design thinking

Are You Listening?

It’s been mentioned time [1] and again [2] that Active Listening is a key component to exercising empathy. Further, we all know by now that empathy is a main focus of practicing Design Thinking. Despite this, we often notice that although many companies intend to practice active listening, they sadly miss the mark. We believe this miss is due to a failure in truly understanding what Active Listening means.

In lieu of this deeper understanding, companies think all they need to do in order to transform themselves from business-centric environments to human-centric ones, is to “get out of the building and talk with customers”.

They think by solely having conversations with customers regarding a new idea or prototype, then taking detailed notes about what customers like/don’t like/want, and finally turning those comments into features, they have mastered human experience design and are thus practicing design thinking. In reality, they are usually only doing part of what is needed to master the practice.

We believe talking to customers IS the way to transform an organization, but if businesses aren’t actively listening during these conversations the real value will get swept aside. Active listening is more than having an interview with a customer. It’s a practice which requires the listener to fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said [3].

In Customer Interviews practicing active listening means being fully immersed in the customer's dialogue, versus trying to solution on the fly or get the participant to answer a question the way the interviewer wants. Active listening means being quiet most of the time, and, more importantly, being fully present.

We’ve found by recording interviews, with the customer’s permission, you can accomplish this present moment awareness much more easily. In this way, you can go back later to notate, analyze, and solution, and save the time with the customer for listening actively.

Instead of companies thinking research can solve it all, we encourage them to investigate the quality of that research. We instruct them to simply be in the interview. If they forego this simple shift, how can they feel the customer’s experience? How can they practice empathy?

They can’t.

And, if they’re not practicing empathy, they certainly aren’t being human centric.


  1. RIT. Design Thinking: Empathizing to Understand the Problem. Retrieved from https://www.rit.edu/ritonline/ritx/THINK502x

  2. Common Good (2016, July 14). Practicing Active Listening & Empathy Workshop. Retried from https://medium.com/common-good/practicing-active-listening-empathy-workshop-d0895a8f3a00

  3. Wikipedia. Active Listening. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/

Selling Design Thinking To Management: Metrics to include in your pitch.

In selling the idea of Design Thinking to management, it’s often helpful to back it up with some research. However, as Jeanne Liedtka points out in Exploring The Impact of Design Thinking in Action, “rigorous academic research in scholarly management journals on the impact of the methodology on organizational outcomes remains scant, though anecdotal data is plentiful concerning its ability to improve outcomes when innovation is the goal.” 

Forrester recently did a comprehensive study of the impact of Design Thinking at IBM. We’ve found that the “numbers-heavy” results are useful in getting reluctant management teams on board. Here’s a summary:  

1. Project teams doubled design and execution speed with IBM Design Thinking. Profits from faster releases combined with reduced design, development, and maintenance costs to deliver $678K per minor project and $3.2M per major project, for $20.6M in total value. 

  • Organizations slashed the time required for initial design and alignment by 75%. The model demonstrates cost savings of $196K per minor project and $872K per major project.

  • Project teams leveraged better designs and user understanding to reduce development and testing time by at 33% This equates to cost savings of $223K per minor project and $1.1M per major project.

  • IBM’s Design Thinking practice helped projects cut design defects in half. Projects were more successful in meeting user needs, thereby reducing design defects and subsequent rework to save $77K per minor project and $153K per major project.

  • Faster time-to-market enabled increased profits from net- new customers and the higher present value of expected profits. Faster time-to-market increased profits by $182K per minor project and $1.1M per major project.

2. Human-centered design improved product outcomes, reduced the risk of costly failures, and increased portfolio profitability. Refined strategic prioritization enabled investments in solutions that were less likely to fail. Better design increased average product profits. IBM helped expand design thinking at the organization over three years to penetrate one quarter of the entire portfolio, enabling $18.6M in increased profits.

3. Cross-functional teams collaborated to share problems and find solutions, reducing costs by $9.2M in streamlined processes. 

Additionally, data from sixty survey respondents provided the following notable insights: 

  • Improved collaboration and business strategy drove increased customer experience and sales, streamlined processes, and reduced project labor.

  • 72% of IBM clients utilize design thinking in most or all teams

  • 52% of survey respondents associated IBM with design thinking

Likewise, the study details benefits hard-to-quantify, yet clearly visible, benefits:

  • Encouraged an empowered, engaged, and happy workforce.

