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5 tips to successfully implement the design-thinking process

Introducing the design-thinking process calls for rethinking and breaking with old organizational structures.
Image: © REDPIXEL / AdobeStock

Here’s what you should keep in mind when implementing the design-thinking process

There is no such thing as a clearly defined method for design thinking. Rather, this is an approach that can be implemented with the aid of an entire arsenal of tools and measures. As a framework, it offers the structure that can be filled with a very broad variety of creative and analytical methods.

Key elements are always multiperspectivity and user-centricity. To guarantee these requirements are met, you should take the following 5 tips to heart ahead of time:

#1 Conviction, not compulsion

To understand design thinking and implement it to its fullest, companies have to undergo profound transformation and upheaval – a 360-degree renovation of their internal structures and workflows. Hence, if the design-thinking approach is to take root in an enterprise as an applied creative method, it is essential for all employees and management alike to accept and seek the change involved. Implementing a design-thinking process requires persuasiveness at all levels of the company; the process must not be imposed in the face of resistance.

#2 Tearing down departmental boundaries

Design thinking is not a recipe used to harmonize collaboration among teams that can’t cooperate with one another at the moment. Instead, it calls for flexible forms of collaboration between employees in a very wide variety of teams and departments in the effort to launch innovation processes and glean as many different interdisciplinary approaches as possible. This requires room for maneuver. If agile frameworks such as scrum or lean startup are already in use, design thinking can dovetail with these.

#3 Establish an error culture

Errors are not only permitted – they are intended as an integral part of the iterative process of design thinking. A prerequisite for this is an open-minded error culture both within the team and the company. Particularly at the early stages of the process in design thinking, questions of technical and financial feasibility, sustainability and profitability must be completely irrelevant and remain disregarded. It is merely a question of providing initial solution approaches, completely free of any assessment.

#4 Create structures for user-centricity

Design thinking is a user-centric approach. Points of contact with actual users must therefore be created in as large a number as possible, with these relationships maintained constantly so that users can also be directly involved in the design-thinking process at any time. If need be, corresponding structures have to be set up and established.

#5 Create spaces

Prof. Ulrich Weinberg is Director of the School of Design Thinking at the Hasso Plattner Institute. In an informative Video on “Introducing design thinking in the company,” he explains the process typically involved in successfully implementing the design-thinking approach. He recommends first creating According to him, it is therefore advisable to first create a protected space and a fixed time frame in which a project team can meet and experimentally test the new method, free from pressure by outsiders, in the sense of a small, agile project. Experience has shown that the approach would quickly establish itself, taking on a life of its own on the basis of good results and eventually expanding to include other departments.

“New ideas are born. This is a different space, one in which you focus on collaboration, on teamwork. The employees who experience this without having been part of this group are usually so hooked – they think it’s so great to work differently for a change – that the idea catches on and expands.”

Prof. Ulrich Weinberg, Director School of Design Thinking, Hasso Plattner Institute

Design-thinking processes in sales: Challenges and opportunities

“Focusing on the customer’s needs,” “thinking from the customer’s point of view” – this is really old hat in sales. But precisely these projects are growing increasingly difficult to implement with the methods that are currently part of the sales representative’s basic canon. The reason for this, on the one hand, is that the market is growing increasingly complex and customer needs increasingly differentiated. On the other hand, innovation is becoming increasingly difficult, because somehow everything has already been done by someone or other.

What applied design thinking in product development claims for itself is that it is based on the customers’ wishes and point of view. But sales representatives often complain that even if product development is closely integrated with sales, key elements of the sales process are not given due consideration in the design-thinking process. Still, the following questions are relevant already at the outset of the product-development phase:

  • Which distribution channels will the product ultimately use to reach the customer?
  • How can we use this product to win former customers back again?
  • How and in what respects can the product contribute to customer loyalty?
  • How do we select potential customers, and how do we intend to convince them?

Addressing them only once the finished product is “on the table” falls short and does not bear witness to customer-oriented thinking.

This is how the processes in sales and in design thinking cross-pollinate

The main problem is that sales and the results of design thinking are mutually dependent. The opportunity that this creates: If all sales issues are considered, cross-pollination already occurs at the beginning of the design-thinking process and leads to better results. Sales expertise is essential to gaining a comprehensive view and grasp of the customer’s needs; on the other hand, the results of design thinking results are essential part of the effort in the sales process to identify the potential of the product to be developed and maximize sales opportunities later on.

In this sense, product development and sales, working together, have to strategically develop the customer even during the development process, i.e. create a targeted need for the subsequent product. It goes without saying that the suggestions relating to potential customers must constantly be considered and directly incorporated into the development process.

Flexibility counts …

So sales processes have to be an integral part of design thinking, from the outset through to the product launch. At the same time, the structure of the sales organization and the working method applied have to be so flexible that customer feedback can product development at all times in the form of an input. The sales strategy, on the other hand, needs to be flexible enough that it can create customer demand for future developments. The only way to achieve this is through a high degree of agility in the sense of agile sales.

Design-thinking processes in product development: Customer-centricity and room for maneuver

Design thinking is a creative process at the end of which there is no ready-to-sell product to be found. In this sense, then, it is not a method for product development. Nevertheless, not only at the beginning but also throughout the development process, the approach also calls for a focus on the user perspective, one that delivers suggestions for the best possible UX.

The specific methods used during the various phases of design thinking phases can vary. Only the goal is clearly defined: Radical user-centricity requires awareness, throughout the process, of the unfiltered perspective and judgment of as many users as possible.

Design-thinking process: Success through radical rethinking

Ultimately, then, applying design thinking requires a radical rethinking in development culture: Even at a relatively early stage, the process requires the creation of prototypes. These are intended to permit quick, cost-effective and first-hand learning from the product. To accomplish this, management has to open itself up to a culture of experimentation and trial and error.

Errors are an important and necessary element of this process. Within the framework of an open-minded and direct error culture, the point is to quickly draw the right conclusions from these errors and make appropriate changes. This calls for quick and direct decision-making paths, agile processes, an in-house culture of trust and an open-minded approach to errors.

Outlook: Does it pay to implement the design-thinking process?

Agile work, dynamic startups and innovative digital companies are ensuring that even conservative major corporations and established SMEs are opening themselves up and feverishly searching for creative ways and means to reach their target groups, gain the loyalty of existing customers and attract new ones. Design thinking is a particularly popular approach for this, as successful application examples demonstrate.

With this in mind, the third part of our trilogy on design thinking will introduce you to use cases showing how companies have benefited from implementing the design-thinking process. Previously, in Part 1, we examined how current the approach was and offered a detailed consideration of widespread misunderstandings of the concept.

Katja Schulz
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