How to predict the future with design thinking


“We have manufacturing lines older than most of our employees, how can we be innovative?” bemoaned an executive of a global aerosol packing company during a recent design thinking workshop.  

Opening our design thinking toolkit to address the opportunity to reinvigorate a legacy business, we begin with a divergent “Discovery” exercise to uncover decades-old patterns of, “the way we’ve always done things.” These are called “orthodoxies,” and they are often the nuts and bolts of corporate dysfunction.  

Discovery through quantity 

Our experience as design thinkers tells us that the only way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas, so in the Discovery phase we focus on the breadth of observations versus having the “right” observation. We group these ideas into clusters of similar categories. At the aerosol company’s workshop, large clusters emerged around process and product; this is not surprising for a manufacturing company.  

Clustering and gathering insights 

As the “Finance” cluster grew, one executive reshaped the cluster into a funnel to tell a story. “The Finance department is a predator at the end of the food chain using centuries-old tools, namely the balance sheet and P&L statements, to judge our company’s performance. This doesn’t make sense for today’s business if we want to be innovative.” 

Other surprising results from the Discovery phase:

  • Although the company has an internal R&D team, “Technology” was the second smallest cluster.
  • Neither “Research” nor “Innovation” occupied a single Post-it. This is telling, as we will sometimes see companies that speak highly of their innovations but it is not built into their culture or processes.
  • “People and Culture” represented the smallest cluster. Culture often emerges as a major obstacle to innovation in our design thinking workshops, because there is some incentive from above to maintain status quo within the organization.
  • Although aerosols have a massive impact on the environment and the company heavily invested in a sustainability report, “Environment” occupied only a single Post-it.

Reframing orthodoxies 

The downside of a one-day exercise is insufficient time to explore all these contradictions in detail. Instead, we split up the participants, with half engaging in a “Present, Forward” exercise, and the other half taking a 10-plus year, “Future, Back” view to reimagine the status quo. Each team chose their most pressing problem from all the Post-it notes and, using the process of Ideation, came up with a large quantity of ways to solve those problems. 

The “Present, Forward” team identified the process of quoting prices to a customer as a two-week process and a source of customer and employee frustration. The team proposed a transparent, efficient, cloud-based process to replace a legacy SAP system viewed as the bottleneck. The idea was informed by a simple, yet vivid analogy: “Our current process is like a string of Christmas lights wired in series; if one light goes out, the rest of string dies. Why can’t we wire our process in parallel?” And they were skeptical that design thinking could apply to their business! As we say, “trust the process and do the work.” 

Casting their orthodoxies aside, the “Future, Back” team began with the bold vision of a world where environmental regulations made aerosols obsolete. Comfortable with design thinking as an effective means to address a “break the business” problem, the team passionately diverged on two separate paths: complete obsolescence of aerosols and distributed filling stations based on local regulations and consumer preference. 

When business weaknesses become strengths 

As “co-creators,” we on the big team always learn alongside our clients. In this example, we learned that although the EU creates a common market for aerosols among a large number of countries, the diversity of languages required on a label’s limited surface area dictate each production run’s geographical distribution. This fact, coupled with political pressures from member countries within the EU for local job creation, led to a decentralized production infrastructure that is perceived to limit innovation within the organization. However, using “Future, Back” thinking, this feature becomes a benefit when faced with the external shock of increased environmental regulations and aerosol obsolescence. Looking back from the future, it behooved the company to maintain this decentralized model in order to prevent costly changes due to environmental regulations. 

After a day together, it is clear this organization is run by operators, focused on mitigating risk; however, without design thinkers at the leadership table, the risk of future disruption to their business is even greater.