Why Big Corporate “Tankers” Need Small Speed Boats for Efficient Innovation

Johannes Hussak
Mar 5 · 6 min read

For a long time, Design Thinking was considered by many to be the holy grail of innovation. Big corporates sent their employees to Design Thinking education courses. They created beautiful meeting areas with the mandatory bean bags, whiteboards, and, of course, tons of colorful Post-It Notes.

Design Thinking was everywhere. But the word was overused, and people began to perceive it as just another BS term used by corporate types and gurus.

Skepticism of Design Thinking continues to grow. Another factor in this trend: a huge number of attempts to use Design Thinking to spur innovation that failed miserably.

What happened? Why did so many corporate initiatives fail? Why is it especially hard for corporates to integrate an efficient Design Thinking approach into their daily work?

In recent years, we conducted many Design Thinking projects at Motius together with mostly big corporations. Some of the design-thinking projects were shorter, others took more than eight months.

Sometimes clients were super-enthusiastic and engaged, while in other projects our partners were skeptical at first and rather reserved regarding the innovation process. We realized that there were certain hurdles that make it particularly hard for corporate “tankers,” which are slow to react and change course, to have efficient Design Thinking processes. This is where their initial skepticism came from.

Motius has been described as a speedboat for agile project implementation, and there’s a good reason why.

Over the years, we have learned to adapt typical Design Thinking approaches to our own individual process. But before doing so, it’s important to get a very good understanding of the right setup for a Design Thinking project.

Here are the questions you should be asking yourself if you intend to incorporate Design Thinking:

1. Do you have the right people for Design Thinking?

Many people in corporate innovation departments have an academic background — and for a good reason. However, in our German education system, we are taught to think convergently, i.e. what is the best solution for the given problem?

At university, we mostly deal with theories and learn the underlying concepts of innovation.

But Design Thinking needs open minds in order to be an efficient methodology. It requires people to think divergently and be “doers” who have real hands-on-skills. These people must have the drive to create things — realize ideas and make them happen.

While management skills are essential for many big organizations, efficient Design Thinking projects need people who roll up their sleeves, leave the building, talk to customers on the street, and bring ideas to life.

2. Did you manage to set up an interdisciplinary team?

One important aspect of Design Thinking is working together in interdisciplinary teams. This is especially true for the two essential steps in the process: ideation and prototyping.

People with different background will bring different mindsets, viewpoints, and creative concepts to the ideation. This will lead to a bigger solutions space and, in the end, to more and better products or services for the customer.

Setting up interdisciplinary teams is still a big task in companies where many departments like engineering, marketing, customer service, and design are separate and not use to working closely together

In contrast, smaller companies that operate according to the principle of agile working (also known as activity-based working) have access to specialists and experts. In this way participants with T-shaped skills can be consulted, supported by facilitators and coaches.

3. Do these people have access to the right tools?

Even if innovation departments managed to hire exactly these kinds of employees, these people need the right tools for prototyping and product development. In most corporations, the choice of software tools is limited. If the software tool is not from Microsoft or SAP, employees struggle to use the many innovative and creative tools which are available.

This is even more true when it comes to hardware prototyping. How many big corporations do you know where employees have easy access to metal or wood workshops, 3D printers, laser cutters, or even just a soldering iron? For an efficient Design Thinking process, it is crucial to have a hands-on mindset the tools that help you create quick prototypes or products.

4. Do you dare to test?

Once you understood the concepts of Design Thinking, have hired people with hands-on skills, have given them the right tools, and have them working together in interdisciplinary teams, you have the perfect basis for great ideas and exciting prototypes. But what happens after the prototype?

There is a lack of courage to test the product with real users, and there is a fear of harming the brand by exposing the market to a 90% solution.

Big companies run the risk of neglecting to test the prototypes. There are a few reasons for this. There is a lack of courage to test the product with real users, and there is a fear of harming the brand by exposing the market to a 90% solution. This is especially true in a country like Germany where quality is one of the most important selling points. But products that will be well-regarded by the market can only be created if you face your fears and overcome the inconveniences of testing the prototypes.

How can small speed boats assist corporate tankers to create an efficient and successful Design Thinking process?

In small companies with flat hierarchies, there is less room for pure management positions. Small companies need makers and doers to be successful. People that “get shit done” and that are enthusiastic about creating and building things.

Only if the small teams manage to turn ideas into good products in a short period of time the company will survive. These people work closely together. This leads to a fruitful combination of different experiences and trains of thoughts.

But keep in mind that hurdles or restrictions in the usage of the right tools placed in front of these teams could fatally harm the company’s speed and power for innovation.

Finally, startups and small companies are often limited in their financial power, so they can’t afford to build and plan everything upfront. They can still use small iteration cycles with valuable feedback to improve the product. But they must leave the building, talk to the customer, understand his or her needs, and take the right actions to create a valuable solution for the user based on that feedback.

Despite all the obstacles mentioned above, we have also seen positive developments in recent times.

More and more companies are open to Design Thinking approaches. It gets easier to pass the corporates purchase department with a project of unknown outcome, which was hardly possible a few years ago. Also, more and more online tools do not need any installation and have become vital in the field of software prototyping.

With our knowledge and experience in more than 290 projects in many different industries, we have created our own process where we combine user-centric Design Thinking approaches with emerging technologies in a unique way.


In our next article, we will explain how this is done and how corporate tankers team up with us as a small speed boat to sail through the rough sea of innovation. Don’t wanna miss it? Make sure to subscribe to our Tech-Dosis and stay up to date.

Motius.de

We are an R&D company that is specialized in the newest technologies.

Johannes Hussak

Written by

Project Owner @Motius with focus on emerging technologies and early stage innovation methodologies

Motius.de

Motius.de

We are an R&D company that is specialized in the newest technologies.

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