Random Thoughts on Innovation and Design Thinking

Random Thoughts on Innovation and Design ThinkingI was watching the film ‘Inception’ on a long flight last week and I remembered one interesting dialogue from the film “How do you translate business strategy into emotion?”. I was not really watching as I was editing the next issue of M/I/S/C magazine, but the line caught my attention. I rewound it back and tried to make sure if I’ve heard it right. Yes. Translate business strategy into emotion!

That’s a great question and I am not sure people realize how important that question is. We’re human beings. And it is our emotion that makes us human. In business, we’re taught in business school about rational decision-making and fact-based decision making etc. etc. When it comes to design thinking and innovation, we realized how little we could apply these decision-making models. It is as much about the organizational culture as much as it is about process, framework and creativity.

The concept of organizational culture has drawn attention to the long-neglected, pretty subjective or the ‘soft’ side of organizational design. And many aspects of organizational culture, emotion and its relationship with design thinking have not received enough attention. Instead, emphasis has been placed primarily on the cultural and symbolic aspects that are relevant in an instrumental/pragmatic context. Organization culture is treated as a management tool and a instrument designed by management to shape employees’ behavior. The idea of emotion is largely ignored.

The method of identifying organizational culture characteristics that foster innovation through design thinking is an interesting one. The more visible and tangible manifestations of culture are the artifacts. These may be easy to identify and observe but difficult to decipher. Values and state-of-mind tend to remain hidden and may only reflect rationalizations or aspirations. So often design thinking values are hidden deep within an organization and there are those who should design thinking and innovation and there is nothing beyond marketing slogans.

Can you pick a piece of documentation from an organization somewhere that can elicit some tacit aspects of design thinking and innovation culture? The idea is to provide a stimulus back to the organization so that they can reflect on an interpretation that is based on their cultural framework rather than on the corporate ethnography? What stimulus is required for the corporate ethnographer to get the dialogue flowing and what is need to provide a specific context but leave enough latitude for interpretation. This was achieved by asking the team members to discuss the concrete examples of successful and less successful application of design thinking in the context of their everyday work.

Starting with data gathering and analysis, the idea is to gather data for any example of design thinking applications experienced by the team and allow the team members to talk about their experiences of application. The interviews were semi-structured and cognitive mapping techniques were used to capture the views of each participant.

The individual cognitive maps were individually validated and conflated into a single map to represent the company’s collective cognition. The single map was further validated and refined. In a parallel process each of the transcripts was analyzed and codes were produced from transcript content analysis that represented the aspects of organizational culture that influenced radical product innovation. This resulted in the clustering of codes into aggregate themes (higher level codes) that represented aspects of the design thinking culture that were collectively considered to be positively associated with the facilitation of innovative outcomes.

This type of work is still in an early stage but I believe it will be extremely useful for organization to understand how design thinking (and to what extend) is embedding in an organizational culture. Without this understands, they are talking about more design and prettier things, not more design thinking.

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Idris MooteeIdris Mootee is the CEO of idea couture, a strategic innovation and experience design firm. He is the author of four books, tens of published articles, and a frequent speaker at business conferences and executive retreats.

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Idris Mootee




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  1. Gregg Gullickson on March 31, 2011 at 9:27 am

    Idris – Interesting. The Heath Brothers’ book “Switch” devotes about one-third of their thinking to the role of emotion in change (switch). One-third is on the rational side of change and one-third is on changing the situations surrounding change. “Switch” is a very good book. Your ethnographic process is intriguing.

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