Design Thinking in the Himalayas

In October and November 2015, I had the great privilege of trekking for three weeks through Nepal’s beautiful Solukhumbu district, which includes Mount Everest.

During the long legs of each day’s journey, I admired the awe-inspiring mountain ranges around me and found myself thinking about the similarities between hiking through these high mountains and my everyday working life. I was greatly surprised by how many I found. Are you skeptical about what hiking in the Himalayas could have in common with Design Thinking?

Crazy is good

In 2010, I crossed the Thorong La mountain pass at an altitude of 5,677 meters during a trekking trip around the Annapurna massif. After that, my trekking partner Ellen and I decided that we wanted to challenge ourselves by climbing up to 6,000 meters. This was a very far-fetched goal for someone like me, who, despite having strong legs, had no other experience whatsoever of alpine mountain climbing.

Sometimes, however, such daring thoughts are exactly what you need to succeed. At 10 o’clock on November 8, our crazy idea became a reality. As I stood on top of Island Peak at an overwhelming height of 6,189 meters, surrounded by a brilliant blue sky and breath-taking views, I thought: This was well worth the struggles I went through to get here. Dreams do not always have to disappoint or fall apart. Sometimes, they let you experience unforgettable moments.

This is true not only of mountain treks, but also of the search for the next innovation, new product, or new service. The key to success is sometimes to indulge crazy ideas, to support them and give them enough room to develop and grow.

This is especially the case during the brainstorming parts of our Design Thinking workshops and projects. Participants are encouraged through the proper methods to think outside the box and unlock their wildest and craziest ideas. Often enough, it is one of these seemingly crazy notions that inspires the next idea and brings us one step closer to something we can implement.

There is strength in teamwork

I was not alone during my trip through Nepal. I had my mountain guide, Markus, and his wonderful team beside me: Pratap, our native guide, who organized the trip; Narayan, our cook, who revived us at the top of Island Peak with his famous veg noodle soup; our porters, who carried our bags with the supplies we needed to get through the days and weeks of our journey; and last but not least, all my fellow trekkers, who each contributed in their own way to ensuring that we reached all the passes and summits and took the mandatory team photo at each of these markers together.

Those same things that helped me in the mountains are crucial to navigating the vagaries of Design Thinking projects. You need the right team made up of people with highly diverse characteristics, skills, and competencies. One person brings technical expertise to the table, another keeps the team’s spirits up, a third bakes motivating cakes, the fourth keeps an eye on deadlines, and yet another stops conflicts from escalating. In order for a group of people to become a team like that, it is essential that they take time at the start to get to know each other’s character traits and competencies.

It’s OK to ask for help

Island Peak is a popular trekking summit and can be conquered without previous alpine climbing experience. Yet there is a small — but very steep — obstacle to overcome: The last 200 meters of altitude can only be reached over a glacier, which makes the climb steep, steeper, and then steeper still.

Although my climbing irons were a great help, I could not have crossed the glacier without our experienced guide, Markus. His calm demeanor, his abundant experience, his safety rope securing me during both the ascent and descent, and his encouraging words were what really kept me going.

In the end, I was the one who conquered the mountain, but Markus was exactly the person I needed by my side for support.

Likewise, our Design Thinking teams are not left alone as they climb to the next innovation summit. Every team has an experienced coach standing by at all times during the workshops and projects to provide support and advice. For example, by encouraging the team when they lose confidence in their own ideas. Or offering calming words when too much fervor hinders progress. Or by providing the necessary leeway for the team to work freely while still having a safety net beneath them — just like Markus’ rope.

Perseverance required

After the first six or seven hours on the trail you stop counting time. The stages seem to get longer and longer. Your legs hurt and there is less and less air, but the milestone you’re so longing to see still refuses to show up on the horizon. You need great perseverance, because giving up is not an option. All you can do is grit your teeth, eat a bite or take a sip of water, and keep going. But your perseverance will always pay off, especially when you stand on top of that peak you just climbed and are rewarded with a breath-taking view.

Perseverance is crucial, both in the mountains and in Design Thinking. During a long project especially, there will be moments when success or significant progress are a long time coming. Like when you’ve spent ages researching but can’t find the information you need. When you’re brain-storming and that one ground-breaking idea just won’t come. Or when the implementation of an approved prototype is delayed again and again because of some political roadblock or other.

There’s another thing that mountaineering and Design Thinking have in common: Breaks are allowed. Just as we rested the day before taking on Island Peak, it can be beneficial to take an occasional time-out from the project in favor of a team dinner, a warm-up exercise, or a refreshing walk to gain renewed strength for the next assault on the innovation summit.

Leaving the comfort zone

“The magic happens outside your comfort zone”. I quote this wise saying to participants at the start of every Design Thinking workshop. Because, for many, the workshop is a new experience that turns their accepted ways of working completely upside down.

In the weeks I spent in Nepal, I found myself leaving my comfort zone quite often: while climbing the steep glacier before Island Peak, when washing my face in the mornings with freezing water, or simply during the long treks that lasted up to 12 hours a day.

But however challenging this might have been, it taught me a lot about myself. I climbed mountains I never thought I could climb and returned to my mountain-less comfort zone in Germany feeling stronger than before.

This is exactly what Design Thinking workshops are all about: Having our participants leave their personal comfort zone behind for a while and go beyond developing concrete product ideas to learn more about themselves, grow — even if only a little — and return to their daily work feeling inspired and refreshed.

There is no shame in turning back

When we hit a height of 5,000 meters on Island Peak, the air began getting significantly thinner. It was too much for three of our trekkers. Since altitude sickness is a very serious matter, our guide, Markus, decided that they must return to base camp. There is no shame in turning back on the mountains. Quite the contrary: It is evidence of rational thinking and the ability to look ahead.

The same applies to Design Thinking projects, too, because there may be moments or situations when turning around or starting from scratch is not a failure, but the right thing to do. That could happen if the original issue in question ends up leading in the wrong direction, for example, or if the targeted user group turns out not to be relevant, or the idea that was so well received at the start proves to be unusable after testing.

Design Thinking in the Himalayas

I’m back in my regular office routine now, and am once again holding Design Thinking workshops at the AppHaus in Heidelberg. I help our customers work through challenges there with at least as much boldness and perseverance as I needed in the Himalayas, and with a great team at my side. I will never forget my journey in the mountains of Nepal and what I learned there about climbing mountains — both real ones and Design Thinking ones.


Originally published at experience.sap.com.