To reach its full potential, the popular innovation methodology must be more closely aligned with the realities and social dynamics of established businesses.

In recent years, “design thinking” has become popular in many industries as established companies have tried to apply designers’ problem-solving techniques to corporate innovation processes.1 Key elements of the design thinking methodology include fast iterations; early and frequent interaction with customers; agile process design with less hierarchy; and a learning-by-doing approach that involves building prototypes and creating mock-ups of any kind as early as possible in the process.

Here’s how design thinking initiatives are supposed to unfold in a corporate setting: A clearly defined innovation challenge is presented to a team trained in design thinking. The team conducts research to better understand the problem. Drawing on their insights, they propose a variety of solutions, start building prototypes, and in the end, identify a fresh, profitable business opportunity.

That’s how the process is supposed to work — but it hardly ever does. Over the past seven years, we have helped more than 20 companies pursue more than 50 design thinking initiatives and have found that such initiatives rarely proceed according to the textbook model. Innovation is an inherently messy process, made even messier because it conflicts in many ways with established processes, structures, and corporate cultures. Fortunately, once you understand the challenges, you can avoid the most common pitfalls.

The root of most of the problems is the disconnect between design thinking and conventional business processes. After all, most companies’ successes are built on delivering predictable products by repeatable means. That means organizations almost instinctively resist bringing fuzzy, messy, and abstract vision into the equation. This antipathy toward design thinking runs deep, all the way from the C-suite to line workers. We find that employees often try to dodge design thinking assignments, shying away from the habits and mindsets the methodology requires.

The organization of the teams themselves leads to a second difficulty. The design thinking methodology calls for egalitarian, self-organized teams, but this isn’t how most established large companies work. In fact, the design thinking teams we have studied tend to have clear process and project owners, usually senior managers. These managers not only supervise the design thinking project but also assign tasks to team members and are responsible for its outcome. To make things worse, these senior leaders often supervise 12 to 15 design thinking projects at a time.


1. Peter G. Rowe’s book “Design Thinking,” published in 1987, was the first publication to use the term. The book described a systematic approach to problem-solving used by architects and urban planners. The application of design thinking methodologies beyond architecture emerged in the 2000s; instrumental in this were works by Tim Brown and by Roger L. Martin. See P.G. Rowe, “Design Thinking” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1987); T. Brown, “Design Thinking,” Harvard Business Review 86, no. 6 (June 2008): 84-92; T. Brown, “Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation” (New York: HarperCollins, 2009); and R.L. Martin, “The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is the Next Competitive Advantage” (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press, 2009).

2. T. Kelley and D. Kelley, “Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All” (New York: Crown Business, 2013).

8 Comments On: Why Design Thinking in Business Needs a Rethink

  • M L Bhatia | September 13, 2017

    The articles are based on hard research work and provide useful insights on innovation which are very helpful to me as an academic, consultant, and author on Technology Management. My recently published book is:
    Essentials of Technology Management by M L Bhatia, New Age International Publishers (London, New Delhi, Nairobi), www.

  • M L Bhatia | September 13, 2017

    About “Why Design Thinking in Business Needs a Rethink”, I have not been able to read the full article as I had already exhausted my monthly quota of three articles. I shall attempt to read it next month and then shall be in position to offer comments unless the rule is relaxed and I am permitted to read it this month..

  • Sylvain Bureau | September 13, 2017

    Thank you for this paper which raises key issues. I share the same observations with a growing tension between the impressive diffusion of design-thinking within large corporations and limited changes in the way people work… I guess that one key challenge is also related to the language people use within companies. Language tends to remain bureaucratic and far from the language spoken by designers.

  • laure helfgott | September 13, 2017

    Very interesting, thank you!
    Re-thinking the metrics is a huge topic indeed: we are trying to evaluate non-existing ideas as we do for existing products, forgetting that intuition and inspiration mainly spring from non-productive moments, without precise objectives, and in unexpected situations … 😉

  • Martin Kupp | September 14, 2017

    Dear Sylvain, thank you for your comment. I fully agree with your observation regarding the different languages being spoken and I think that this would be a very promising avenue for further research.

  • Jörg Reckhenrich | September 14, 2017

    The article is based on an intensive and long project with a global pharmaceutical company, which has a site in Germany. The impact of cultural alignment was most insightful and crucial to the success of the project. The role of CEO acting more as a facilitator, defining a frame in which the team could develop ideas and solutions, created the difference.

  • Karl Burrow | September 19, 2017

    I agree with this article Organizations are facing a shift where lean, agile, and design thinking are intersecting within organizations to drive innovation and transformation. Innovation catalysts are key to execute this for progress. Cross functional and cross departmental team alignment is a must.

    Just had a discussion about this with Tom Kelly of IDEO in Tokyo which we touched on this in detail.

  • Richard McCracken | September 22, 2017

    Thank you for sharing a very interesting snapshot of your experience Martin, Jamie and Jorg.
    It seems to me that a large part of the difficulty lies in a general view that creativity is somehow separate and outside normal life – only ‘special’ people are creative and creativity is something to be deployed in special circumstances when ‘normal’ approaches fail – developing a new product, for example. This otherness of creativity reduces both frequency of use and effectiveness when it is unpacked for the special project. It needs to be mainstreamed and like any muscle imbedded into daily practice to operate at its peak. Everyone is creative, and these design approach can and should be used to improve existing practice, systems, daily working life and not just reserved for that ‘creative’ new project.
    Do you think case-based or similar approaches such as action research might have a part to play in normalising creativity among staff who do not think of themselves as creative?

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