The culture of design thinking



Organizational culture is a way to describe the joint mindset of an organization’s employees. It dictates the way that they behave and expect others to behave in the workplace. An organization’s culture effectively defines the playing field or the framework that interaction takes place in. It normalizes a set of behaviors that people exhibit while at work at the very least. Foosball table or fancy coffee are nice perks but those do not create an organization’s culture.


This is of course not to suggest that everyone within an organization fit into the same mold. An organization’s culture typically reflects the dominant culture of their society, sprinkled with the interpretation that leadership gives it. However, employees show up with their own culture. We are all raised within a certain belief system that is ingrained from a young age.

In a diverse society you’ll find employees that express cultures that are not necessarily the identical to the society. For example, an immigrants family may want to maintain certain aspects of the culture from the ‘old country’ in their household.


A multi-national company may fosters many different cultures or at least different flavors of the same culture, depending on location of each office.


You may even find that there is a cultural difference between functional units because different personalities are drawn to different disciplines (for example, we all prefer people who are cautious and risk avoidant for air traffic control).

All this to say, the way that we behave at work and react to one another or for example to change, is influenced by our culture which we partly learn within the company, partly from our society and partly our closest family.


Design thinking culture


Design has been gaining influence in businesses over the past two decades and while the primary focus has moved from usability to experience design we are now seeing building evidence of the power of integrating design thinking at the strategic level. The Design Management Institute (DMI) mapped up what this means for the bottom line as the Design Value Index.


  1. 2015 dmi:Design Value Index Results and Commentary - Design Management Institute

This has made many organizations aware of the power of design and they have looked to design thinking as a way to integrate design into their business. Many have tried and have been spectacularly unsuccessful.


I would like to submit that an effort to integrate design thinking into an organization needs to start by building a solid understanding of the organizational culture.


Jon Kolko at the Austin Center for Design defines design thinking this way:

“A set of principles collectively known as design thinking — empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and tolerance for failure chief among them — is the best tool we have for creating those kinds of interactions and developing a responsive, flexible organizational culture.”

According to this, design thinking is as an organizational approach (you might even call it philosophy) that makes some bold presumptions about how organizations function.

Design thinking assumes (among other things) that:


  • People can and want to work collaboratively, across the organization.

  • People feel comfortable voicing their opinion even in presence of higher ranking co-workers.

  • Leadership is open to listening to the entire organization and their customers.

  • People are able to embrace change, ambiguity, uncertainty, experimentation and by extension, failure.


However, you cannot assume this applies in all organizations.*


Typically design thinking integration is framed as a skill training. Training in user research, journey mapping, interaction design etc. That approach completely ignores the cultural aspect and if the culture doesn’t encourage/allow for the behavior assumed by design thinking, the skills will never be take hold and there will be a continual friction between the new approach and the reigning culture.


In order to for an organization to adopt design thinking they have to be aware of the culture that it currently fosters and be prepared to not only train new skills but also to work on shifting the culture and mindset of the organization and the employees.


Understanding this is just a start. Knowing what to do about it comes next.


*I have a hunch that there are similarities between the behaviors design thinking assumes and the behaviors that agile/lean approaches assume and that would also explain some of the failures we have witnessed in implementing agile software development methodologies.