Need Creativity to Grow? Try a Design Thinking Workshop

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Written by Digital Surgeons,
• 11 min read

Design thinking has received a lot of attention recently as businesses like GE, Airbnb, and Nordstrom have been reaping its benefits. It’s a process for creative problem solving that can deliver value to any business. Among its principles are a commitment to empathy, iteration, and cross functional collaboration. In fact, for full disclosure, it’s a methodology that I practice at my design and innovation firm.

But here’s a statistic that caught my eye: 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional.

Given such an alarming stat, how could any advocate of design thinking continue to evangelize about the merits of cross functional collaboration?

Well, I was not surprised…and neither should you. 75% of cross functional teams are indeed dysfunctional. But that’s because they have operated in companies with siloed divisions that have little experience working together. In such ecosystems, the manager doesn’t know how to create shared goals and values that everyone can work towards. Building a cross functional team requires an in-depth understanding of the personalities, skillsets, organizational infrastructure. This is why expert consultants are often hired to assist businesses in forming a cross functional group.  

Under the guidance of the latter, the results are impressive. When assembled by a manager with cross functional chops, success skyrockets to 76%.

Cross functional teams deliver (when built right). They have been solving deep challenges and boosting innovation for decades now. Yep, this staple of the design thinking process was even central to the creation of an iconic video game. I’m not a super big gamer, but I am a child of the 80s, and like all children of the 80s and early 90s, playing one particular video game was a virtual rite of passage: Super Mario Brothers.

What you probably don’t know is that Shigeru Miyamoto, the designer of Super Mario Brothers, who reenergized, reimagined, and altogether reinvented the concept of the video game, was an early practitioner of design thinking.   



When Miyamoto designs a game, he focuses on what the end-user wants, not on what’s trendy, not on “what’s always been done.” In the early 80s, most video games began with coding which was then followed by a story line. Miyamoto flipped the design process on its head by first creating the story and characters and then designing the game.

Even though he may not have known it, Miyamoto was very much a design thinker. He employed a human-centric approach to solve his problem of building a killer video game. Empathy for what the user wants drove his creative process. Furthermore, the video game was the result of a cross functional team. Miyamoto, an industrial designer, collaborated with technologist in designing the game instead of relying exclusively on a team of technologists to develop the product.  

Miyamoto and his team ended up building a videogame that has become a cultural artifact–a staple of pop culture.

Super Mario Brothers is just one example of how the design thinking framework leads to creative output which results in innovation.

Here’s how it works.

The 5 Pillars of Design Thinking

If you ask a 100 design thinkers what are the key pillars of design thinking, you’ll get a 101 different answers. Its a methodology for solving complex problems through observation and iteration while putting the end user’s painpoints and needs at its starting point. The design thinking process is built on five pillars:

1) Curiosity is all about harnessing our inner 5 year and embracing the curious explorer that’s inside each and everyone us. From the time we are put in a chair and presented with textbooks, the curiosity and the imagination in us gets killed. Believe it or not, to be a great design thinker, a great creative problem solver, you already have inside of you the thing that you need most–curiosity.

2) Unconventional problem solving and curiosity are the fuel of a design thinking workshop.You can’t rely on the same methods and techniques to solve all of your problems. You have to be open to using different tools that will help you discover your customers’ painpoints.  

3) Empathy means being able to understand the psychology and the situation of the person that we are designing for. Human-centered design demands that you focus on what the end user needs and wants. You achieve this by placing yourself in their shoes and thinking through their vantage point through every step of the design process.

4) Diversity in perspectives amplifies our individual creativity in a group setting. We all hear the term cross functional. What’s so great about cross functionality is the ability to draw from many different types of knowledge and backgrounds.

5) Make it real fast. Learn from your mistakes rather than obsessing about getting it right the first time. You want to build an MVP (minimum viable product) as quickly as possible. Of course you want to make a good first impression, but once you isolate the right audience, you’ll be able to deliver a prototype that gives your stakeholders an idea of what the final product will look like. At the same time, you will get the necessary client feedback to transform your MVP into a finished product.  

Now that you know the high level principles of design thinking you’re ready to see what it can do for your business.  

Design Thinking’s Strengths

I’ve been writing, practicing, and lecturing on design thinking for a while. It’s as valuable to technologists and designers as it is for CMOs who are searching for ways to focus amid a flood of data.

Companies are looking to unleash innovation and create immediate solutions to their problems. Some VP or manager orders a book or reads a white paper and believes that afterwards they deciphered the code to building a better product or service.

