Journal

Five essential principles of design-driven organizations

Man Looking at wall of pictures at Design-driven organization

“Everyone talks about being a customer-centric and design-driven organization, but we only discuss the business perspective in meetings.”

“We do some research but only for big projects, and the questions in our customer interviews are often too leading.”

“Someone gets an idea in their head, but we don’t get the chance to do research to validate if it’s worth pursuing.”

Sound familiar? 

At Cooper Professional Education, we work with clients grappling with these issues. They want to work in a design-driven way but struggle to get traction. Often, there isn’t a shared understanding of “design thinking” in their organization to begin with. Yet our clients know they want to adopt some combination of design thinking’s core principles: empathy, collaboration, creativity, experimentation, and a holistic mindset.

In our new Journal series, we’ll unpack each of these principles and suggest concrete, actionable steps you can take to make them part of your company’s DNA and build a culture of innovation. But first, let’s break down what each principle means in a business context. 


01. Empathy: Understand people to get it right 

Empathy is the bedrock of design thinking, the seed from which good ideas sprout. And it begins with brutal honesty. 

The fact is, you are biased – toward your personal belief systems, mental models, ways of doing things, and especially your business goals. We all have bias, and it’s a major roadblock to customer satisfaction. After all, you are not your customer; your customer is not you. So who are you truly serving? 

The antidote to bias is research: gathering data about your customers, talking to them, learning what makes them tick. This information can spark completely different ideas than the ones you had envisioned before. This empathy for customers is most powerful when it’s embraced across an organization, not just by design teams. It leads to better ideas that meaningfully impact the lives of customers – and your bottom line.  

02. Collaboration: Join forces for powerful insights 

Collaboration is not a gimmick or about making people feel “included.” When you invite bright minds with diverse perspectives to the table, you get better results. You’re compelled to check your assumptions, learn new things, and look at problems through different lenses.  

Case in point: One of our Designit offices worked with an airline and led a workshop aboard an eight-hour flight from Brussels to Washington, D.C. The last 10 rows of the plane were a designated workshop space, while the rest was filled with passengers. The insights gleaned during that flight could have taken over a month to gather with a different approach. Collaboration made the process more efficient and effective.

At its best, collaboration is inclusive, respectful, and transparent – with a dash of playfulness to inspire creativity. It’s one of the best tools you have to leverage the brains across an organization and build shared understanding. 

03. Creativity: Push limits to reveal new opportunities 

When people think of creativity in the workplace, stick figure drawings and Post-it-filled workshops may come to mind. But creativity is much more complex and difficult than that. 

First, creativity is a mindset, not just a process or set of activities. It’s a way of making connections between things that might seem unrelated, whether they’re disciplines, domains, or technologies. Creativity can manifest in everything from the questions people ask to their willingness to listen to ideas that conflict with their own.  

Creativity takes courage. In a rigid and hierarchical organization, it’s especially intimidating to tell colleagues, “We’re going to explore this problem through a creative approach, and we don’t know what the outcome will be, but we’ll figure it out together.” Sharing an idea that breaks the status quo is brave. Describing it in a way that maintains credibility and inspires trust is tricky.  

The good news? Creativity is contagious, changing the way people work so that it’s not just about what you make together, but how you can transform as a team or organization in the process. 

04. Experimentation: Prototype to test and learn 

You may think of prototyping as a phase in design, but it’s really a continuous process, like research. It’s grounded in the belief that learning should never stop, that trying something new and failing fast gets us to meaningful impact faster, and that we think differently with our hands (or mouse) than we do with our heads.

Learning requires safety. People won’t stretch or experiment when they’re afraid of what their peers think, the impact on their next promotion, or their future in their organization. Therefore, signaling that “experimentation is welcome here” and aligning incentives with that statement is key. At Designit, we have a prototyping challenge centered on “trusting invisibility,” the first of many themes we’re exploring through our Futures initiative. Anyone can submit an idea for a prototype, and our community votes on finalists. The leadership selects the winning team who goes on to receive funding, travel to India, and work with a team at our parent company, Wipro, to build it.

In the optimal learning environment you feel safe enough to experiment, and you prototype quickly and often, so you can course correct or go to market fast – staying connecting to the audience you’re serving along the way.

05. Holistic mindset: Explore the bigger picture to find focus 

Have you seen Charles and Ray Eames film “Powers of Ten”? A picnic happens in a park, next to a lake, in the city of Chicago, in the country of the United States of America, on a planet called Earth, in a vast solar system…you get the idea. That’s the way of people: they contain multitudes and live within complex contexts that influence their perception of reality. It’s why the same bottle of wine tastes better in good company and worse when you’re depressed.

That’s also why you map out customer experiences. Explore the landscape in which people tackle problems you want to solve, looking at the tools they use, people and companies they interact with, and more. Then you zoom in on where you can have the biggest impact and brainstorm how you’ll improve it. You zoom back out again to make sure the experience feels unified with the whole. 

This multi-level, holistic approach to solving problems is especially tough in silo’ed organizations. When the research and development teams aren’t talking, for example, it’s hard to understand what the customer experience even is, let alone how to improve it. If the customer service and mobile experience teams aren’t connected, your customers will feel it. So, you need to look at how teams are structured, how they collaborate, and how they communicate to build a design-driven organization.


So how do you bring more empathy, creativity, collaboration, experimentation and a holistic mindset into your organization? How do you ensure these principles are adopted not just by a few designers, but by everyone, so that you get the real value of design thinking for organizational transformation? That’s where Cooper Professional Education comes in. Dive deeper with the next piece in our series, on empathy. In the meantime, check out the suite of services we provide to organizations to help them become more design-driven.

Teresa Brazen
Teresa Brazen

Teresa Brazen is the Managing Director of Cooper Professional Education.

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