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Beyond Design: Design Thinking and the Evolution of Organizational Culture

March 10, 2022 8 minute read

The last in a series of posts on the topic of Design Thinking and its impact on business innovation growth. This post looks at the role of Design Thinking in the maturing of the design-led organization, as a catalyst for cultural change and a tool for driving business strategy and innovation.

Design Thinking has been with us for more than 50 years. Its more recent popularity stems from being widely recognized as a leading approach to creative problem solving, product development, organizational restructuring and innovation. Depending on who you ask, it’s a methodology, a philosophy, a way of thinking or a culture, but what everyone agrees on is that it’s human-centred. It is a mode of design that harnesses the emotions and energies of people to reach goals and make things happen.

Design thinking champions believe it is the perfect tool for creative problem solving because it empowers non-designers to better understand their users. It requires them to challenge assumptions and see problems as opportunities and the path for developing better strategies for achieving results. Human-centric, multidisciplinary and highly collaborative, design thinking targets people as the source of intuitive insights and inventive solutions. And done right, creative service and product development, innovative strategic thinking, market leadership and competitiveness will be the result.

New technologies & customer focus

The digital age we live in is marked by profound shifts in consumer behaviour that are the result of new technologies and advances in mobile devices, e-commerce and social platforms. Design thinking has become today’s game-changer for design-led businesses of every kind because of its relentless focus on user needs – customers and employees – and inspiring teams to come up with strategies and ideas for satisfying these changing needs. With users top of mind, companies take design thinking to wherever it can go to create the products and services that customers want, so they can fully express the best of the user experience and change their business models to keep up with growing demand.

Design has rewritten the rules for creating value. “Design-thinking” companies are simply outperforming their former peers and by a wide margin. With customers and the user experience as their standard-bearers, design thinking is transforming these organizations. They are changing into more positive, optimistic environments that encourage creativity and innovation, with cultures that support employee morale and collaboration and where business performance is typically strong.

Cultural change

High-performance design-led companies are taking design to a higher level. Design has become a catalyst for cultural change, reinventing workforces and giving momentum to new business strategy and innovation. This transformation won’t happen overnight but takes time and sustained commitment to accomplish. And businesses need to be prepared for the changes that will occur as they evolve from a place of sporadic and limited design interest to the place of full engagement where they are headed.

To unlock the organization’s full potential, design has to be built into the company’s core. But the transformation will only deliver the desired results to the extent that it has adopted and embraced. In other words, companies that only go so far, using design thinking as an optional attachment, will discover their new innovative skills and the capacity for results will be evidenced in equal measure.

For the organizations that take it on board, better problem solving and value creation awaits, along with improved work culture, commitment to innovation and high-octane employees. Here’s how:

  • Creating a culture of collaboration – design thinking’s core value of collaboration positions an organizational culture to transition to these values and encourages work environments to be highly collaborative, first as a problem-solving process and then an ingrained element of culture.
  • Cultivating ideation – divergent thinking is basic to design thinking’s process for generating creative ideas and exploring multiple possible solutions. It supports ideation by embracing risk and seeing failure as a positive step in learning and cultivating curiosity as a vital step in developing the right solution.
  • Encouraging productive failure – failure is not the end; it is the beginning. Design thinking sees failure as learning, reframing mistakes as opportunities to improve and encouraging employees to take risks for the sake of innovation without fear.

A culture founded on design thinking will treasure exploration, experimentation and discovery. Employees will have a new curiosity to think big, follow their enthusiasm and leverage their natural abilities. And the company with this approach ingrained in its organizational culture will be primed for the benefits of innovation, new productivity and greater business success.

The limits of design (thinking)

For the past half-century, design thinking has been slowly maturing until the 1990s when it hit the mainstream as the design solution targeted to the large corporate market. By the end of the decade, it was widely accepted as the methodology of choice for corporate growth and renewal. At the same time, however, its success as a problem solver and catalyst for cultural renewal was offset by voices in other quarters that design thinking was not real design at all, but a methodology removed from traditional design practice.

Design thinking may well be considered a misnomer. But after more than 50 years in the making, it is more than just a fad or passing trend. As an effective problem solver and design strategy for achieving organizational renewal, it gets results. And for that, there’s every reason to believe it’s here to stay.

— Ian Chalmers, Principal and Design Director

Check out the other instalments of this three-part series — Innovation by Design, Thinking like a Designer


Ian Chalmers, RGD
Principal & Creative Director

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