As described in the first article of this small series, I would like to describe ten Design Thinking workshop principles that have become essential for me, based on well over 200 shorter and longer formats, which I have designed and implemented in the last few years for a wide range of topics, challenges, participant groups and (business) contexts.

For me, these principles have become an orientation and guideline for every newly developed format:

  1. Start with the people
  2. Integrate the whole human being
  3. Experience comes first
  4. Conscious working
  5. Pause and reflect
  6. Step by step
  7. Endure uncertainty
  8. Perfect preparation
  9. Let go
  10. Be a role model

I do not want these principles to be understood as strict rules that have to be applied only in the described way. I see them more as an inspiration to develop your “own” principles and to integrate them in the very own and personal way in which you plan, prepare and carry out Design Thinking formats.

In the following I will describe principles 3 to 5, the others will follow soon in the next articles of this small series.

Principle 3: Experience comes first

“Experience is the one thing, you can’t get for nothing. “- Oscar Wilde

“The only source of knowledge is experience. ” – Albert Einstein

I remember very well my first Design Thinking training at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam in 2011: The first one and a half days us participants were “rushed” through a more “playful” Design Thinking project, without Simon Blake, who led the workshop, giving us any details on its methodological background. While I found this very exciting and inspiring, there were many critical voices from colleagues and loud discussions during the feedback rounds.

This way of learning, the “just do and experience it and then talk about what was done afterwards” was a very inspiring experience for me, which I have been trying to incorporate into my own Design Thinking formats.

Above all, the active experience is the most important part for me. Then the explanation can follow afterwards. Combined with sufficient time for the reflection of the experience, Design Thinking can be conveyed in a much more sustainable and tangible way than the conventional method of “I am going to explain how it works.”

The time-proven “Wallet Project” from the Stanford or the Design Thinking Leporello, developed by my colleagues, provide the ideal entry into any Design Thinking format. The Leporello also offers the advantage of a freely selectable question, and can thus serve as a good introduction to the actual topic of the workshop or the project.

Especially at the beginning of a format, I always try to motivate the participants to get actively involved as quickly as possible. There will not be an hour-long introduction and description of what is to come, but at most 15 minutes with the most important corner points of the agenda and a few rules for the workshop – and then: let’s go.

Of course, we start with a warmup exercise (the “line-up game” has proven successful even in the most conservative companies). And then dive directly into the first Design Thinking exercise in which the participants have to design the ideal wallet or use the Leporello to develop the perfect communication strategy for the upcoming project.

Principle 4: Conscious working

“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” – Albert Einstein

“Tell me and I will forget. Teach me and I will remember. Involve me and I will learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

As for almost everything, there are also Design Thinking “best practices” for the most diverse aspects and components. What is the best team workplace? What is the best brainstorming method? How does the synthesis work best? What is the best way to support my team as a coach? How can I make sure that every workshop day succeeds? Which post-it sticks best and how do I build the best prototypes for this or that?

Of course, the experiences of others are valuable and important, and it is certainly necessary to consider them – especially in the beginning. However, I always try to make it clear to the participants of my formats that these best practices are just recommendations from others and that they still have to collect their own experiences to really understand the respective aspect. Knowledge is not enough; only new and own experiences lead to real integration.

Nobody expects to gain the ability to surf by watching surf videos on YouTube or by reading books about surfing or surfers. For Design Thinking this is certainly also true, although, of course, learning from others can still be valuable. You should simply refrain from accepting these descriptions as “the truth” but should rather deal with them very deliberately and find out which parts of what worked for others (in another topic, another team or another company) could also work for your own topic, your own team or your own company.

Especially in those cases when Design Thinking is supposed to become part of a corporate culture or when the participants want to carry out their own Design Thinking formats as coaches or moderators, I believe it is crucial to take a conscious look at the methods to be used. This is especially important considering the fact that only a small selection of possible methods and tools can be used due to the limited time of each Design Thinking format. For instance, it would be fatal if the participants were to consider using one brainstorming method as the sole brainstorming method or even to limit the entire ideation phase to this one particular method.

To stay with this example: The participants should, instead, understand the reason for brainstorming and the goal of this phase in general. And based on that, understand why a certain method can be helpful and which methods could still be helpful in addition.

Therefore, as already mentioned in the beginning, I do not regard the principles presented here as the only means to a successful workshop, but rather as an inspiration and basis for the very creative process of designing your own tools and formats. I am really looking forward to your iterations and adjustments.

Principle 5: Pause and reflect

“In this moment, there is plenty of time. In this moment, you are just as you should be. In this moment, there is infinite possibility “- Victoria Moran

“I think self-awareness is probably the most important thing towards being a champion” – Billie Jean King

Design Thinking is, as already described, very much a matter of active doing, experiencing and trying out. Consistent adherence to the predefined and often too short working phases, the work with “unfinished” results as well as the mostly very lively and intensive teamwork support this and leave many participants tired but satisfied with the achievements at the end of a Design Thinking day.

Over time, however, I have also recognized the power and significance of the opposite of any “action”: the pause, the (silent) reflection and the seeing of “what just is”.

I know this aspect from various self-reflection and personality seminars, but it is also intensively practiced and used in other innovation and change approaches.

In “Theory U”, for example, we speak of “presencing”, a method for engaging in what is “just in the moment”. This may, for instance, be a meditation or reflection that the participants perform alone or in small groups. The focus is always on the participants’ own experiences and the question as to how all the findings and results that have been found are related to one’s own person: what they initiate in me, what I have learned from them, or what I can and must do personally to bring the “new” into the world.

I try to embed these moments of rest in all my Design Thinking formats: sometimes shorter and sometimes longer and always with an eye for the given topic and the background and expectations of the participants. To avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and discussions, I do not use terms that can be regarded as sounding too “esoteric”. For instance, I do not speak of a common meditation, but of a reflection in silence or conversation.

At the end of a Design Thinking session or before a final or feedback round, it is often recommended to give the participants a little time to “digest”. For example, each participant can use the time to answer questions in silence, like “How is all this related to me?”, “What did I learn today?”, “What would I like to do in my working day?” or “What challenges me?”.

The participants can also exchange views and opinions in groups of two or three in a “dialogue walk” and – if desired – also share their findings in a joint final round.

In our redesign YOU workshops, which focus on personal questions and challenges of the participants, I like to combine such phases with longer meditations and corresponding music. In “classic” Design Thinking workshops and projects, on the other hand, I think it is often best to keep these exercises rather basic. However, in environments that are open to experiments, it can also be tried.

The fact that topics like mindfulness and mediation have increasingly moved from the “esoteric corner” to day-to-day work, is precisely the reason why these aspects of “being”, as opposed to “doing”,  should also be given sufficient space in Design Thinking formats.

If you found this article interesting, please read also the third article of this small series.

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