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Using Design Thinking Successfully in Large Corporates - a CSP Project-Example

Focusing on the user, developing and testing creative ideas and making the customer happy in the end – this is the package that Design Thinking sells. It is hardly surprising then, that large corporates, which are frequently suffering from a chronic distanceritis from their customers, tend to have great expectations of this creativity method. Jumping on the hype train, we have put the method to use extensively in a CSP project. And learned a lot by doing so.

A dog focusing on a dog biscuit lying on a table in front of him

Putting the user and his individual needs in the center of attention – a key concept of Design Thinking

My first project at the Center for Strategic Projects dealt with a growth issue in connection with our TV offering. The objective was quite simple: we—Telekom, that is—wanted to achieve further growth in the TV market. My subproject team’s task was to develop a new TV product for juveniles and young adults. The product was to generate enthusiasm and prove a winner with the target group—no easy task to accomplish solely via desk research, especially as the user group was still a learning arena for us. Not to mention, they were particularly demanding and exceedingly well informed. Classical market research was not going to be enough. We would need to get up close to our young customers in order to really understand their needs and problems. As a recently certified coach of the method, I quickly realized that this was perfect terrain for Design Thinking.

Design Thinking: Remind Me Exactly What It Is

Design Thinking was in the process of becoming a hype topic at Deutsche Telekom. A creative method regarded as the new approach for solving problems and developing new ideas. What is different about Design Thinking? For a start, you don’t spend months on your own, hoping for inspiration. Instead, an interdisciplinary team collaborates intensively—and does so right in there with the customer. In brief, imagine it like this: the team takes a deep exploratory dive into the world of the user, defines from the impressions gained an in-depth user need and develops out-of-the-ordinary ideas to help the user to fulfill this need. The most promising ideas are translated into genuine prototypes that are tested on candidates from the target group. To test prototypes swiftly and inexpensively, playdough, aluminum foil or drinking straws are used more frequently than high tech. The idea is not to present a high-gloss result but to get authentic user feedback. The extremely high speed from product idea to feedback enables the team to learn fast and prevents heavy investment in what might turn out to be a lame duck. So this is classic trial and error. To summarize: focus your activity on the user and his or her needs, disregard feasibility initially, deliberately allow for mistakes to be made and iterate extensively. These are not exactly the strong points of large organizations.

A book, a pair of scissors, duct tape, pens, glue dots and post its on a table

Locking up a team for one to two weeks in order to reach a distinct, predefined goal by applying Design Thinking – the so called “Design Sprint” became a well-known approach through its application at Google

The Decision Makers Are Convinced, the Plan Has Been Drawn Up

That, or the like, was how I explained to the people involved what Design Thinking is and why the method would be so valuable for us. The key stakeholders were surprisingly easy to convince. This was my first CSP project. Could it be that I had immediate support for an unusual method that had previously been seldomly used? I was as proud as anything. Once we had buy in, the plan was soon drawn up. In five design sprints our subproject team was to have achieved its objective and designed a new TV offering for the “Young” target group. A sprint meant in our case that we were to lock ourselves in for five days at a time and work our way through the entire Design Thinking process. We would then spend two weeks each time to analyze the results and eventually present our findings to the project’s core team. The core team included the TV department’s decision makers who we had to convince.

The First Two Sprints: Euphoria

We were soon up and running as the “Young” subproject team got to grips with its first two sprints. The team quickly found its bearings with the method, uncovered user needs and grew increasingly courageous at developing ideas. We built and tested numerous prototypes with our young users. There was the occasional critical feedback along the lines of “that won’t work at all.” It was worth its weight in gold for our learning process. I remember that we all slept badly on the weekend after the sprints. Our heads span as we processed countless impressions from intensive preoccupation with our subject.

Headwind arises:  Criticism from the Core Team

Inspired by the countless findings about our young target group, we then had to present our results to the core team. They didn’t entirely share our euphoria. We were congratulated on what we had learned and on our customer-focused approach, but then, the critical questions came. Could we prove our results quantitatively? Which of the prototypes tested would “fly” now? Why had we not tested this or that? They felt sure that it would be the hit. Our answers at the time had to be either “No” or “We don’t know yet.” Unsurprisingly, that led to some dissatisfaction and uncertainty among the core team. That uncertainty spread to our Sprint team. We began to doubt whether we would ever find the “next big thing”. And to wonder whether the method might have been a mistake. Whether it would have been better to commission market research instead. At that point I too, to be honest, was really worried—and no longer, by any stretch of the imagination, as pleased as Punch.

