Ten Design Thinking Workshop Principles – Part 3

Follow on article from Jochen Guertler one of the Strategic Design Consultants at SAP

As described in the first and second article of this small series, I would like to describe ten Design Thinking workshop principles that have become essential for me, based on well over 200 shorter and longer formats, which I have designed and implemented in the last few years for a wide range of topics, challenges, participant groups and (business) contexts.

For me, these principles have become an orientation and guideline for every newly developed format:

  1. Start with the people
  2. Integrate the whole human being
  3. Experience comes first
  4. Conscious working
  5. Pause and reflect
  6. Step by step
  7. Endure uncertainty
  8. Perfect preparation
  9. Let go
  10. Be a role model

I do not want these principles to be understood as strict rules that have to be applied only in the described way. I see them more as an inspiration to develop your “own” principles and to integrate them in the very own and personal way in which you plan, prepare and carry out Design Thinking formats.

In the following I will describe principles 6 and 7, the last ones will follow soon in the last article of this small series.

Principle 6: Step-by-step

“People think innovation is just having a good idea but a lot of it is just moving quickly and trying a lot of things.” – Marc Zuckerberg

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” – Albert Einstein

In Design Thinking, we want to approach the best possible solution for our users in a step-by-step manner. From the very beginning, we want to test our first and often still unfinished prototypes, thereby continuously learning from the user. We want to develop solutions iteratively and work on them in short and well-planned loops that involve our users whenever possible. And we want to fail early and often to prevent us from unnecessarily investing in the “wrong” solution.

We all know these rules and best practices and that is also how they are described in the corresponding textbooks. However, as I have already described, reading about them is not enough. I always want to make them experienceable as well. Therefore, it is crucial for me to give these aspects the necessary space in my Design Thinking formats.

For these reasons, I always anticipate several iterations at the beginning of any format. Users should be provided with the opportunity to test and to give feedback. And I want to make sure that this feedback is received and processed by the participants, making its added value visible to everyone.

In two-day workshops, for example, three iterations can easily be integrated: a first, rather playful one, with the help of the Leporello. Then a second iteration that leads to first prototypes, which are then tested during the second day with real users. Their feedback can directly be integrated into a third loop at the end of the workshop.

In longer projects, I usually start with a “fast forward”, in which we go through the entire Design Thinking cycle in one or two days, even if we have several weeks left for the next steps.

This step-by-step process is not easy for the participants, as it usually means that a step can never be “perfected” before we move on to the next one: No research phase, however long, can really provide all relevant information. No synthesis can provide the final and most important findings. And no brainstorming can with certainty produce the best ideas.

In my opinion, it is never a question of taking the “right” step, but rather of taking a step at all: as quickly as possible and in a way that helps us learn something new about our topic, our question, our users and our solutions and helps us use these learnings to plan and execute the next step.

This approach, which can, of course, contradict any perfectionism or fear of mistakes that the participants have to endure on a day-to-day basis, is what I would like to experience in all formats.

By the way, that  does not only mean several iteration loops within the format, but also an explicit planning of the steps that follow the workshop. From my point of view, this planning cannot be specific enough: Who does what until when? And at that point, at the latest, it is also useful to show a realistic view of the available resources and possibilities so that it can be avoided to build up a “dreamworld”, which in most cases will dissolve into air without concrete results.

Principle 7: Endure uncertainty

“Design Thinking is different and therefore it feels different.” – Tim Brown

“Uncertainty is the essence of life and  it flues opportunities .” – Tina Seelig

I like to start my Design Thinking workshops with a slide with the popular sentence “The magic happens outside the comfort zone”. I try to prepare the participants for the fact that they will most likely leave their personal and well-known comfort zone during the next few hours or days: With the collective warmup, the crafting of prototypes, the presentation of ideas in form of a roleplay with a blond wig, or quite simply with the intensive and at the beginning often very unusual teamwork with colleagues that might be rather unknown.

The next slide shows the line “And you are not alone” and the picture of a warning sign that I took during a safari in Kenya at the Mara, the border river to Namibia, which reads “From here on,  you may only continue with a gamekeeper (because of lurking crocodiles and hippos).”

As a Design Thinking coach or moderator, I would like to take over the role of the “gamekeeper”, who guides the participants through the “dangers” of the next hours or days, and makes sure that they do not encounter any “crocodiles” or “hippos”.

The fact that some people might feel insecure, question the path or simply do not want to understand “what is going on”, is in my opinion only human and understandable. And it is my task as a Design Thinking coach to endure this uncertainty of the participants.

Just as Markus, who, as my mountain guide, gave me a hand – or better said a rope – in climbing the Island Peak in Nepal in 2015 and guided me along a 150 meters high vertical ice edge just before the summit. I was quite far outside my horizontal comfort zone and felt more than insecure about what I was doing.

Neither did Markus criticize my obvious inexperience in the mountains, nor did he try to downplay the upcoming challenge or decide to turn around and spare me all of this stress (and maybe even make it a little easier on him). But instead, I was soothed by his competence and composure. He endured my insecurity and excitement and kept motivating and supporting me throughout the whole experience. And on the summit, he congratulated me on my perseverance.

This is exactly what a good Design Thinking coach should be able to do. He should accept the participants’ uncertainty without having to constantly justify the planned (Design Thinking) path or even having to deviate from it at all. And, to stick to the example, he should not only show pictures of successful summits and talk about the feeling of standing on the very top of the mountain.

In my opinion, it is completely normal and acceptable for coaches to feel uneasy about the  participants’ uncertainty. A regular exchange with other coaches, a joint and good preparation and sufficient time for joint coaching-reflections after a workshop day, can help coaches withstand this uncertainty and thereby further develop themselves in their role.

Neil How
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Neil How

Neil ran his first SAP transformation programme in his early twenties. He spent the next 21 years working both client side and for various consultancies running numerous SAP programmes. After successfully completing over 15 full lifecycles he took a senior leadership/board position and his work moved onto creating the same success for others.

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