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When Design Thinking Clashes With the Existing Business Culture

Technology and Innovation
Published on:

Increasingly firms are seeking new methods to stimulate creativity in a fast-moving business climate. Many turn to design thinking — but with mixed results. New research by HEC Paris Professor Sihem BenMahmoud-Jouini and RISE Senior Researcher Lisa Carlgren sought to find out why this practice is successful for some companies and less so for others. A culture clash may be at the heart of many difficulties.

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When Ginni Rometty became CEO of IBM in 2012, she knew she had to do something different. She had to transform the business behemoth, which was struggling to keep up with rapid changes in a new digital era: She needed the mythical silver bullet that would solve IBM’s problems.

“The silver bullet, you might say, is speed” she said of that era. She turned to design thinking to transform the culture at IBM.

Design thinking attempts “to get people to think like a designer and to get empathy for the end user,” as IBM senior designer Chris Eisbach said in a 2018 video. It’s a way of problem solving in an “efficient, creative manner” that is “better for the business, better for the users.” And, according to a Forrester economic impact study conducted for IBM in 2018, design thinking reduced design time by 75 percent at the company, time to market was halved and the return on investment reached 301 percent.


At IBM in 2018, design thinking reduced design time by 75 %, time to market was halved and the return on investment reached 301 %.


But initially, design thinking was not a natural fit for an engineer-centered culture like IBM’s. And there was a culture clash with teams who used agile project development methods. In the end, the key was to hire designers and to create an adapted, scaled design-thinking methodology for IBM’s 370,000 employees.

The ups and downs of design thinking

IBM’s case is not unique. In their work, Lisa Carlgren and Sihem BenMahmoud-Jouini  have seen an increasing number of firms that have turned to design thinking when seeking a new methodology to inspire innovation. Some of these firms, within sectors such as insurance, health or high-tech companies, are not in the habit of considering design. Some have reaped benefits of using design thinking, while others have experienced problems in the implementation and results of the practice.


Some of firms, such as insurance, health or high-tech companies, are not in the habit of considering design.


The researchers’ hypothesis was that some of the problems result from a conflict of the design thinking culture with that of the organization that was trying to adopt the methodology. They therefore sought to create a comprehensive definition of design thinking culture — and to identify potential challenges associated with elements of that culture.

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Their analysis of data from 13 companies, collected over several years, and supplemented by interviews with experts, yielded eight characteristics of design thinking culture: subjective and aesthetic ways of knowing; long-term and nonlinear views on time; intrinsic motivation and sense of purpose; flexibility and change; relationship, empathy and emotions at work; collaboration and inclusion; team autonomy and informality; and external orientation.

A cultural disconnect

When compared to a traditional, data-focused approach to business, the conflicts with design thinking may be obvious. For example, in design thinking, a qualitative, ethnographic approach is at the heart of user research, based on the assumption that rich, qualitative data are a better foundation than (or complementary to) large-sample data for understanding users. Friction occurs when the subjective, human-centered insights of design thinking are difficult to square with a firm’s established rationales for objectivity based on quantitative data.


Friction occurs when the subjective, human-centered insights of design thinking are difficult to square with a firm’s established rationales for objectivity based on quantitative data.

One of the interviewees noted that design thinking data is “often very different from the type of business measures… which managers are used to. And there is no way to create these business measures early on.”

Similarly, design thinking promotes acceptance of changing goals and not knowing the outcome in advance. Challenges arise if the firm does not embrace ambiguity and considers uncertainty as a problem to avoid rather than an opportunity for exploration.

“What exactly are you going to deliver and when? We could not say,” one employee told us. “Nobody in the organization was capable of handling that ambiguity. And they tried to micromanage it, because the fear of failure was very strong.”

Fostering dialogue

Clearly, the research shows that a mismatch in values may hamper the implementation of design thinking, as well as the attainment of positive results. An implementation strategy that relies solely on training in design expertise risks failure, because successful implementation requires acceptance of design thinking’s culture and values.

To better manage the adoption of design thinking, the cultural archetype suggested can be used to create awareness and foster dialogue in order to understand and limit potential tensions. It can be used to assess and address cultural gaps that might cause friction, and uncover discrepancies between espoused values and the values actually in use in the organization.

If a cultural mismatch is ignored, the expected benefits of design thinking — illustrated by IBM’s gains in product development and ROI — may never be realized.

Key findings and Q&A with the authors:


Practical Applications

If companies want to adopt design thinking successfully, they must ask if their own culture is compatible. A definition of the cultural archetypes associated with design thinking can help in this matter. If there are areas of conflict, firms should consider, mutual adjustment of their own culture and design thinking one. An alternative strategy is to create a “microclimate” — a part of the company where design thinking could be practiced without undue conflict.


The studies are based on 13 cases of design thinking implementation in large established firms in a range of sectors (software, consumer products, food, healthcare, high tech, industry, services) located in Europe and the United States. Information was collected from 2011 to 2016. The case studies were complemented by data collected during eight workshops with design thinking experts (scholars and practitioners). In addition, secondary data, such as internal documents, memos, reports, presentations, filmed sessions and emails, were analyzed. The analysis aggregated the data into eight cultural characteristics of design thinking and linked them to challenges associated with these characteristics.
Based on an interview with Sihem BenMahmoud-Jouini and her article “When cultures collide: What can we learn from frictions in the implementation of design thinking?” (Journal of Product Innovation Management, Organizations and Society, September 2021), cowritten with Lisa Carlgren, Senior researcher at the Department Prototyping Societies of RISE Research Institutes of Sweden.

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