But whenever I see this, I’m reminded of an Albert Einstein quote:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

I couldn’t have said it better, Albert. Businesses are always in the hunt for some new framework, a holy grail, that will accelerate growth by infusing change. They hear lean startup and they want it. They learn about Agile and they quickly expect their employees to become Master Yoda’s of two week sprints.

But operational changes never happen that smoothly. For example, it took my company about 26 sprint cycles (yep, if you do the math, that’s a whole year) to truly get Agile down. Yes, we had the best trainers and the best process that money could buy.

But here’s the first rule of change —it takes time. Reading a design thinking book, purchasing a white paper, or watching a webinar will probably only give you a superficial grasp of the design thinking methodology.

While I agree that design thinking isn’t a miracle cure, I couldn’t disagree more when I hear someone say that design thinking is a failed experiment. You’ll need tons of coaching and practice (not to mention a team that is open to growing and breaking out of its comfort zone), if you want it to be effective. For example, it took Doug Dietz, and industrial engineer at General Electric who was tasked with engineering an MRI machine for children, a while to put together the right team and the right design, but eventually his design thinking guided process paid off led to incredible results. A key ingredient of his success was his ability to build a cross functional team in which each member contributed a unique skillset.

Design thinking delivers change but it’s going to take time and resources. It will create successful outcomes, but there is one big caveat:  

It will only deliver successful outcomes when properly executed.

Design thinking isn’t a magical cure for the change that many businesses crave. It demands expertise and experience to educate your employees on design thinking practices. Oversight and masterful conducting are indispensable to the design thinking process.

Cross functional teams are not the problem so much as the way they are constructed. A business can’t just put together a bunch of siloed groups, that have had minimal interactions with one another, separate budgets, and different work processes, and expect them to deliver innovation. Orchestrating a cross functional team is one part art, one part science, and all parts experience.

It took me years of working with different technologists, designers, project managers, accountants, journalists, academics, and even musicians to understand that extensive research and planning goes into constructing a cross functional team with the right balance of (open-minded) personalities, skillsets, middle and upper level managers to collaborate, brainstorm, and deliver innovative solutions (innovation).

A truly cross functional team means you have different people with different skills and different backgrounds and different knowledge sets overlapping to create contrast. This is why I brought on board a journalist and a Yale Classics PhD onto my team of designers and technologists. They bring a unique set of perspectives, especially when I’m putting together different cross functional teams.

But you must avoid setting up a cross functional group that may tend towards dysfunction and homogenous thinking. You have to strive for diversity in thought, ethnicity, and gender. The more you mix up your team the more you will allow them to come up with cool stuff.

It’s the difference that makes a difference.

What’s A Design Thinking Workshop All about?

Before you get started on a cross functional project that might last 6 months and cost your company over a $100k, consider experimenting with a design thinking workshop.

The amazing thing to see in a workshop is how they tap into your team’s creative unconscious. As design thinking pioneer David Kelley is quick to point out, we all have a curious creative inside of us but it gets beaten out of us as we grow from childhood to adulthood. Design thinking workshops are wonderful tools for building up our creative confidence. A design thinking workshop allows your inner creative to come out.

Think about the last time you went into a conference room, spent 2 hours in a meeting, and walked away feeling exhausted and like you accomplished nothing. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you might have immediately logged into Linkedin to explore job options.

In more than 5 years of practicing design thinking professionally, I have personally never seen someone walk away from a 2-hour design thinking workshop feeling uninspired after 2 hours in a design thinking workshop. They walk away invigorated, jolted out of their comfort zone but infused with creative ideas and output. The team will generate ten times the amount of quality work in a fraction of the time.

Now you see why you need design thinking?

A Fun Design Thinking Workshop Is a Productive One

Whether we realize it or not, everything is designed. Look around you: the objects in the room, your environment, the clothes on your body, and the food you are about to eat.

An effective teacher constructs a syllabus that the students connect with; a wise doctor thinks long and hard about his patients’ symptoms when constructing a diagnosis; and an innovator looks through the lens of his customers’ painpoints when constructing a product. If your starting point for a good design is me-centered instead of customer-centric then you’ll probably crash into many roadblocks unless you are your own audience (which is an entirely different story).

Design thinking works, but you have to know how to do it right. The same study that showed that 75% of cross functional teams are dysfunctional also found that when led by a manager with interdisciplinary experience, the success of cross functional teams shot up to 76%. Like any process, design thinking will fail when it’s haphazardly rolled out, poorly managed, and abysmally executed. People are complex, with complicated skillsets and even more complicated personalities. The onus is on the company to get the process right.

Trust in the design thinking process. Do it right, and it will treat you right.

Want to have a conversation about how a design thinking workshop can spark innovation in your business? Let's have a conversation.