• Magga Dora Ragnarsdottir

Design thinking vs your corporate culture




Earlier I submitted that design thinking assumes a certain mindset. If the corporate culture does not foster this mindset, there will be a constant friction between the reigning culture and design thinking and that doesn’t bode well for the newly introduced approach.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (Often attributed to Peter Drucker)

This observation does not mean that I think only certain types of organizations can harness the transformative power of design thinking for the benefit of their business and that the rest need to look elsewhere. Not at all.


I think it is constructive to think about design thinking integration in these terms because it will help organizations reach their goals. Just like it is beneficial for a gardener to understand the soil where they want to plant, it is important for anyone that wants to fundamentally change an organization’s business to understand how the organization’s culture will receive those changes.


Armed with this realization you can better prepare for the work ahead. Or, if you are already on this path, understand the resistance you have been experiencing.


Design thinking assumes (among other things) that:


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

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

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

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


Let’s discuss these in turn.

1. Cross-organization collaboration: People can and want to work collaboratively, across the organization.


Is the purpose of your organization to provide a distinct service or product? Are the units that work together to deliver to the customer under one management? In many companies you will find that the organization has been segmented into functional units. For example, customer service is a totally separate business unit than say, product management. In these cases each unit has set up a structure to manage and help their employees reach the unit’s goals for the fiscal year. In sales it may be a certain amount of sales, in software development it may be staying within budget.


In isolation that may work just fine, but sales may rely on software development to make changes to the product so that they can close more deals. Software development can’t support that because they are committed to backlogs created by product management and can’t add additional work or else they’ll yet again be over budget.


If you find a similar situation in your company you already know that introducing a cross-functional collaborative approach to product definition is going to be an uphill battle. First you need to see if you can open up channels between the silos and align different units around a common goal: Delivering quality products and services to the customer.


2. Open communication: People feel comfortable voicing their opinion, even in presence of higher ranking co-workers.


There are many ways to stop a discussion, for example:

  • Some teams foster aggression where a look from a manager or a senior team member is enough to silence a junior member. Arrogant retorts are made to valid questions. Responses that direct the attention from the topic towards the person that made the comment.

  • Another subtle way is humor. A pun or a seemingly innocent joke is often like a spanner in the wheel for the flow of discussion. The thread is lost, and it takes a lot of perseverance or authority to swing people back.


When these and similar tactics are used, people quickly stop giving their honest opinion and just go with the flow. People may cooperate but they can’t collaborate.


If you spot these and other communication patterns that kill collaboration, work with the team to become aware of them. Identify where this pattern is coming from. Work with the people who feel threatened enough to use these tactics. A fantastic tool to give teams like these is to train them to use critique to keep the conversation constructive and on topic.


3. Organizational learning: Leadership is open to listening to the entire organization and their customers.


In the Nordic countries, we bring our egalitarian tradition to work. This manifests itself as a very flat organizational structure. People are able to speak their mind in front of leadership or approach a senior management about anything that comes to mind. This flat structure is generally pitted against a hierarchical structure that many are familiar with where communication between layers is frowned upon and the staff encouraged to “know their place” and reach out to their “immediate manager”.


The hierarchical structure — especially when strictly enforced — isolates the leadership from day-to-day activities which helps them focus on strategy. It however also isolates them from the day-to-day activities so that they lose touch with the customer base that they think they are catering to.


Think about the organization that you are working in. Does leadership welcome input from the whole organization? From customers? Can you approach leadership and introduce these concepts, nudge them in the direction of listening?


4. Failure is an opportunity: People are able to embrace change, ambiguity, uncertainty, experimentation and by extension, failure.


The fear of failure is very often the root cause of the communication problems described above. Someone who is afraid of failure can’t tolerate being contradicted. They are more focused on not losing face than delivering a high quality product. And here we are, asking them to not only approach decisions with the understanding that they are valid based on what we know now, and that is likely to change, but also to encourage them to seek out the contradicting evidence.

“The only constant is change” Heraclitus 535 BC — 475 BC

Asking people to embrace this level of ambiguity is a tall order. Ambiguity is the enemy of detailed planning. But it is the foundation of learning, of being willing to accept that we don’t know so many things and that we are constantly discovering things that influence our work and our output.


That mindset takes a lot of modeling and encouragement. Here, leadership can play a big role by discussing mistakes in these terms, by showing they are able to listen and willing to adapt based on new information.



Changing corporate culture as suggested above is non-trivial. Something that takes patience. But it can be necessary if we want to become a design lead organization.