How to keep producing lots of brilliant ideas

A conversation with the guru of design thinking

There are a lot of definitions of design thinking encountered these days – what’s yours?

Contrary to what you often read, it’s not just a method-based approach. For me, design thinking is the interplay of three elements. Method does have a role to play – albeit a non-linear one – in a people-focused approach that is greatly reliant upon intensive research and continuous prototyping. The second element is the focus on small teams that engage in this iterative way of working. They collaborate in a mixed group, which in turn works alongside other small groups to come up with solutions. And the third is the physical space, for which we have been developing our own furniture for the last ten years, as we had not found anything suitable anywhere else. All the learning, work, experience and development with regard to design thinking is supported by this dynamic trio. As we see it, when practised radically, these three elements will create the change in the workplace culture that is more and more urgently needed in the 21st century.

How does this differ from other working methods?

You move beyond the purely technical sphere and draw on social factors as well. We need to take the step that I described in my book “Network Thinking – Beyond Brockhaus Thinking”: away from traditional analogue ways of thinking and working and towards networked, digital and agile ways of working – not just in terms of but also in the way we think. In an increasingly complex world, we can no longer allow ourselves to continue solving multi-faceted problems as competing individuals. It makes much more sense to combine the expertise of individuals into something far more complex, in order to boost our solution finding competence. In this manner, it is far more likely that I will arrive at a sensible and sustainable solution than if I just looked at it from a single expert’s point of view.

Many industrial companies are finding the new ways of thinking hard to deal with …

Yes, it’s certainly a lot easier to introduce new technology than new ways of thinking. We just ran a management workshop for executives from an automobile group, and there was a lot of debate about what digitalisation actually means. As things stand now: a car consists of a metal body and an engine, a great deal of hardware and electronics and a little bit of software. The electric car of the future will be a piece of software first and foremost, with hardware assembled around it – that’s obviously a totally new way for thinking for a traditional automobile manufacturer.

What’s the difference between design thinking, Scrum, Kanban and other methods?

One difference is that we’re not just looking at the process but that we are considering the physical and virtual environments in which a process takes place to be just as important. And that we rely heavily on mixed teams – a mode that we call a team of teams mode. So not a swarm mode, but a mode that enables us to transfer the pressure of competition from a single pair of shoulders to the shoulders of a whole team. Teams work alongside each other to manage the development process.

Let’s switch to industry: Who is in charge of forging ahead with new ways of thinking in any given company?

Companies are lucky if this happens at C-Level. Let’s talk about the bigger companies, that have been going for umpteen years. Most of them have management echelons that have evolved in analogue, hierarchical cultures and are also nurturing them as well. At the same time, there is this pronounced awareness that huge changes are happening. People go on chauffeured innovation safaris in Silicon Valley and can see what’s happening but they still have blockades about taking the necessary steps themselves. Where we can often get started is with middle management, where people are already introducing innovations into companies. They see that certain steps are not being taken and that they will have to leave their jobs because they are working for a company that’s invariably heading over the edge. So they are often driving innovation forward – with backing from senior management if they’re lucky. These little germ cells are highly contagious – in a good way. They get people questioning the status quo: Is our old conference room still fit for purpose? Is the way we run projects still in line with the times? Is the way we treat employees still the right way? This requires support from management – otherwise you’re just wasting your time. But when you get the backing, cultural change can be quick to bring about.

Do companies have to tear down their existing structure if they want to implement design thinking?

You don’t always need a totally new company building but you need to get rid of a lot of the walls. Here in our new agile world, we need to say goodbye to rabbit hutch-style offices that were also all about hierarchies. Any company planning a new building shouldn’t just bring in architects and interior designers but involve employees from the outset, too, and design a building that allows plenty of variations.

What do you need in a work environment for supporting a new way of working?

We are thinking in terms of four interconnected areas. The first is a collaboration area with bar-style tables for five or six people to work at – surrounded by big white boards for visualizing things quickly. The second is the Share Space – an area with bleacher-style seating for 50 to 60 people. This is where teams present what they are working on at the end of the day and invite feedback. The third is for relaxing – a lounge area – that’s important, too. And the fourth is the so-called Make Space, with a work bench and the necessary tools – plus a 3D printer and laser cutter for building detailed prototypes. We call the four areas our We-Space. The training spaces at HPI in Potsdam have been set up solely as We-Spaces. But you also need I-spaces in a work context – places where people can be on their own.

In our experience, it takes a while for agile processes to be taken on board.

Certainly, it isn’t easy to let go of old ways of thinking and behaving. You can’t just introduce new software and change offices into one big open-plan office. You need to provide plenty of support for the transformation processes and employees need to be part of the change processes. In protected areas – “spaces of failure” as I call them – people can forge new experiences of agile ways of working – positive team experiences that will then feed into their daily work. When you experience the flow of ideas that arises here, you understand why it’s so important to not only work with words and numbers but to use drawings, objects and materials as well, and tap into team creativity. The space available for this has a major role to play. There is a big difference between being able to put a couple of bullet points up on a flipchart or having a whole wall to write on for visualising ideas together. And you need the flexibility for setting up your working environment as you want it and stating individual requirements. The furniture we have developed is on wheels and even the sofas have wheels at the HPI. All the furniture is in a corner at the start of term. After that, it’s down to the students: create the space you need! Work spaces change as the weeks go by and every term is different. Teamwork needs spaces that can breathe. Design Offices provides the same kind of dynamic working environment for companies. This made a very positive impact on me when I visited the Highlight Towers. There are various areas that I can use for the different phases of my pro­cess. This working landscape also offers new components, tools and accessories that I might not have come across before but which soon become part of everyday working life – this is valuable and provides flexibility at the same time.

Should design thinking be taught as a basic subject at schools and universities?

A series of workshops that we ran with schoolchildren showed that design thinking can already start in schools. In Potsdam we focus on training students and professionals, but one of the major tasks that we have set ourselves this year is to have a stronger presence in education – in teacher training and in schools. We have to be more agile here, too: away from the static, competitive Brockhaus world and towards a networked way of thinking and working based on collaboration and teamwork.

Professor Ulrich Weinberg
Ulrich Weinberg has been involved in innovation for 30 years, initially in the fields of film, 3D computer animation and computer games. He founded several companies and spent 13 years as a Professor teaching at the Film Academy in Babelsberg. After such a long and successful career, he decided to take a sabbatical and travel to China. But he was asked to set up the HPI School of Design Thinking there in 2007 – a challenge he couldn’t resist – luckily for graduates of nearly all disciplines who have learned to work as networked multi-disciplinary teams there. Alongside his teaching and research activity, Weinberg also wrote books that are now standard works to be recommended to anyone wanting to study the subject in more detail. Titles include “Design Thinking live” and “Network Thinking – Beyond Brockhaus Thinking”.