A way to bring harmony to discordant teams? A technique for fostering empathy? Or a refuge from “command-and-control” leadership? Researchers from the Hasso Plattner Institute have taken a closer at what design thinking means to the business sector.

It seems as if even the most conservative of companies now has, in some corner or other, one or more of those colorful rooms equipped with jazzy chairs, randomly scattered cubes, wall-mounted screens, flip charts, and a startling array of writing utensils that are supposed not to show any resemblance at all to normal workday surroundings. But having a room like this is only the first step in a change process that needs to pass through many different departments in an organization.

More and more businesses have begun redesigning their work processes and their methods and now regard design thinking as a strategic management resource or, in some cases, even as a comprehensive management concept. A recent study by the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) reveals how 235 organizations view design thinking. Here are eight key lessons learned.

More and more businesses now regard design thinking as a strategic management resource.

1. Change Outweighs Savings

Revenue growth and cost-cutting are popular management goals, but they are not at the forefront of the design thinking concept. While 18 percent of the study respondents mentioned tangible cost-savings from design thinking, many more reported improved cooperation between employees (71%), more efficient innovation processes (69%), and better user integration (48%). Often, specific and significant changes are the result of incremental improvements to many internal processes and can’t be attributed solely to design thinking.

2. There are Many Variations

“What we’re increasingly seeing are examples of teams that are cooperating across departments and disciplines and focusing more closely on users and their needs,” is how Holger Rhinow, co-author of the HPI study, describes the current trend in many sectors of industry. But this transformation is not always a smooth one. In practice it doesn’t always follow the clear pattern that the design thinking training courses prescribe.

“At some point, companies need to free themselves from the “d.school” teaching concepts and adapt the methodology to their own contexts,” is the advice given by Jan Schmiedgen, a design expert and the study’s main author. User-centricity, iterative prototyping, and a mindset that is open to new ideas are all components that can make up a company’s individual innovation concept.

3. Research and Development in the Vanguard

More than 72 percent of the companies covered by the study limit the use of design thinking to selected business areas or departments, while only one in four (27.2%) has been able to establish it throughout the organization. The method is particularly popular in departments that thrive on reflection and creativity, such as research and development (named by more than 60% of the study respondents), marketing (40%), and consulting for internal support functions (31%).

4. “Command and Control” is the Death of Design Thinking

Everyone in a team contributes their own particular skills — an engineer will handle prototyping, for instance, and a social scientist will take on user research. “It’s vital that the leadership function rotates within the team,” says design expert Schmiedgen, who urges that everyone should work together as equals. The manager’s job is merely to describe the challenges, to moderate, and to ensure the team’s autonomy in every possible way.

For design thinking to be successful, it is vital that managers refrain from giving their teams instructions and that they leave them to tackle the problem on their own. “Management control,” says Schmiedgen “spells death to the development of new ideas.”

According to Schmiedgen, what companies wanted was innovation; what they got was team hugging.

5. Design Thinking Misused as a Cure for Discordant Teams

Because design thinking has a reputation for encouraging collaboration, managers are apt to see the methodology as a way of getting teams and departments that have become embroiled in political intrigues to cooperate.

HPI researcher Schmiedgen has a stark warning about setting unrealistic expectations here: “Getting teams to a point where they’re willing to cooperate at all is a time-consuming process in its own right. But design thinking is first and foremost about encouraging innovation, not about harmonizing discordant teams.”

So, if design thinking is indeed being used as a kind of therapy, then managers should be wary of setting their expectations for innovation too high. In some cases, “What many companies wanted was innovation; what they got was team hugging,” says Schmiedgen. “But that’s not the fault of design thinking per se,” he adds.

6. Managers and Employees Must Want Change

For design thinking to become established in an organization, its management should function as an “enabler” of change in the corporate culture. It must also select its design thinking teams carefully.

“The employees involved must show a willingness to change and to recognize the attendant benefits. As a manager, it’s vital to think very hard about whether you want to muster the energy to convince the skeptics,” says the study’s co-author, Rhinow, who has been supporting workshops and innovation projects for the HPI Academy in Potsdam for many years.

7. No Empathy, No Results

Design thinking provides scope for “team intelligence,” which has a particularly beneficial impact on the users of products and so on. “The aim is to avoid bombarding users with cartloads of features that they don’t need, but to focus on making their lives easier,” says Rhinow, adding, “To do that, you need empathy for the customer.”

8. Design Thinking Takes Time

You can’t just impose design thinking on a company from one day to the next. “You have to let it develop and grow,” says Rhinow. The new corporate culture needs time to become established. “Once you start using design thinking, you realize that there are other factors to contend with too,” adds Schmiedgen.

Because, as the study also shows, design thinking can’t be introduced in isolation without adjusting existing organizational structures and processes and without applying other management methods too – such as “lean startup” and “agile.”

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