intended — that is, to do the right thing for the right reasons — it’s necessary to carry the concept from theory into action.

As a company that builds companies, we’ve had a lot of opportunities to test the most effective way to implement Design Thinking. And, if we’re being honest, it’s been an iterative process filled with trial and error. That’s the nature and value of Design Thinking, though: the opportunity to continually improve, to build the best possible solution and to adapt as necessary along the journey. It’s not a painless process — you and your team have to continually pursue the best solution, not the easiest one — but as a philosophy that guides every aspect of your business, it is the key to innovation.


Written by Roham Gharegozlou
Edited by
Bryce Bladon

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