A human hand walking with two fingers in miniature shoes

Design Thinking allows us “to walk in our customers‘ shoes”. However, that doesn’t make it a guarantee for commercial success

After Further Sprints: The Realization

After the third sprint we took time to reflect on the project target, the method and the sprint team’s results. And concluded that it wasn’t the method that was at fault. We all believed irrevocably in what we had found out about our target group by means of Design Thinking. We had seen it with our own eyes and tested it. In our view it was more due to the objective and to the expectations that went with it. Everyone obviously wants to come up with “the next big thing” all of a sudden that bowls the target group over. We even had initial ideas on product approaches that might head in that direction. But we had serious doubts about the implementability of these ideas. The technical, legal and financial hurdles would have been simply too high. After the last sprint, we were clear that there was no single “big thing” we could deliver at short notice and with the resources at our disposal to wow the target group. What we recommended instead was a bouquet of smaller measures and improvements. After some persuasion and testing of alternative product approaches that were pulled out of the drawer, the core team finally came to share our view.

Avoid Stumbling Blocks – Five Tips for Using Design Thinking Successfully in Large Corporates

We and the core team were eventually satisfied with the result, but the road was not always easy going. Some things I would have preferred to have known beforehand and have dealt with them differently. I recommend the following five points to anyone who would like to use the method in a project within a large corporate:

1. Go for Expectation Management

Design Thinking doesn’t guarantee success like a one-armed bandit that coughs up “the next big thing.” The core of the method is to understand the user and his wishes in depth and offer him something that solves his problem. Make that clear to the decision makers at an early stage and ensure that they accept this uncertainty of outcome. You will then avoid difficulty in explaining things and constantly having to justify your work.

2. Include Key Stakeholders in the Design Thinking Process

I cannot emphasize enough how important this point is for gaining acceptance of the method and of your results. Invite key stakeholders to take part in your sprints, especially to testing the prototypes with users. No matter whether the feedback is devastatingly negative or genuinely enthusiastic, experiencing it at first hand will transform potential critics into convinced supporters of your results when the need arises. Unvarnished original face-to-face comments have an effect that differs totally from the polished phrases of a market research agency.

3. Plan an Early Reality Check

To begin with, the focus is for a very long time on the user and his needs, and that is the meaning and purpose of the method. But sooner or later there is a tough reality check. “How do we now progress from our colorful prototypes to a real product? Is the market large enough? Is the product technically feasible? And at what cost? Are there any legal obstacles?” And much more. So give thought at an early stage to when and how you want to approach these issues and be sure to inform the key stakeholders. That will create understanding for your approach and generate the stakeholder trust that you need in order to produce results in peace and quiet. Here is a schematic description (jpg, 170,5 KB) of how we planned our focus across our five sprints.

4. Use the Assistance of an Experienced Coach

You may be officially certified and you may have initial experience as a Design Thinking coach, but using the assistance of another, experienced coach for operational support and as a valuable sparring partner is well worthwhile. Preparing, carrying out and following up good sprints is very time-intensive. Time that you may end up by not having in order to pursue sound stakeholder management alongside the sprints. And that is at least as important as good sprint planning for the success of the method.

5. Release the Team from Other Duties So They Can Concentrate

During a sprint, the team must be able to concentrate fully on the task at hand and on the user. Full-time. Meetings and calls are a distraction. And repeatedly lead to individual team members, who are called away for a while, needing to be briefed on the team’s level of understanding. In return involve the team only in selected aspects of sprint follow-up and preparation so that they have time for other tasks. Holding the sprints at premises outside of the everyday context was a great success. It establishes a distance from the daily routine and helps to free up team members’ minds for new ideas. It also provides an opportunity to influence the physical workspace for Design Thinking—another important point for ensuring successful use of the method.

Design Thinking in the Group – To Be Recommended in Retrospect?

In the end, we may not have found the Holy Grail for TV for the “Young” target group. Nevertheless, I felt that the use of Design Thinking enriched the project incredibly. The approach welded the team together and enabled us to learn so much about our young users as few other methods would have allowed us to do. And that is exactly what we need more of in large corporates: a focus on and interaction with real customers. I am not the first to say that, of course, and it’s not rocket science either. Yet we still tend to focus much too much on ourselves. We take notice of the customers only in statistics or in market research evaluations. Design Thinking has enabled us to change just that.

Are you planning a Design Thinking project and do you have any queries? Feel free to contact me by using the comment function or via LinkedIn.