As we unfold the new calendar year, I’d like to begin by focusing on how leaders and their organizations and teams can be more innovative in taking on the challenges that lie ahead.   

Design guru Thomas Lockwood and I dedicated a great deal of the last two years to researching and defining the makeup and characteristics of innovative organizations. We synthesized our findings in our new book, Innovation by Design. As the result of our research, along with identifying the need for alignment, we defined the Ten Attributes that the organizations in our worldwide study group all share. In doing so, we inevitably found ourselves at the intersection of design thinking, innovation and corporate culture. Through better understanding this convergence, we also arrived at the appreciation that by changing the approach to innovation – or altering the process – the leaders of organizations can influence the mindset of their members to be more possibility-oriented in their thinking and behavior, and to act more innovatively. This insight helps us to better understand the influence of design thinking and why the attribute of design thinking at scale is as powerful as it is.

In part, for organizations to reap the benefits of design thinking at scale, it requires leaders to undertake three key strategies:

  • Train people in the use and application of design thinking.
  • Apply design thinking organization-wide for problem solving, decision making, and planning, including its application in strategic planning, product and service design, as well as process and system design, thereby ultimately maintaining a focus on and alignment to the customer and user experience.
  • Incorporate leadership role modeling in the use and support of design thinking throughout their organizations.   


Scaling Innovation

We went into our study focusing on organizations that are recognized as using design thinking as a source of innovation and business performance. What we didn’t expect was the scale at which some of the companies and organizations are applying it. Here is a snapshot of the significant numbers of people that have been trained at a few leading companies:

  • SAP has trained 20,000 employees
  • IBM has trained 50,000 employees
  • Intuit, over 10,000 employees (that’s is the entire company)
  • Kaiser, 15,000 people
  • GE Healthcare, 6,000
  • Marriott, 5,000
  • Deutche Telekom, 8,000
  • Philips, 5,000
  • Visa, 10 percent of their workforce.

This set of numbers tells a story in itself.

In some of the companies, design thinking was strategically seen as a function, a means through which to engage its membership on a larger scale. In others, we observed how design thinking spread, adding a belief in innovation and dramatically increasing its value. In some, it was approached from the top down while, in others, it started as means for which to solve a particular problem in one part of the organization and people were naturally drawn to its qualities and wanted in on the game. In still others, it was a part of human resource and organizational development strategies that were delivered through training and facilitation. What was consistent is that, regardless of how it was happening, how it was introduced, implemented, and integrated, people are drawn to participating in design thinking.

Eventually, people perceive their role in the organization as one of being a contributor to the innovative process. As a result, all three key elements of culture – participation, expertise and authenticity – are influenced. The changes become apparent in the observable shifts in behavior, that further manifest in the beliefs and values of an organization. Eventually, this changes the mindset of people and their experience, and their interpretation and mindset about the culture.

The Lessons

One big lesson is that any organization, of any size, can use design thinking as a means to influence culture and achieve greater levels of innovation. Regardless of size, the scaling through an organization, and whether it is 10 people or 300,000, the more people know about how to engage in design thinking, the greater the level of innovation. We also found that among our study group of innovators, the scale of adoption and use varied, as did the manner in which they implemented and integrated it (we include a full chapter about this in the book, Innovation by Design).

The other big lesson is the need for aligned leadership – that success requires that leaders demonstrate their commitment to design thinking and its use as the go-to creative and problem-solving process. This is accomplished through leadership’s role modeling and support of the use of design thinking throughout their organizations. When it comes to culture, leaders are responsible not only for articulating mission, vision, and strategy. They are accountable for role modeling and reinforcing the processes and behaviors of innovation. Ultimately, they are the influencers of how to use the process of design thinking to influence changes in behavior. The result is the change to an organization’s culture and the mindset of its members to think and act more innovatively. When it comes to leading an innovative culture, it’s always about alignment.


Edgar Papke and Thomas Lockwood are the authors of  Innovation By Design and founders of InnoAlignment, a consultancy dedicated to assisting leaders in designing and building cultures of innovation.

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