Apr 07 5 Ways to Introduce Design Thinking in Large Organizations

The benefits of design thinking in business have been extolled for years. It’s a simple methodology for change whose main selling point is that it puts users first. But design thinking may seem inadequate when compared to the bureaucracy of a large organization. In companies where managers spend 40% of their time writing reports, can design thinking make a real difference?

I say yes. As a senior strategist at Rêve Consulting, I work with large companies to reimagine their digital experiences, both internal and external. We use tools from several disciplines—including service design and user experience—to create meaningful change. What our techniques have in common are three core principles: empathy, co-creation, and iteration. Here’s how you can put these principles to work at your company.

1. Start With Empathy, Not Sympathy

One of our partners had a great insight on the business value of empathy. He said, “Empathy allows you to build for your user, not for yourself.” That’s easier said than done, however, because we all have shortcuts in our thinking that allow us to impulsively react to situations. I call this the heuristics hurdle. It’s why you have companies with impressive call center times but low customer satisfaction scores. Agents are experiencing sympathy when they should be experiencing empathy.

Sympathy is easy: it’s understanding and recognizing someone’s emotion. It’s what the call center agent exhibits when they correct a customer’s issue. But empathy—a deep understanding of someone’s situation, feelings, aptitudes, and beliefs—helps an agent prevent problems before they happen. Empathy requires thoughtful work to develop, and perhaps even an overhaul of the metrics you use to track success.

2. Don’t Abandon What Works For You

If your company leaders are fans of user experience or customer experience, there’s no need to oversell design thinking. They’re all rooted in the same principles, so start where you can gain traction.

As famed entrepreneur Steve Blank said, “Often I hear spirited defenses for customer development versus design thinking, and my reaction is to slowly back out of these faith-based conversations. For large companies, it isn’t about which process is right…it’s about whether your company is satisfied with the speed, quality and size of the innovations being produced.”

A good service design firm will work alongside your team and incorporate your company’s favored methodologies into their approach. It’s known as co-creation, and it’s the best way to save time while getting buy-in.

3. Talk About Learning Instead of Failing

You can be the best at empathy, co-create all day long, and still get it wrong. That’s where rapid iteration comes in (otherwise known as “failing fast”). It allows us to quickly and cheaply fail, learn, refine, and get input from stakeholders. And when you can’t get everyone in the room at the same time, it’s an efficient way to get feedback. However, we’ve found that many people don’t like the concept of failure. In those cases, simply reframe the process as “learning fast”. A graphic like this one can also hammer the point home.


Click to expand image.

4. Hit Your Prototypes With the Ugly Stick

In other words, test what you want to test. It’s easy to cover up sub-par content with nice design. But if you’re trying to test the content, great design in a prototype is actually working against you. So before you show off a prototype, I’d encourage you to strip it of branding and other variables that could distract from the core assumption you seek to validate. You’ll find that both users and executives breathe easier when the stakes are lowered, and presenting a simple sketch or wireframe is a great way to do that.


An example of a hand-drawn wireframe (photo credit: Benoît Meunier via Flickr).


5. Conquer Silos With Informal Groups

One of our clients is a major healthcare company that was struggling to move people out of a silo mentality. One leader explained, “There were so many processes at work that getting a project done in less than 12 to 18 months seemed impossible. We also realized that a lot of people care about certain projects, but they weren’t being invited to participate.”

After working with Rêve Consulting, that client decided to create a customer experience Center of Excellence. It was an informal group of employees who had two qualities: an affinity for design thinking and a passion for serving users. This group lowered barriers of entry by encouraging employees from all departments to get involved.

When it came time for a corporate intranet redesign, members of the Center volunteered to tackle the project. The group came up with over 100 concepts, 30 prototypes, and solutions from vendors—all before the project had even begun. The project was approved in record time, and the department head explained why.

“Now there’s a vision at the executive level all the way on down. We’ll still use Agile methodology to deliver the product, but now there’s a model for radically changing what  comes before development. We’ve shown what can happen when you gather people who care about the user and empower them to act.”

So if you’re looking to build a design thinking practice in your organization, aim for the three guiding principles: empathy, co-creation, and ideation. Build empathy with your consumer, co-create with others from the organization who have a similar passion, and rapidly prototype your solutions to test what really matters.