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Implementing Design Thinking: Understanding Organizational Conditions

by Cara Wrigley, Erez Nusem, and Karla Straker

Implementing Design Thinking: Understanding Organizational Conditions
Few design interventions lead to successful long-term integration of design thinking.

Organizations aiming to drive innovation and arrive at creative solutions to their problems can find a powerful tool in design thinking, a concept that has become increasingly popular over the years. While “design” refers to the planning, creation, and implementation of ideas, “design thinking” emcompasses the mental processes designers use to identify and address stakeholder needs and challenges. The entire design process is a human-centered approach to creating solutions, utilizing a combination of empathy, creativity, and rationality.

When organizations are presented with a problem, they have the opportunity to facilitate a design intervention, or a short-term project to solve the problem through design. However, while design interventions are frequently utilized, few interventions lead to successful long-term integration of design thinking within the organization.

Such interventions still play a critical role in introducing an organization to the value of design. Ideally, repeated design interventions will lead to full implementation of design thinking in an organization. An organization that is considered to have successfully achieved design integration should see enthusiastic support of design thinking from leadership, staff appropriately qualified and knowledgeable about design, and a general culture of embracing innovation through design.

Design interventions often include a design catalyst, or a designer who translates and facilitates design strategy for all facets of the organization. Design catalysts lead design interventions, thus playing a critical role in eventual implementation of design thinking in the organization.

Even with repeated design interventions and a design catalyst in place, design integration is unlikely without specific conditions in place within the organization. Seven discrete cases were analyzed to identify the conditions necessary for design integration. Each case featured a design catalyst who aimed to implement design in their organizations. The findings highlighted four necessary conditions for design integration: strategic vision, physical facilities, cultural capital, and directives.

Strategic Vision

The organization must have long-term strategic direction focusing not only on existing operations, but also on future business horizons.

For example, in Case D, a lighting manufacturer was challenged to reevaluate its value proposition and shift its targeted customers to a more profitable base. The organization began to consider adopting design in their strategy, as the design catalyst offered two alternative perspectives on the organization’s business model and direction. However, the company was co-owned by two brothers with divergent strategic visions. The two visions were debated through the entire design intervention, until the organization split into two.

On the other hand, the vision of the organization in Case A was misaligned with how the organization was directed to act. It adopted a conservative, risk-averse strategy contradicting the organization’s grandiose vision of being “world best.”


Firms need physical spaces and resources dedicated to design initiatives. Organizations must ask themselves whether design is given adequate space and resources within the organization. Only the organizations in Cases B, C, and G allocated a space to design. The organization in Case B launched a “design hub”, communicating the organization’s commitment to the design process. The hub was in the center of the office, with glass walls to make its activities clearly visible to the rest of the staff.

In contrast, the organizations in Cases A, E, and F did not promote a physical space, so only a few catalysts carried out the work to utilize design thinking. In Case F, the design catalyst had aimed to rebrand the organization, and visually presented the customer information and insights they had gathered at the entrance of the organization. However, the general manager instructed the design catalyst to remove a design thinking graphic from a public space in the office, claiming it looked unprofessional.

Cultural Capital

An organization cannot fully implement design processes without its people understanding the value of design and being capable of practicing it. An understanding of design among employees can be built through pilot programs, usually conducted by the design catalyst.

Among the cases studied, the organization in Case E showed a lack of understanding of design thinking. The organization in this case was a window blind manufacturer that needed to respond to concerns of prior models being strangulation hazards for children. To develop a safer model, the organization needed to adopt a human-centered design approach, and rolled out with a new system of customer engagement that utilized customer concerns to co-design solutions. In tapping into customer voices, the organization differentiated its approach from prior engagement strategies simply collecting data.

The organization’s way of capturing customer insights was effective in encouraging employees to reshape their thinking in design terms. Despite this, the organization’s view of design was limited to its applications to product design. Design capability was built bottom-up from the factory floor; only the product manager was familiar with the design catalyst’s work. The organization’s inability to move design beyond manufacturing resulted in a failure to fully integrate design thinking.

In another example, the organization in Case B was able to move through all four steps of the cycle, arriving successfully at a new business model centered around design. However, because of staffing issues and the fact that design actions were carried out by a select group of individuals, soon there weren’t enough people within the organization who were able to enact design actions. Thus, the company was unable to build the necessary cultural capital to fully implement design.


The people in an organization must be mandated to practice design, and they must be held accountable to the given directives. In Case B, although a mandate to practice design was in place, the entirety of the staff was not held accountable. The mandate was limited to staff working within its “design hub”, despite other employees having received design training. When the designers in the “hub” left the organization, the remaining people lacked the capacity to carry out design—despite being mandated to do so.

Advice for Managers

The four conditions of strategic vision, physical space, cultural capital, and directives must act cooperatively in order to fully realize design thinking. For example, to develop both cultural capital and ensure the appropriate physical space, an organization can devote facilities to design training. Managers can also focus on human relationships, coaching the staff to collectively shape the organization’s goals, which will strengthen both the strategic vision and cultural capital conditions. Depending on its particular operational state, some organizations may need to focus efforts on one or two conditions.

As most design thinking projects are short term, individuals often lose sight of the long-term goal of integrating design. Organizations need multiple successful design interventions, while being conscious of its organizational conditions and their conduciveness to design. If managers establish the conditions required for design thinking, their organization can enjoy positive, long-term impact.


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