  • Perfected internal processes for HR, sales, and beyond.

  • Enhanced KPIs such as UI, UX, CX, NPS, and brand energy.

And, finally, since management folks always appreciate a cost-benefit discussion, the interviewed organizations experienced the following risk- adjusted costs: 

  • Internal labor and IBM fees for projects totaled $6.8M, driven by distinct costs of $159K per minor project and $1.5M per major project.

  • Transformation costs reached $5M in IBM resources and internal labor.

  • Training incurred costs of $218K in IBM facilitation and internal labor.

  • Forrester’s interviews with four existing IBM clients, data from 60 survey respondents, and subsequent financial analysis found that a composite organization based on these interviewed organizations experienced benefits of $48,360,958 over three years versus costs of $12,045,247 by engaging with IBM’s Design Thinking practice, adding up to a net present value (NPV) of $36,315,711 and an ROI of 301%.

And, the of course, there is the Design Value Index (DVI), an investment tool that shows companies that integrate design thinking into corporate strategy can outpace industry peers by as much as 228%.

We’d like to hear from you!

What’s been your experience in getting management on board with Design Thinking? Are there steps or insights we didn’t mention hear that you think are important? Please let us know in the comments!


Selling Design Thinking to Management: What worked for us

Getting executives on board with design thinking can be an exercise in patience. 

Think of it as teaching a class. How would you explain to a classroom full of five year olds what design thinking is and how it can help them get more chocolate? More importantly, why this method over something else?

For starters, we like using this Venn Diagram to explain how Design Thinking fits into the larger picture of innovation in an organizations. It’s vital for management to see that you’re thinking bigger picture. 

As you narrow down to details, it’s helpful to break down the mystic barrier of Design Thinking into practical steps. There is no shortage of beautiful visuals out for you to use (here's an example). The process has its variations, but the general framework is fairly constant. 

That takes care of the what & how. 

The lynchpin is the why. Why do they need to pay attention to this method over their current mode of problem solving? In other words, what’s the benefit? 

Here are a few benefits of design thinking we've seen resonate: 

  • increase in revenue over time as products & services ideas are deeply rooted in customers’ actual (vs. speculative) needs

  • reduction in costs over time as validated product ideas are likelier to be more profitable

  • cross-functional ideation as a key component of the method brings about better ideas, eliminating homogenous group-think

  • application beyond R&D; any team can use this process to solve business (and even life) challenges and/or as team-building sessions.

  • Design Thinking improves organizational innovation outcomes by producing higher quality solutions

  • Design Thinking improves innovation outcomes by reducing the risk/visibility of failure

  • Design Thinking improves outcomes by improving the likelihood of implementation

  • Design Thinking impacts innovation outcomes by improving adaptability

  • Design Thinking impacts innovation outcomes by the creation of local capability sets

  • Design Thinking and co-creation isn’t a fad, but rather a new way for all problem solvers to put the user at the center of a problem to develop solutions from the outside in rather than the inside out.

We’ve also found it helpful to keep a regular schedule of updates flowing up the ladder for continuous buy-in. Updating executives on progress, letting them listen or view recorded user sessions is one of the most effective ways to get support. 

Selling Design Thinking to Management

“Design Thinking’ what? I can’t draw.” 

If you’ve ever tried explaining design thinking to executives, you’ve probably heard some version of this. 

Drawing abilities aside, in some ways “design thinking” is a misnomer. Although the method was born in the design world, it has long ago ceased to be the “designers” domain. And, while a lot of the tools embedded in the design thinking process come from the design world, the process itself is fundamentally a way to develop products and services in a customer-centric way. 

Yet, Here’s what usually happens today: an executive says, “wouldn’t be interesting if……?” His direct reports rummage through reams of data in expensive industry reports, or some such quantitative data source. They come back with a nice powerpoint presentation about why the idea will work (or not). Decisions get made.

Where’s the customer in all this? 

The outcome of applying design thinking has been proven through different case studies from various company sizes and industries such as Apple, Microsoft, IBM, IKEA, AirBnB, Starbucks, and others. Design thinking supplements existing quantitative methods with a qualitative approach of focused on identifying customer needs. Design thinking practitioners use data from customer conversations & observations to create validated products & services that fulfill today’s needs, anticipate future needs, and delight every day. 

No expensive industry reports required.