Design Thinking: How start-up teams and companies can become more creative and innovative – Prof. Dr. Harald von Korflesch

The March 2019 Fortune magazine features a special report on the “Design Revolution“. The central message of lead author Tim Brown is that design thinking is not only a creative, design-oriented problem-solving method for dealing innovatively with business challenges, but that it can also be applied as a blueprint to any societal challenges of our time in general. Tim Brown is President and Chief Executive Officer of the global design firm IDEO, headquartered in Silicon Valley. With his 2009 book “Change by Design,” he made a significant contribution to the spread of design thinking.

Prof. Harald von Korflesch
Prof. Dr. Harald von Korflesch, University of Koblenz-Landau

Design Thinking has now also become firmly established in fostering start-ups and in start-ups, which often become acquainted with the method as a consulting service during the start-up process and then make frequent use of it later on. In the meantime, there are also a large number of university or college Design Thinking offerings worldwide, including here at the University of Koblenz-Landau. About ten years ago, I founded the School of Entrepreneurial Design Thinking® at the Koblenz campus.

But where does design thinking come from? And what is the story behind this exciting method? Design thinking guides us to approach problem solving like designers. Design encompasses a variety of perspectives on the process and outcome of design. It is about external design but also about the (internal) expectations of functionality and usability, both of manufactured products and of services. Basically, design always consists of two phases: an analytical phase, which has its focus on searching and understanding, finding and discovering, and a synthesizing phase, which essentially consists of experimenting, inventing, innovating as well as making and producing.

In terms of a lowest common denominator, three essential building blocks of Design Thinking can be identified: action guiding principles; the Design Thinking process; the physical work environment.

The action guiding principles initially focus on the users or customers. The focus here is on approaching them as unprejudicedly and empathically as possible, for example by using empathy maps or personas, or by experiencing and questioning the target group in their working or living environment. Questioning expressed problems is a second important principle guiding action. This is because a need must first be identified in order to be able to work on the right problem in a solution-oriented way. Changes in perspective help to identify and capture the real problem. A third principle is multidisciplinary collaboration. This requires openness to different expertise, languages and approaches, the ability to disclose and clarify ambiguities, and to find constructive, integrative solutions to conflicts. A fourth principle is that of experimentation. The playful approach to new ideas and solutions, a step-by-step approach as well as trying out, checking, adapting or discarding stand for the special knowledge and learning culture behind this principle. The fifth and last principle emphasizes the necessity of illustration or visualization. Making things visible and/or tangible goes hand in hand with a corresponding explication of implicit knowledge, which is necessary in order to be able to communicate ideas and concepts.

The design thinking process, despite all the differences in the number and designations of process steps in the various models, is always multi-phase, iterative, and allows for jumps back and loops. The classic phases are understanding, observing, defining the perspective, finding ideas, developing prototypes and testing. While the first three phases are based more on the thinking and working method of diverging, the remaining three phases focus on converging. In Entrepreneurial Design Thinking®, which we practice at the ED School of the University of Koblenz-Landau, the phase of business modeling is explicitly added at the end. The questioning of developed solutions with a view to customer segments, added values, relationships, sales potentials, costs, processes and partnerships is deliberately carried out at the end in order not to impair the creativity necessary for innovations too early. Nevertheless, the result of the business modeling phase can lead to the entire process being run through again.

The third generic building block of Design Thinking is the physical working environment. This should be open and flexible, yet versatile and stimulating. This can promote creativity in teamwork in particular, as our own research studies from the ED School (see above) at the Koblenz Campus of the University of Koblenz-Landau have shown.

At the ED-School, we have chosen the term “Entrepreneurial Design Thinking®” to reflect the relevance of design thinking for entrepreneurship (and vice versa) in science and practice. This involves the conscious and explicit consideration of business opportunities for design solutions (see above). Entrepreneurs thus also become designers and vice versa. The best prerequisite on the way to innovative design-oriented goal achievement.

The application of the Entrepreneurial Design Thinking® method has the advantage of guided progress on the way to founding a company: The process is run through systematically, often several times, and the (interim) results should stand up to the reality check, especially at the interface with future customers. After all, it is precisely they who contribute the reality of needs and value-added solutions as co-designers for innovative business models. At the University of Koblenz-Landau, Koblenz Campus, Entrepreneurial Design Thinking® can be learned as part of the management-oriented degree programs offered by the Department of Computer Science, as well as in a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree program offered by our Center for Distance Learning and University Continuing Education (ZFUW).

Author: Prof. Dr. Harald von Korflesch, University of Koblenz-Landau; Copyright picture: University of Koblenz-Landau

The project partner University of Koblenz-Landau offers in November a two-part virtual design thinking (DT) workshop for startups and people interested in founding. It will be led by DT expert Dr. Isabel Creuznacher, former employee at ZIFET of the University of Koblenz-Landau and trainer for large companies worldwide for 12 years.

Dr. Isabel Creuznacher
Dr. Isabel Kreuznacher, Design Thinking expert

Isabel, what still fascinates you about design thinking today?

For me Design Thinking is a mindset and therefore it influences my way of thinking, of acting and living, if I might tell the truth. I am doing it since 12 years and in particular I realized that what I was thinking is the normal way of thinking and tackling problems indeed is the Design Thinking way only. I am working closely with non-DT colleagues since one year and from this I have had many situations where I got appraisal for what I just suggested while for me it was strange that no one else said this as this was the “normal way of doing things”.

So when you ask me what fascinates me, it is that it is my source of making money but at the same time also my source to live happier :). Why? Because being a Design Thinker means being interested in the behaviour of other people and learn from them – without validating them! So it is always the curiosity to find out why people are like they are or things and processes or working rules are what they are. It is an endless and daily discovery of things. And then, of course it is about trying out things; and if they do not work then it is not a failure but it just did not work out. Try better, try next!

During your coaching career, did you experience an innovation with a group that particularly impressed you?

I would like to mention two different things here:

One was a student project of designers. They tackled the problem that artists will never have the opportunity to demonstrate art – unless they have a big sponsor or can afford a gallery or exposition. So they developed a “vending machine” that is existing since 10 years now in Munich main train station and Munich airport and Marienplatz: artists can sell their products and themselves (products are linked with a platform) up to 30 Euros. Really helpful!

The other was a client project in bio-chemistry industry: they have spent 7 years of research to automate a process for DNA extraction. The project was a pure “design project”: How would the machine look like that then would stand in the laboratories of the different target groups…. The project was stopped as we found out in our interviews that no one of the end users wanted that process automated!!! There were trust issues etc. etc. So the project was stopped, but in consequence, the whole company now has implemented awareness sessions and the principles of going out to the customer before any research project get the go for budget.

Why should founders and people interested in founding a company take part in your workshop?

I think the participation of the workshop can be a way to find out what Design Thinking is about. And it might be a good start to experience the basic way of changing you attitude from being focused on your own ideas, taking your own opinion as the most important one and shift it to completely only be interested what the user and involved stakeholders think. To empathise deeply with people and completely focus everything you do to feed their needs – not your own ego.

Author: Kerstin Theilmann / Dr. Isabel Creuznacher, Copyright picture: Dr. Isabel Creuznacher

Design Thinking Workshop

  • Dates: Nov. 19, 2021 (9 a.m.-1 p.m.) & Nov. 22, 2021 (2-6 p.m.)
  • Venue: Zoom-Meeting
  • Registration: Click here
  • More Information: Click here