Scaling Design Thinking

How should a company go about scaling design thinking ?

So you’re trying to implement design thinking inside your organisation, you’ve run a bunch of workshops and are wondering what to do next ?

Or you’ve run design thinking for a year or two and since the top down push is wearing off you’re seeing it lose momentum inside your company and are wondering what to do next ?

Or you’re exploring the idea of introducing design thinking into your organisation but need some sort of a narrative which explains how this mindset might grow and where you might meet hurdles ?

This piece attempts to articulate a first response to these questions and is very much work in progress — so I’m happy to dialogue with you as a means to refine it.

The Challenge :

There are as yet, very few robust examples of how to scale the culture and mindset of design thinking within a company retrospectively. The examples that exist — Proctor & Gamble under A.G. Lafley, Apple under Steve Jobs, Intuit under Scott Cook are based on the CEO being believers in design and driving it into the deepest levels of their organisations. The nature of changes cover the entire spectrum — structural changes to make designers influential in the organisation (Apple) , designed office spaces to allow for interdisciplinary interactions (Pixar) , designed internal processes to make design an integral part of it ( Intuit ), policy changes and budgetary decisions to ensure design and innovation became accountable within their organisation ( P&G), transformational initiatives that make thinking non-incrementally imperative (P&G) and much more. Seen this way, scaling design and design thinking within an organisation today, looks like an art form. No wonder than, it is characterised by turns as the best thing since sliced bread and hyperbole.

Where should a CEO start to make changes and how should s.he proceed ?

The Stumbling Block : A Missing Framework

Design draws it power by creating frameworks which guide the conversation. Oddly though, this conversation seem to lack good frameworks from the point of view of the company. The few that do exist, notably, Jess’s Design Maturity Continuum, and the Corporate Ux Maturity Stages by Nielsen Norman still feel to me as designer centric rather than company / CEO centric.

My preferred approach design is to find an expert user — someone who is trying to solve a more difficult problem than the one at hand. Is anyone trying to scale design thinking in governments, I wondered ?


Jess is a friend and inspiration — and is doing some amazing work in the public sector via When I raised this question with him, he pointed me to the Design Ladder in Design For Public Good document by the Design Council.

Design for Public Good.

With the advice that the last step in the ladder would be Design As Strategy. ( as always, thanks Jess ).

A Possible Framework

The three steps of the ladder — Design for Discrete Problems, Design As Capability and Design As Strategy is a solid start. It gives the What : a clear progression in how design needs to be perceived by the organisation as it becomes increasingly embedded in the collective mindset.

This also matches my experience from observation : solving relatively simple problems to test the usefulness of the process and the ensuing flip that happens triggers the corporate desire for design as an in house capability. I’ll return to this in just a minute.

The How was still missing though. How are we to figure out what needs to be done at each step of the ladder ? How do we make sense of the numerous actions taken by the chosen few CEO’s who “got” design ?

Well, we have known this for a while — to work in this mode, there are three prerequisites : An interdisciplinary team, a variable space and an iterative process . See more on slide 8 from the HPI D-School.

Putting this together :

The VIVI Scaling Framework

I’m calling the framework VIVI to match the alphabets of the columns. It explains a few things right away —


  1. Reading horizontally tells you what you need to do at a particular step of the design ladder.
  2. As you progress up the ladder, the goal is to scale the coherence of the design process, not simply the use of it. If you simply ran marathon bootcamps all year, you would achieve scale in use, but in fact reduce coherence. Concepts tends to degrade as you attempt to scale by simple transmission.
  3. Scaling is scaling all the elements of VIVI framework as your company moves up the Design Ladder — how you scale you vehicle, inter-disciplinary team, variable space, and iterative process.
  4. Each dimension of the VIVI framework scales differently — how you scale your instrument is different from how you scale your team, space or process, giving rise to an overall system behaviour which is non-linear This is complex stuff — giving the art respectability

System Behaviour

What is the pattern we expect to see when scaling design thinking inside a company? While linear growth is what we wish for, design thinking like any other trends is subject to the hype cycle — because it is introduced top down. The hype is created by the top management, so to speak. You can see this inside companies — once the top down push is done, acceptance of design thinking slows down, along with the murmurs of it not being really simple growing.

