How to Create a Culture of Design Thinking

By: Skot Carruth

Everyone wants to be innovative, but few willingly work toward a culture of raw, risk-taking creativity. Slowly but surely, that’s changing at companies like GE, Turner, and Capital One.

Capital One Labs is the self-professed “rogue” branch of the financial institution. Within its walls, employees led by design teachers and strategists construct user personas, conduct feedback sessions, and develop novel ways to service their customers.

One of the toughest lessons that Labs’ employees learn is to accept failure. Labs’ success stories, such as the Capital One Wallet app, are experiment-driven designs, crafted through repeated testing and iteration. “It has gone from tiny little thing, test it, iterate it, learned, failed, started again, fixed, kept going, failed again, fixed,” Joshua Greenough, senior director of technology innovation, told Fast Company.

Design Thinking Is Learned

How, exactly, did Capital One build a team so willing to fail in an industry that so staunchly avoids risk?

Its secret isn’t perks (though Capital One has some swanky offices); it’s a culture that embraces “what ifs” over being “right.” Companies frequently lament employees’ lack of creativity, but by punishing failure, they encourage workers to accept the status quo. Workers can’t build “creative confidence” — a term coined by authors and IDEO partners David Kelley and Tom Kelley — when managers won’t accept failure as part of the design process.

Cultural change doesn’t happen by accident. Large companies that lead in innovation invest heavily in their design cultures. Capital One acquired Adaptive Path in 2014, and since then, it has cultivated design values throughout its organization. It puts them front and center on the Capital One digital recruiting page. Also since 2014, GE has worked with “The Lean Startup” author Eric Ries to train tens of thousands of its employees to implement experiment-driven thinking across all of its business lines.

When failure-friendliness pervades a company’s culture, design can reach far beyond its typical domain of product development. Think about operations, for instance. If recruiting is slow, perhaps different processes could be researched, hypothesized, prototyped, tested, and iterated. By systematically eliminating other hypotheses, the process that recruits the best candidates most quickly can rise to the top.

Truly, all teams can take advantage of design thinking. Whether it’s restructuring an office, optimizing lead-capture forms, or even leading others, design thinking enables employees to empirically determine the best answer to their problem.

Developing a Design Culture

For design thinking to spread, however, employees must be assured that they aren’t risking their reputations or careers by coming up with new ideas. Creating a culture of design requires companies to adopt four mindsets corporate-wide:

Design Thinking

1. Failure is part of the process.
Failing faster means discovering breakthroughs sooner. That’s why at Philosophie, we operate much like Google: We appreciate team members for doing their best work, not for doing everything correctly the first time. This attitude is the fabric of our culture, and it can be yours, too.

When failures occur — and they will regularly during the design process — accept and even celebrate them. Convert skeptics by discussing a given failure’s cost savings and learnings applicable to other projects.

Doesn’t failing cost time? It does, but by “timeboxing” a project, you can set time expectations for each iteration. Timeboxing keeps projects moving forward and innovation happening by planning for fast failure. One of our clients, in particular, appreciated that we could rapidly move through ideas with resiliency and enthusiasm, all because we aren’t afraid to try something that may not work out.

Design Thinking

2. Exploration requires creative confidence.
When a parent helps his infant swim by placing the baby in a pool, the child is given creative confidence. Dad isn’t going to allow his precious youngster to drown, but he knows that swimming is experiential and instinctual. So is creativity: We’re all capable of it, but until people are encouraged to try something, they tend to play it safe.

Your role in spreading design thinking should be to pull people into the design process who have never designed before. Be their coach, but don’t do the designing for them. Instead, teach them how to solve problems practically and build their confidence. Then, put them in positions where they have no choice but to innovate.

Netflix has actually built an engineering tool called Chaos Monkey that randomly attacks one of its systems each week. Netflix’s purpose for this is to test the resiliency of its production environments. The concept has inspired us to try injecting a “Chaos Monkey” into projects that are in-flight in order to challenge the team’s assumptions and force creative thinking.

Design Thinking

3. Everyone needs to play.
Recently, we hosted a workshop for senior executives at Turner’s innovative AdLab. Normally, this meeting focuses on data sets, presentations, and advertising models. But we came in to shake things up.

We broke up the executives into teams and provided each with a real insight from the company’s own research arm. This time, though, instead of studying and discussing the insights, we pushed them to ideate and prototype solutions in a very short period of time. At the end of the workshop, each team presented its prototype.

This two-hour experiment was frankly uncomfortable for participants unaccustomed to creative play. Instead of debating topics, they were asked to become makers. Only when they opened themselves up to imagination did they rediscover their creative muscles.

You can ingrain this type of play with workshops that take people far out of their comfort zones. Introduce unfamiliar tools, including non-digital ones, as we do during our internal creative workshops. Don’t be surprised if the experience exhausts participants; those who rarely practice creative play are often surprised by the mental challenge of it.

Design Thinking

4. Making is critical.
Organizations tend to talk about metrics and strategy, which do have their place, but design thinking wins over making. Yes, it’s hard and takes time, but it’s the essence of innovation. In fact, because innovation is our business, every person we hire is a maker.

Not sure what making means for your company? Pair up with your designers or developers. Work on a problem in real time. Get a sense of all the tiny decisions that go into designing even low-fidelity, paper prototypes. Even if you can only spend a few moments together, you’ll come away with an appreciation of making’s role in not only design, but also business strategy.

Make making a regular part of your company meetings. Pose a problem, and then ask people to whiteboard, sketch, or otherwise visually showcase their ideas. Literally hand them a marker! Physically expressing ideas is part and parcel of refining and sharing them with others.

The next time you’re challenged by a problem, pause. Don’t take the lazy way out by blindly following an existing process. Give yourself the freedom to try something new, even though it may not work out. That’s design thinking, and that’s how innovation works.


Skot Carruth is the CEO and co-founder of Philosophie, a digital innovation firm with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. It helps large organizations validate and develop their promising ideas through agile design, rapid prototyping, and software craftsmanship. Whether it’s to reduce costs, explore emerging markets, or improve the customer experience, Philosophie applies a startup mentality and tool set to deliver meaningful, rapid progress.

Alongside his work at Philosophie, Skot is passionate about design and entrepreneurial education. In addition to co-authoring General Assembly’s UX design curriculum, Skot speaks regularly at the University of California, Los Angeles Anderson School of Management; American Institute of Graphic Arts; Galvanize; and various startup incubators. Skot graduated cum laude from UCLA, where he studied media and business.

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