Large companies’ innovation work benefits from design thinking

​Lisa Carlgren has now defended her thesis on how companies can develop their innovation capability with the help of design thinking, a concept built on the idea of being inspired by how designers think, work, and approach problems. She has looked closely at six major international companies and interviewed employees on how they interpret the concept, how they believe design thinking is used in their own company, and how they perceive it affects the company.

– When you work with design thinking, it’s an issue of being open to unconventional ideas, not taking problems for granted and experimenting with different solutions. But it’s also about working visually with sketches and models, and actively involving clients. Learning and working on cross-functional teams is essential, Lisa explains.

She says that design thinking is often described as a “miracle cure” for companies that want to be more innovative, but there are no previous studies how it is actually used in organizations and what happens then. Together with her Chalmers colleagues Maria Elmquist and Ingo Rauth, she conducted more than 100 interviews at six major international companies.

– All the companies in the study looked at design thinking differently, and it was thus used in different ways. Sometimes it was understood as a way of thinking, a culture, as norms that could guide employees in their everyday work – but also as a concrete process or a set of tools, Lisa says.

A company with long experience in design thinking

One of the companies studied is Kaiser Permanente, a major health care provider in California that has ten years’ experience in working with design thinking as an element in their innovation work. They were also one of the first companies to work together with IDEO, a design firm in Silicon Valley that is strongly associated with design thinking.

– Ten years ago, Kaiser Permanente had no structured innovation work at all. At that point they initiated collaboration with IDEO to learn their way of working with innovation. They put together an innovation team that created an innovation process partially built on design thinking. In each project, the team investigates throroughly what needs health care staff, and patients and their families, have. Based on the insights gained from this research, they work intensively with analogies, brainstorming, building prototypes and role-playing together with a larger cross-functional group where a number of different professions are involved. Ultimately, a couple of ideas are chosen for testing – first on a small scale and then in larger experiments where the effects of the new working methods are measured. In this way, design thinking is combined with methods for continuous improvement, Lisa explains.

Unexpected positive effects

While the companies often implemented design thinking in order to become more user-oriented or to come up with more original and appealing concepts, the interviews conducted at the various companies showed that the experience of using design thinking often entailed unexpected positive effects that impact the development of innovation capabilities over the long term.

– We’re talking about personal development and learning, more motivated employees, less hierarchical ways of working– which were seen as contributing factors to making it easier to attract capable, creative employees, Lisa says.

The use of design thinking also led to increased user focus, where greater attention was paid to hidden user needs. Also, by quickly building prototypes and testing them with users, it became possible to detect bad ideas that could be discarded at an early stage.

At Kaiser Permanente, they discovered after a long time using design thinking that a number of norms and values that impeded innovation had begun to break up, such as fear of failure, and that top management gained a more nuanced picture of innovation that was more forward-looking.

– This opened up opportunities for more space and flexibility in their innovation work, which in turn paved the way for more radical solutions, Lisa says.

Creating different values in different contexts

At the same time as Lisa shows in her thesis that the use of design thinking may be one way for companies to build innovation capabilities, she argues that the innovation capabilities that a company already has affects the use of design thinking positively or negatively – and thereby the values that could be created.

She argues for an understanding of design thinking not as something that “is” or that can be measured independently of context. Instead, she has clearly seen how design thinking is formed in an organisation through use, and how it creates a specific value in that specific context.

– If you want to understand how the use of design thinking creates value, it’s important not to look at the concept in isolation, but to understand it in each context, Lisa says.


Lisa Carlgren is working at the Department of Technology Management and Economics at Chalmers. She is also active at the Center for Business Innovation. On 8 November she presented her doctoral thesis Design thinking as an enabler of innovation: Exploring the concept and its relation to building innovation capabilities with Professor Jeanne Liedtka, from University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business, as opponent.


Lisa Carlgren


Text: Caroline Örmgård

Photo: Nils Kumar

Translation: Space 360

Page manager Published: Fri 24 Apr 2015.