top of page

Strategic Design Thinking: A Flexible Pathway To Transformation

Why Strategic Design Thinking can help R&D departments in established organizations to unleash their agility.


GUEST AUTHOR: Annie Kerguenne

  • Lead of Integrated Design Thinking Strategy at Hasso Plattner Institute for Digital System Engineering gGmbH

  • Member of the Master Coach Executive Teaching Team at the HPI Academy

  • Expert in Design Thinking strategies, leading & coaching executive programs

  • Consulting HPI Start-ups in Identity-DNA development

  • More than two decades experience in creative leadership and innovation management for communication agencies and innovation hubs like DDB, FCB, Dentsu.

  • 8 years of experience in Strategic Design Thinking coaching and implementation

  • Interdisciplinary studies of Economics, Psycholinguistics and Sociology at Technical University of Damstadt, Germany.

  • Born and raised in Paris, France


Design Thinking is becoming ever more popular as strategy for managing change and digital transformation. Time to look at what it is and what its benefits are.

“It´s a method based on the common sense of an entrepreneur”

A couple of years ago Hasso Plattner was asked in an interview: What is Design Thinking first and foremost? He answered: “It´s a method based on the common sense of an entrepreneur”.

And that´s indeed the most valuable definition. For it expresses this kind of AHA-effect that we often see in the HPI courses. Expressed by reactions such as: “I did always work like this, when things went well – I did not know that THIS was Design Thinking”. Partcipants suddenly realize what the essence of Strategic Design Thinking is: “human centeredness”.

This “human centered way of thinking and collaborative doing”, forms the central starting point of Design Thinking. Its roots go back to the Bauhaus era and it’s motto “form follows function” – a radical user-oriented approach to product- and architecture conception.

Later on, in the 1990’s the innovation consultancy IDEO established the current design framework to finding solutions to any complex business problem: the well-known Design Thinking process and more importantly the definition of the basic elements of an innovator´s mindset: the DESIGN THINKING MINDSET for INNOVATION.

Today, six fundamental elements of an innovator´s mindset serve as orientation for organizations to create individual transformation and innovation strategies that can be put into action with the detailed Design Thinking method- and toolbox.

It´s within the last decade that Design Thinking has evolved to a flexible leadership strategy with customizable principles for growing an innovative culture. As such it unleashes the full potential of all three essential levels: mindset, strategic principles and methods, that that form the building blocks of an organization’s transformation strategies.

Three reasons explain why Strategic Design Thinking plays such a key role in innovation systems that are being created in companies today

1. The increasing urgency of coming up with more innovations in much faster time.

The well-known “three innovation horizons” have merged to just one – the NOW. “We don´t have the time like in the past to spend so many years in developing our products and services. Digital technology enables market entries of small and agile competitors and sometimes we realize that our clients think faster, that they are better connected and informed than we are - which is due to our existing set-in-stone processes and structures.” (Quote project manager food-company). Diverse Collaboration as a mindset that enables teamwork across sections and departments lead to more ideas in shorter time and to better ideas. Design Thinking transforms isolated single creativity by chance into a repeatable and precise innovation process that unleashes the creative potential of the whole innovation team. Product developers work together with marketing- and packaging-experts. The different layers of a complex innovation challenge are being considered in parallel by the different perspectives of respective experts. Stakeholder-needs are considered along the process in testing and co-creation and do not represent a major time backslide when coming up only at the end of a waterfall-process. Especially in the conservative food market, this diverse, multidisciplinary collaboration is being experienced as effective to capitalize the market trend towards holistic solutions that include service offers and customer relationships around the core products. With the Design Thinking, method- and toolbox, innovation labs can easily make the first steps, learn from these and and decide about aligning the processes and structures. What helps the positive dynamic is the next point:

2. A natural innovation DNA

R&D hubs have a “natural innovation DNA” that is leveraged, magnified and scaled with Design Thinking. Prototyping and testing to learn at high speed and iteration as a continuous strategy to evolve are the heart of every researcher and inventor. These core R&D principles can be made very concrete and directly implemented by easy-to-apply methods that Design Thinking offers.

Learning from experiments is the most successful strategy for creating innovation in complex context with high uncertainty dynamics and constraints. The Design Thinking process has a built-in iteration mechanism that do not just support, but demands structured learning from experimentation. Moving forward in small structured steps, making in-between-results tangible as rapid, low resolution- or aspect-prototypes, learning from user-testing and integrating those learnings in real time into the innovation process – this helps finding solutions in unknown territories. Furthermore, Design Thinking creativity methods like “analogizing”, “building on the ideas of others” or “bodystorming” help unleash the innovation skills of experts usually not involved in the specific creation process. Sales representatives, marketing assistants and the customer themselves can become feedback providers and co-creators in one person.

3. User-need based innovation: a paradigm shift

User-need based innovation provides a unique opportunity while starting at point of usage and then working along the entire user-experience chain. This as opposed the standard R&D processes. Especially in market categories with high constraints and regulation like food and healthcare, innovation usually starts within their constraint-field and doing so, reduce their opportunity field by those boundaries. Design Thinking does not ignore the constraints (there are even specific tools that use constraints as inspiration for ideas) but starts with the user needs first. Exploring the opportunity fields first and filtering the concepts with feasibility and context-restrictions later simply increases the rate of innovative solutions that work - because they answer a human need.

Last but not least: Human Centeredness - the most underestimated principle of innovation.

It is not just the source of inspiration for innovations like the Adventure Series by GE Healthcare (a MIR scanner that saves resources because they can run almost without patient-sedation) or MY MUESLI (a modular breakfast cereal concept).

Human Centeredness is a booster of innovation power in diverse collaboration because it creates a purpose that is an uncontestable reference for decisions and individual contribution: it´s not the different experts that compete for the best idea. The whole team complement their knowledge and intelligence to create multi-facetted solutions exploiting different sources of value creation about and around the product usage by human beings.

Strategic Design Thinking provides the tools to transform task-separation and diversity into goal-oriented team-intrapreneurship.

A new targeted treatment for cancer for example is conceived as a complete concept that encloses not just the medical product, but also the services for adoption and application of the multiple stakeholders in the complex healthcare system.

And as a perspective, purpose-oriented research and development work makes sure that the whole innovation potential of an organization is heading in one direction and can reach full speed by unleashing synergy effects at the different touchpoints of the user journeys.

As a quintessence, Strategic Design Thinking can help bridging the gap that a lot of companies today are facing: the missing relation between the overall organizational purpose and the daily engagement of its innovators, it’s R&D labs and its transformation processes.

This article draws heavily upon lessons learned from alumni of the Excellence Center for Professional Development at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam / Germany.



At the Hasso Plattner Institute, we teach, practice and research about Design Thinking implementation and have been doing so for more than a decade, building on the insights and experience of our sister-institute, the Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking at the Stanford University in California.

In our annual alumni conferences, we provide a platform for sharing successes, hurdles and failures when transforming organizational cultures with Design Thinking and in doing so the HPI contributes to a growing innovator-community where learning from each other is the main driver of excellence.


bottom of page