Design Thinking Goes SMB Midwest!

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There is a kind of misperception that Human Centered Design (aka Design Thinking) is a framework exclusively exploited in global innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley or New York. Nowhere else such fancy new ways of thinking would actually stick. Think again. Some of the main goals of Design Thinking is to introduce an alternative way of doing business, characterized by well-known buzzwords of “fast, agile, flexible, bold, and highly focused on customer needs (and not your own business needs)”. The recipe is a fairly simple combination of two key ingredients: “Simplicity rules together with careful listening”. If you do not understand what the customers truly wants and would perceive as value-add, then there is a likely chance that all your efforts of ideating, developing, and launching new products & services may be either a bit off-demand, too late, too expensive, or simply over-engineered.

The Design Thinking Framework captures this in an efficient way. Understand the problem. Solve the problem. Have sufficient pit stops with customers to validate you are on track. Allow for revisions & iterations. Find out fast. Fail fast. The figure on the right depicts the overall approach.

Break with the world of business-as-usual, and adapt to the next generation of business requirements: available anytime, anywhere, and hassle free. Connected, mobile, digital. In particular, relevant for Millennials…sounds easy. But it isn’t. Becoming agile and allowing to pivot in the midst of designing new products & services is something large corporations in particular struggle with. With thousands of employees, decades of well-established rules & processes, countless layers of hierarchies it is often a battle against windmills to introduce state-of-the-art changes (in the way of working and selling) as they are often misunderstood as cannibalism (attacking old structures and products), paired with the fact that the right hand often does not know what the left hand is doing. Not to mentioned the issue of having to fight against the power-of-habit.

To be clear, in order not to turn into a victim of Digital Darwinism, it requires way more than just cranking up the toolbox on how to overhaul the own portfolio. It is a change of mindset. A change of work culture. Ideally a change of the organization itself. It is the whole nine yards. In other words: An agile portfolio (even with best intentions) being stuck within a rigid & traditional company will create more internal friction than benefits.

This is where Design Thinking comes into play. It is more than just a framework. It is an opportunity to break down silos. To break down hierarchies. Mixed teams. It is the chance to plant the innovation seed for the years to come. And to create true synergies by using a constructive, positive collective mind to solve customer needs. Now, once an epiphany has taken place during initial workshops, who is better suited to quickly transport this excitement across the entire company and to make sure it leaves a dent behind? A company in the size range of 10-1000 employees? Or with several hundreds of thousand? Exactly!

The Detecon Innovation Institute (DII) had the pleasure & honor to be the trusted advisor and coach for several firms across the US. Method: Design Thinking. Duration: 2 full days. Challenge Area: e-commerce. Location: Midwest. Company size: SMB. Diversity: From warehouse worker to President. Mission: Better understand the needs and find solutions to build a bridge between existing old school customers and emerging new school prospects. Emotional rollercoaster: Low ride on day 1 (problem space). High ride on day 2 (solution space).

As aforementioned, companies in the SMB range are not to be underestimated. If open-minded, those firms can be like speedboats. Veni, vidi, vici… Given their size, they can quickly turn the ship around and adjust to new emerging trends as well as tapping into new areas of business / target customers. The DII team members were amazed to realize the rather low efforts to ignite the “hunger for new” among the participants of the Design Thinking workshops.

Not too surprising for the coaches (see picture), but making a huge mark with the participants, were the customer pit stops. Believed to have understood the customer’s needs, the cold shower followed when real customers were invited and shared their view of the world. Gathered insights were priceless. And the opinion of the participants what the needs of customers really are had to be adjusted. A key element of the Design Thinking exercise.

Same held true for the presentation of mock-ups and prototypes. Judgement day when customers began to refine / reject / confirm / oppose the solutions. Better fail fast at early stage instead of having invested x years of development.


Best practices and lessons learned from innovation hotspots can easily be transported to other regions. Modern times allow customers to quickly judge upon mediocre services, for instance via product rankings, social media and blogs. Capturing their views before and during development is essential. High chances for a successful digital transformation is given for companies who are not giants (SMB). They can act or react swiftly. They can transform quicker and more effectively to an agile company than large corporations can do. It might be the sense of community. A sense of family. After all, in companies of this size, most often everybody kind of knows everybody. And if topped with charismatic leadership it can create a significant sense of commitment among employees. Design Thinking as such and applied as an intensive workshop lasting for several days may act as the seed to foster a new work culture. Together. And not against each other. And with this, it touches an area where everyone is genetically preprogrammed; the herd and community instinct. Addressing these primal urges is the strongest foundation upon which one can start engaging into the digital transformation, with an eager workforce behind it.


The customer may also be an internal division. The Design Thinking framework can also be deployed to improve e.g. the operations & communications of an IT department. Hence, when Design Thinking is deployed at the frontend of business (customers & consumers), then often the term customer-centric is used. If used at the backend, then human-centered is the more appropriate terminology).

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