Ten Building Blocks of Rolling out Design Thinking in an Organization

Design Thinking has matured. From a magic potion that you plunge into in colorful trainings to a framework that many organizations have embraced and adapted for themselves.

In the last few years, I had the opportunity to participate and co-shape systematic Design Thinking “roll outs” in organizations from software, consumer electronics and financial services industry and I feel there is a pattern of key building blocks to such a rollout. My intention is to share my observations here for your inspiration, knowing that something as complex as a change in an organization’s innovation culture can never be standardized.

Who might be interested in reading on?

The following ten building blocks might be interesting for you if you are part of an organization or company, you know what Design Thinking is and you want to systematically spread it in your organization. The list is ordered according to a suggested chronology, not importance. I’m looking forward to your feedback and fruitful discussions. So, here are ten building blocks, along with some actionable recommendations: 


1. Top management buy in  

Design Thinking is something that is most relevant to employees directly involved in innovation projects and initiatives. Nevertheless, all successful roll outs that I have witnessed had support from organizations’ top management. While working with Design Thinking does not necessarily take more resources to get work done (actually, the value proposition should be to save time & money), it may cause teams to spend their resources in ways that are uncommon in an organization. A team spending a month or even just a day doing user research might be considered slacking if leadership is not aware of the value and intention of such empathy work.

During a Design Thinking roll out, you will want your organization’s top leaders to talk about innovation, ideally connecting Design Thinking to your organization’s existing heritage or culture („it’s a consequent step for us, because we come from… and are at a point where we…“).

What you can do: If you want your organization to appreciate Design Thinking and roll it out beyond your own team, it’s a good idea to expose top management to an efficient hands-on experience. It can also help to connect them with top managers from peer companies (who have gone or are going through a similar transition).


2. Creating awareness

Design Thinking teams will be able to fully unfold their power if they are supported not only by top management, but by large parts of the organization. A team might need sales to get hold of customers for their research. They might need data from controlling as part of understanding a design challenge. They might need facility management to get a hold of prototyping material or furniture. If all of these units at least have an idea what the team is doing and what they are trying to achieve with it, they are likely to work a lot faster. Broad awareness of Design Thinking will also help reveal hidden champions and interesting design challenges in unexpected parts of your organization.

What you can do: Create a scalable format to build awareness that requires minimal investment from participants. This could be a talk at an all hands meeting, a large group class or a web based training.


3. Training practitioners

This is the most intuitive building block and sometimes the only one that people think of: Training people who will practice Design Thinking in their projects. In large organizations, there’s often the question who should be the pioneers in such an effort. Here are some criteria that I would recommend: Involve roles that are shaping how projects are structured and run, but are not exclusively people managers (we’ll get to those). Depending on your organization’s terminology, these could be functions like project managers, scrum masters, product owners or product managers.

Involve people from different departments, yet more than one per team (so they have a partner in crime when they’re moving on to change how their team works). Involve people who are excited about innovation and have presented themselves as change agents – not the ones who are bored, but those who are restless.

What you can do: Create a solid, scalable training format that resonates with people from various departments and fields which does not only showcase Design Thinking as a method, but also how it is applied to challenges relevant to your industry.


4. Training leaders

As with top management, Design Thinking teams need the support of their immediate leaders to create impact. While potentially driving for the same outcome (find an innovative solution for X), the activities on the way to that outcome need to be facilitated by middle management. Depending on the leadership style your organization is coming from, leaders may need to learn to

  • grant their team decision power
  • create a culture of experimentation (and failure)
  • accommodate iterative project work in their goals and milestones
  • facilitate and encourage proximity to the user

Since practitioner trainings focus a lot on the tools to get innovation work done, leaders who are not directly involved- but who are enablers of Design Thinking projects need different content to put Design Thinking into practice in their role.

What you can do: Create a learning experience for middle managers that puts emphasis on Design Thinking’s impact on leadership.


5. Leveraging existing experts

Initiatives to roll out Design Thinking often originate in non-product innovation functions like HR, learning & development or top management. Usually everything starts with some enthusiasts, who are able to convince a few others and are then tasked with planning a roll out (most likely involving external support). The initiators often forget that organizations that make products or software most likely have people on board who are already very familiar with many Design Thinking tools. They might be called designers, user experience researchers, user interface designers, creative directors, strategists or something similar. Interestingly, people in these roles sometimes feel threatened or annoyed by the sudden interest in their craft: Is everyone a designer now? Are Design Thinkers even doing proper design work? Why would someone in finance need to learn Design Thinking?

