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Parts without a whole: a 2015 report

Design thinking adoption in practice

This is the first large-sample survey of design thinking adoption in practice. Organizations of all sizes and from different parts of the world participated. The explorative analysis of the survey data was gauged against insights from qualitative interviews with experts, i.e. people with significant experience in design thinking. This report discloses important differences and similarities in interpreting and appropriating design thinking in organizations. It therefore points to possible sources of frequent discussion and misunderstanding. These are areas that can lead to disappointment or failure when introducing design thinking.


Key findings of the survey

• 75% of our respondents have been actively engaged with the concept for four years or less. However, a select few have had up to 35 years of experience | chapter 4.

• Design thinking is practiced in organizations of all sizes; so far, for-profit organizations use it the most. It is applied in basically all industry sectors. The Information and Communication sector has been the strongest, represented by 21.77% of our respondents | chapter 3.2.

• Design thinking enters organizations via a multitude of learning channels. People create their unique learning channel mix, which leads to different notions of what the concept is. The diversity of opinions influences practice, i.e. what design thinking becomes in the organizations. Experts criticize the circulation of shallow or incomplete notions of design thinking | chapter 4.

• There exist different understandings of and emphases on what design thinking is. Understandings develop along a range of perception viewing it as a toolbox, process, method(ology) or mindset | chapter 5. Experts emphasize that the whole is more than the sum of the parts, as it forms a system. They point to organizational shortcomings when merely applying isolated elements without an awareness for the interdependencies of mindset, principles, practices and toolsthat constitute the concept for them | chapter 10.


• A majority of organizations – 72.3% – localizes their design thinking practice in a traditional way, for example in departments or support functions such as Marketing or R&D | chapters 6.1, 6.2. Design thinking experts however believe that such a unit or consultancy model restricts its potential. They claim thatdesign thinking has to instead be set up as a cultural change program beyondteams and organizational functions | chapters 6.3, 10.2.

• Experts find that design thinking is more likely to fail if applied in an isolated manner without the rest of the organization practicing, appreciating or even being familiar with the concept | chapters 7, 8.

• Design thinking is applied to a wide array of problems. Surprisingly, customerfacing product or service innovation is often not the main area of its application. Many organizations intend for it to help with internal process improvements and matters of cultural change in teams and departments | chapter 6.4.

• 71% of our respondents report that design thinking improved their working culture on a team level | chapter 7.

• 69% of our respondents perceive the innovation process to be more efficient with design thinking | chapter 7.

• 10% stopped their officially supported design thinking activities. Reasons for discontinuation were the view of design thinking as a one-off affair, lacking management support and exhibiting deficient diffusion and implementation | chapter 8.

• Respondents perceive design thinking as hard to measure. Most do not measure it at all. The ones who do, use vaguely coherent metrics | chapter 9. This may explain why only a minority of respondents have felt any financial benefits from design thinking so far | chapter 7, their origin is simply hard to trace back. Experts therefore interweave a mix of innovation journey stories with relevant KPIs to showcase and trace back design thinking’s actual impact | chapter 9.

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What is needed

Oftentimes, management focuses on the final innovation outcome. However,design thinking is a journey: Teams or whole units change the way they work and how they approach problems along the way. Experts therefore point out that the introduction of design thinking needs to be accompanied by additional changes in leadership and innovation capabilities. These changes include executive commitment, financial support, topic-related awareness, spaceand dedicated free time. If this is not done, design thinking’s introduction may lead to unintended consequences that question existing management roles | chapter 10.2.

To summarize our insights

Much of the confusion surrounding design thinking arises from its versatile nature and consequently bewildering array of possible applications, each of which yields different experiences. This study is intended to help practitioners better localize their position and inspire thoughts on which interpretation of design thinking is needed within an individual’s specific organizational context.

Source: executive summary of the report

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