Therefore, left to itself, I would expect to see a company respond to design thinking like this :

The Forrester Hype cycle

What this means is that in Step 1 of the Design Ladder, everyone’s really excited about the process and dealing with limited complexity problems, so they flip readily. In Step 2, as they move to complex topics their lack of depth in understanding surfaces and acceptance rapidly drops. They realise how much work it really is, to design it right. If the company survives this phase, they arrive at Step 3 — teams develop a deep understanding of design thinking and can apply it to any class of problem with confidence.

Changing System Behaviour ?

Is this behaviour pre-destined ? Can we in fact change it ? While the behaviour is natural human tendency and will occur, changing how we respond can change our experience of it.

What this means is, we can choose a response in scaling design thinking which counters or takes advantage of this behaviour. For example, In Step 1, spread the knowledge of design thinking as wide as possible since the interest is high. It a push. Create nodes that we will connect later. In Step 2, consolidate and centralise understanding to minimise the valley of disillusionment. Create a hub where people pull the services of design thinking for the impact it can have on their business rather than have it forced on them. In Step 3, as we arrive at the slope of enlightenment, and the credibility for the discipline returns, integrate the hub and the nodes to create a network. Do this by creating a high impact initiative that compels the nodes and hub to work together.

Reading It :

A good framework explains how things work today well enough to allow making educated guesses on how things might work tomorrow. This framework accounts for the hype cycle. Here’s how you read the VIVI framework from left to right:

Step 1 : Design For Discrete Problems | Spread

The vehicle for Step 1 of the Design Ladder is Experiments. This phase is marked by euphoria. Given the newness of the design process, the company explores varied uses of the design process, flipping one team at a time into the mindset. Distributed inter-disciplinary teams are set up and coached from the outside with initial problems. These teams represent the most significant lines of business and ideally from all lines of business. The simplest version is a team set up with one member from every line of business. The team is tasked with briefs that move from concrete to increasingly fuzzy. Projects last 2–4 weeks to ensure they get used to time-boxing. The design thinking rooms are simple meeting rooms with brown paper over the walls and lots of post its as material. The iterative process here is the standard design process with a high research and exploration component.

Step 2 : Design for Design Capability | Consolidate

In Step2, the since we anticipate disillusionment, we protect the service by moving from push to pull. A high powered SWAT design team and a dedicated immersive space is set up where LoB’s can bring in business problems and walk away with solutions. Consolidate experience rather than scale. This is what P&G’s Clay Street does. In 2–12 weeks you walk away with a brand new concept. LoB’s pay for this service and nominate team members. This preserves the value of design thinking as people realise its much harder than they thought, but don’t feel compelled to learn it — just use it. The iterative process here is the design-driven startup process. We have prototyped this and are evolving it currently.

Step 3 : Design for Strategy | Integrate

In Step 3, we move back to a push mode. The nodes and hub created are connected together. A transformative program is essential to integrate both and eliminate non-incremental thinking. P&G’s Connect & Develop is an example. This forces the hub and nodes to remain distributed yet connected. Program can run in 90 days cycles. At this stage members need not go to a specific room to do design thinking. The entire company is designed to be a design thinking space. Steve Jobs did this for Pixar. This includes making the policy and structural changes to make the company accountable for radical innovation. I call it Company design. At this scale however the iterative process changes character . Large scale systems needs processes that are not fuzzy. Pure design thinking is so high touch and such high levels of fuzziness, its impossible to scale. However an iterative process with a focus on iterating the prototype and getting feedback is scalable. This is at the heart of the lean startup — a scientific methodology based on lean principles, which most companies are familiar with. The lean startup enterprise, still under development by Eric Reis, is the enterprise version. Non incremental innovation requires that teams operate in an entrepreneurial fashion. This ensures that.

This then is how design thinking may scale inside corporates. What do you think ?