It is important to proactively involve representatives from such functions, appreciate their skill and leverage them in spreading the design mindset beyond their department. Rolling out Design Thinking does not mean challenging their work, but giving their approach and viewpoint a lot more relevance.

What you can do: Let teams learn from established design roles. Familiarize the established designers with the concept and process of Design Thinking and encourage them to demystify their work by talking about what they do and relating it to the approach you are trying to establish.


6. Transforming space

Work space is an important, yet often neglected, element of Design Thinking. Some DT pioneers are so tied up in establishing a process that they forget that transforming work space can be a powerful signal of change. Establishing a design lab is not an end in itself, but it shows commitment and is a visible invitation to practice new ways of working. Since space is a scarce resource in any organization, it’s easiest to start with transforming existing collaboration areas: Meeting rooms, coffee corners, hallways. As a positive side effect, innovation work that takes place in such a setting becomes visible to other teams, creates interest and sets standards around creative team work.

What you can do: Transform a central, visible and large space into a hub for creative work. There are great resources on what such a space may look like, the basic concepts being: Flexibility, supporting an active posture (standing tables), optimized for teams of five, lots of surfaces and materials to visualize and build quickly. Make sure you are not just designing the space itself, but also the formats and responsibilities of usage: Can it be booked? By whom? Can teams leave their work overnight? Who stocks materials? How do teams hear about what the space is for? Does it come with instructions or restrictions (e.g. not for ordinary boring meetings!).


7. Running real projects

Design Thinking trainings feel great and are fun. Yet the transfer from a training’s lab environment to your business is the real challenge. Only if Design Thinking finds a home in your project portfolio, in your product development processes, even in team goals and success metrics, it will make a difference beyond the fading happiness of a skill building initiative. Projects will be the most important element of your roll out. Don’t invent challenges to prove Design Thinking, but get work done that needs to be done anyway.

What you can do: Curate a selection of projects that come with a committed team and provide them with a pre-structured coaching routine (e.g. one day per week). Let them populate your innovation space and put them in the spotlight not matter if they succeed or not. If a project fails or is stopped, make sure the team makes what it learned available to other Design Thinkers.


8. Measuring and talking about it

Good Design Thinking stories take time. From a kickoff through research, prototypes, failures, iterations to implementation it can take years till you have a story that is as beautiful as the few legends Design Thinking enthusiasts keep referring to. Your story may not even end up being all that sexy and it will most likely be the result of several different influencing factors beyond Design Thinking (it’s rarely “putting DT in and getting innovation out”).

But Design Thinking success can not exclusively be measured by number of innovations. Think about other metrics your roll out is impacting: Saved budget from non-desirable ideas that were abandoned early enough, employee happiness and sense of participation, improved customer relationships, incremental innovations, faster decision processes etc.

What you can do: Scout stories of „softer“ successes and do not wait for a big bang innovation story. Display impact on people, not just products. Create a space (internal portal page, monthly meeting, weekly lunch) where these stories can be shared.


9. Scaling by building capacity

You will most likely leverage external support for your roll out – not because it is impossible to roll out Design Thinking internally, but because externals can present and model the culture of Design Thinking more consistently without being burdened by your organization’s constraints and history. Nevertheless, every part of your roll out should be a step towards independence from external support, and you should should create a plan how you will achieve it. Part of that is to make sure you receive and document the tools and resources trainers or consultants bring and make them available to your teams (ideally not just as random slide decks, but as a structured tool kit). The other element is building internal coaching capacity based on real projects. Most likely there will be a core group of new Design Thinkers who get very excited about this way of working, people who seem to have been waiting for it to arrive.

What you can do: Handpick your future coaches based on the commitment you can expect and create formats for them to learn and practice their skills (formal trainings, coach shadowing, secure experimentation environments). Design a structure or process for their project engagement (20% time, coach pool, internal coach booking system) and channels through which they can share experiences.


10. Finding your own angle

Your organization had a grown culture and language before Design Thinking came around. These values or behaviors give teams stability and it can be irritating to suggest that they are challenged by some Silicon Valley magic. As a driver of Design Thinking, it is your role to find connections between your organization’s identity and the new values and behaviors you want to establish.

What you can do: Enrich the Design Thinking framework with tools, processes, and terminology from your organization. Develop your own „angle“ on Design Thinking work including suitable terminology, process visualizations and reasoning.


So, these are the ten building blocks. I hope you find them useful and I’m looking forward to hearing your questions, thoughts or feedback so get in touch.