The Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal

Design Thinking your culture: lessons for unleashing creativity and innovation


According to a recent analysis, companies that do business by practicing Design Thinking at the core of what they do outperform the S&P 500 by 228%. How do they achieve these extraordinary results? While it’s clear that these design-centric organizations have mastered the process, I would argue that the secret ingredient of their success lies in nurturing the values and mindset of Design Thinking. In this article I’ll explain the main tenets of the Design Thinking mindset and explore how business leaders can infuse their organizations with Design Thinking values to create an unbeatable culture of creativity and innovation.

Design Thinking: from strategic iteration to innovation

At its core, Design Thinking is an iterative problem-solving approach that puts the user at the centre of the process while leveraging the talents of a multidisciplinary team that co-creates solutions with users. Teams go through the steps of empathizing to find pain points, define needs from the point of view of the user, ideate to generate ideas, rapidly prototype to create options, test, and iterate to co-create the final outcome.

But within this seemingly straightforward process lies a series of values, mindsets, and rituals that combine to produce the magical results. Let’s have a look at three that can help your organization become more agile and innovative: empathy, leveraging multidisciplinarity, and failing fast to succeed sooner.

Empathize with users to innovate for true needs

The cornerstone of the Design Thinking process is the ability to empathize with your users. At a basic level, this means to be able to see the world through the eyes of the people for whom we are designing solutions. But it’s not just enough to see the same things, at a more fundamental level, you have to completely set aside your own assumptions and preconceived notions so that you don't just understand their issues, but also their motivations and aspirations.

To do this thoroughly, you have to immerse yourself in their context in order to engage, listening to what they say and observing what they don’t say. In this age of big data, where we may have access to billions of facts about a person’s behaviour, as Design Thinkers, we need to dig beyond the facts using intuition and emotional intelligence to make sense of users articulated and latent needs.

Leveraging the strength of your multidisciplinary teams

Design Thinking projects are always done in teams, whereby the collective intelligence of a cross-functional group is brought together through intense collaboration. The various backgrounds of group members, be it in engineering, human resources, arts, or philosophy, are gathered to bring together a range of perspectives that allows problems to be viewed from a variety of angles. Truly breakthrough solutions can be generated when the various disciplines come together to create something that didn't exist before.

For the power of multidisciplinarity to work, group members have to check their discipline at the door, i.e., be fully open to the ideas of others and be ready to embrace them completely. At the same time this requires letting go of all notions of hierarchy, whether it is someone’s corporate rank or academic discipline. Everyone on the team must be seen as equal members with equally valid ideas in the pursuit innovative solutions that meet the needs of the users.

Fail fast to succeed sooner

We are taught from an early age that failing is a mark of not being good enough and that it should be avoided at all costs. The consequence of this mindset is that very little risk is taken, stifling people’s creativity and potential for ground-breaking innovation. The Design Thinking approach takes an opposite view: failure is welcomed and encouraged. The mantra for Design Thinkers is to fail fast and fail cheap. Why? For a couple of reasons:

  • If you’re not failing at all, the most likely reason for that is that you aren’t coming up with something truly innovative, perhaps just another generic product or experience.
  • If you’re not failing, then you’re not learning. The faster you find the weaknesses in your innovation, and every innovation will have weaknesses, the faster you can improve upon the original idea.

At the same time, allowing room for failure in the organization, without punishing those who fail, creates the psychologically safe space for creativity to flourish. For a Design Thinking culture to take root, employees need to feel that imagination, experimentation, and risk-taking are positive characteristics, not fatal flaws.

To create the context for creativity and innovation to become part of the culture of an organization takes time and persistence. Add to that a little help from the secret sauce of Design Thinking values and your organization could be well on its way outperforming your rivals.

About the author

Dr. Niels Billou, a multiple award-winning international educator and consultant, is an expert on Design Thinking and innovation in a variety of contexts, including large organizations and new ventures, in both the private and social sectors. Niels has a PhD in Innovation and Entrepreneurship from the London Business School, an MBA from Ivey Business School, and a Certificate in Participant-Centred Learning from Harvard Business School. He has taught at some of the world’s premier global business schools, such as London Business School, HEC Montréal, HEC Paris, McGill, ESMT, NYU, and Ivey Business School, among others. He was part of the founding faculty of the Hasso Plattner Institute’s School of Design Thinking, helping to establish the school as one of the leading D-School’s in the world. He is also a Design Thinking coach at Factry. Niels is the Founder of The Humanos Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to marrying the mind of business with the heart of humanity to help transform the lives of people living in poor communities using Design Thinking. 

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal. As a result, the Chamber cannot be held responsible for published content.
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