design thinking and innovation in corporate culture

Design Thinking: The fake Giant

design thinking reality iconstorm
Der fake giant: From a distance design thinking seems way bigger than it actually is.

Have you ever heard of Mr. Turtur? He is a character from the German children’s novel “Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver”. And he is a so-called “Scheinriese”, which means a “fake giant” if translated roughly. He looks huge from far away, but shrinks down the closer you get to him. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. Especially when big ideas emerge on the horizon, which then turn out to be illusory giants when viewed from close up.



Design thinking is currently such a supposedly big idea. While you are reading these lines, a course, workshop or seminar on this topic is guaranteed to take place somewhere on this planet. A single Google search results in hundreds of listings. Huge! Design thinking is the innovation method of the hour. But like in the case of Mr. Turtur, the subject starts to shrink down as you get closer to it. Especially if you are looking for people that witnessed successfully completed design thinking projects.


Design thinking is the innovation method of the hour. Well, supposedly…

Invention isn’t innovation, but it can be fun nevertheless

Despite the absence of well-documented success stories, almost all large companies have sent parts of the workforce through design thinking processes in one way or another: it was discussed on beanbag chairs. Postits were neatly glued to the walls, and in the end, inspired by a good feeling of creative teamwork, the results were documented enthusiastically. Show, don’t tell! Sometimes a prototype would be added – but then…?

Then, the great euphoria often subsides, enthusiasm gives way to helplessness. The end result is the certainty that even among many ideas, there is no innovation in the end. It remains a short-lived invention. But at least this form of mobilization was fun.

corporate innovation is a challenge

Be creative, now!

It happens so very often: Instead of a tedious search for the real reasons behind the lack of innovative power in the company, only the symptoms are dealt with. And design thinking is an excellent way to “achieve” this. It’s a great weapon to combat silo-thinking, a lack of creativity and frustration. And it’s so beautifully hip! It originated directly from Silicon Valley, so to speak (albeit only after 15 years).

Top management is often convinced: Design Thinking brings the desired cultural change – towards more innovation and entrepreneurship. A Change of perspective, creativity, a great group experience, and fast results! Design Thinking saves the staff and makes them faster. “Be creative now! Think about it the other way around! Move!”

Countless coaches and consultants have specialized in quickly rearranging the deck-chairs on the titanic for this task.

corporate culture

You can’t “make” culture.

Many companies can now witness the consequences. Design Thinking is introduced as an exotic process framework – and then “optimized” by the prevailing corporate culture. This works differently for the different phases of design thinking. The first phases of empathy, curiosity and divergent exploration are usually mostly neglected. Real user research on site? With real customers? Why should we, when we have our market research data?

Without proper research, the next phase of the “Define” can be dispensed with anyway. And that’s how it happens. Instead of real insights, you go into the ideation workshop with a briefing. What remains of design thinking is only the term, which in most cases is only used for ideation and sometimes even prototyping.

“Yes, we do Design Thinking, we have adapted the process just for us.” This sentence is often accompanied by claims like: “Design Doing instead of Design Thinking.” Pay attention to these terms – they are everywhere. And they are a sign of the fact that design thinking as a practical method, as an “engineering idea” is sold off senselessly. This shows how dominant corporate culture can be and how difficult it is to change it. Culture is born from conditions within a company, and it cannot be “make” by applying methods like design thinking.

Double Diamond
The “Double Diamond” identifies the phases in the creative process: Research and exploration (divergent thinking) are constantly alternating with the evaluation of ideas (convergent thinking).

Let’s remember the false giant Turtur. He shrank when you got closer to him. And design thinking seems to behave in a similar way. But the false giant had another peculiarity. Mr. Turtur really suffered because everyone was frightened of him. Nobody had the guts to go near him, even though he was a polite and friendly person. Despite all justified criticism of the current widespread design thinking practice, we should not be deceived: design thinking can harbors great potential! To release it, however, it is necessary to not focus on the method, but to investigate the effects of design thinking on the conditions within the company instead. How it promotes diversity in teams, how it helps deal with uncertainties, mistakes and failure. The degree of customer focus. Decision-making. Hierarchy. It is the large and complex topics that can be questioned with Design Thinking and then changed iteratively.


design thinking as a real solution

How to solve the problems of Design Thinking with Design Thinking

If you want to change the predominant process pattern, the dominant culture, you should start with design thinking where it is most worthwhile. Use it on itself! The search field for the first exploration is not the customer, nor is it a new technology, but the simple question of why a company seems to have problems with innovation at the moment.

Do real research: ask your management for expectations, ask your colleagues for experience, involve as many different people and departments as possible in this process. Be empathetic and ask for the “why” until they give real insights. Document and summarize the results until the real problems become visible.

This way you can create a highly motivated team that works with a strong motive to find creative solutions to these problems. You will witness Ideation workshops in which real solutions are fought for. And if you are also prepared to test these solutions as prototypes in the company, you have already achieved more with this approach than with all conceivable further training measures. You are in the midst of a change in the framework conditions and will experience the forces that design thinking can release.

If you want to change the predominant process pattern, the dominant culture, you should start with design thinking where it is most worthwhile.
Felix Guder


Design Thinking is currently used as a method to cure the symptoms of a misguided corporate culture. It is more important to examine the effect of design thinking on the framework conditions of the prevailing corporate culture.

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