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Design Thinking

with Ulrich Weinberg, Head of 'School of Design Thinking', HPI Hasso Plattner Institute

The concept of design thinking is quite new to the management world. It claims to revolutionize the thought process and breed innovation through its D-Schools (Design Schools) of Management. A Harvard Business Review article defines design thinking as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility to match people’s needs with what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity1. In this interview with Prof. Ulrich Weinberg, director of ‘School of Design Thinking’ at HPI Hasso Plattner Institute, we explore the practical utilities and approach towards this concept.

    Concept and Scope of Design Thinking

    tejas@iimb: According to your book on design thinking, it is a 6 step process which is iterative and connected by feedback loops - understand, observe, point of view, ideate, prototype and test. How can you be sure that a particular methodology would work for all the types of innovation aspects in management2?

    UW: First of all design thinking is not just a new process. It is a combination of 3 core elements which play together and process is one of them. The other two elements are flexible space and a multidisciplinary team. If we focus on greater power of teams over greater power of individuals we can solve complex problems. Whenever we face a problem of forming a team for a project, we can either form an expert team of like-minded people with the same background or we can do it with people from different backgrounds. Our experience shows that the latter works much better. The third element is moving freely into space. The experimental environment should be very mobile so that one can fly out a lot new things. We have been quite successful with this approach. Many large companies have approached us to apply design thinking to improve their management procedures in different domains like human resources, finance, operations etc.

    tejas@iimb: What according to you is the scope of design thinking?

    UW: It was actually the question that I had in my mind when we started this institute in 2007. I wanted to find out where design thinking doesn’t work. So, we started working on projects in different fields like energy, transportation, medical, engineering etc. We also worked with small, medium and large sized companies, handicapped people, government and non-government institutions to find out where it works and where it doesn’t. We didn’t find any project where we thought we should have used another way or any other approach would have been better. Hence, we concluded so far that this concept was applicable everywhere.

    A Design Thinker’s Personality Profile

    tejas@iimb: What are the criteria of selecting students for the school founded by you? What special skills do you look for, which is not present in a traditional MBA Graduate?

    UW: We look for people who want to be creative. Not every individual tries to be innovative. At the same time we also see that a lot of people don’t actually know that they are creative. So, we try to sense if they are capable of innovating. Secondly, we also look for team-working capabilities. Often, we come across people who have been the best ranked in academics throughout their life. But, the drawback with such students is that they try to control everything. They even try to control teams according to their preferences. There is a two day of test where we invite students (applicants) in batches of 40, where we do exercise with them to find out about their team-working capability. We make them work in teams. On the second day also, we try to convey that team is important. If they are not able to understand this, we do not accept them. We generally get complaints from the academic topper type people. They question our criteria for rejection and sometimes also say, “How can you reject me? Everyone is willing to take me.” I respond that this might be the very reason that you don’t fit in here at all because you will go your way. They would rather harm than support our team structure.

    tejas@iimb: How do you form teams for a project? How do you ensure diversity? Is it essential for an individual to be an expert in his field for being part of a design team project?

    UW: We are very flexible in terms of team formation. We don’t restrict ourselves by saying that there should be a student in a group from a particular discipline; say an engineer or a marketer. We just let it flow freely. However, we take care of gender diversity by making sure that men and women are in equal numbers in a team. Soft skills also play a very important role in addition to a mixture of students from different disciplines. There shouldn’t be only leaders in a team, followers are also important. And we encourage them to switch roles. Over and above all of this, we definitely see the innovation value in a team. These teams of people don’t necessarily have to be experts in their fields. Since we are not specially looking through technology or business angle, the human perspective plays an important role. It is more of talking to people and finding out their needs.

    Innovation Drivers

    tejas@iimb: People generally think of innovation as more of a technology driven thing. It is the left brain which should be more dominant, whereas a lot of design seems to come from the other side of the brain - the more creative side. Do you actually see a different style of thinking when you are focusing on design and does it mean that there is more importance of philosophers or literature-oriented students?

    UW: When we had setup our D-School, we were even more radical than our friends at Stanford. Those guys had a better reach and good expertise in each domain and department. When we started off, we thought of leveraging the advantage of existence of many other universities close to Berlin. Initially, we had 40 students from 35 different backgrounds. Now in our 4th year, we have tripled the number of students to 120 and we have students joining us from all over the world, which we didn’t expect at all. We don’t actually differentiate the students depending upon which part of the brain dominates them. Also, I don’t agree that innovation is purely technology driven. Yes, in the past we have seen the technology dominance, but even their core was a thought. We are just trying to provoke that thought in individuals.

    tejas@iimb: As you said, many of us are inherently creative but don’t realize it. So, how do you enable people to bring out those parts of their personalities? Many scholars also believe that innovation is really a cultural thing. One can appeal to the cultural context where people start believing that they can be innovative. What is your take on culture induced innovation or leadership?

    UW: You are mentioning about innovation culture and this is what we are actually going to achieve. There are 3-4 elements that one should consider for the same. If you take care of small things in a team, like setting up of appropriate processes, choosing the right locations and atmosphere, you obviously tend to create an atmosphere with cultural innovation. This is what we are trying to convey to companies as well. Companies would not benefit much by just installing innovation departments. Every person in the company should be feeling himself/herself as an innovator. People sitting at the front desk should rethink constantly of how they can do the same task in a better way, like welcoming the guests or utilizing the entrance situation better.

    Applications of Design Thinking

    tejas@iimb: Should the Business Education be made more like Design Thinking? What is the scope of acceptance of Design Thinkers in the industry? Will they be preferred over specialized MBA?

    UW: First, I would like to tell a few things about our selection criteria. Before we conduct the two day workshop, we go through the online applications to find out T-Shaped people. Here, we ask the candidates to position themselves on a two-dimensional matrix. Analytical skills are rated on the horizontal axis and skills to interconnect with problems on vertical axis. By our experience we are able to figure it out as well. We also rely on their abilities of being a good biologist, medical student or a good designer. But at the same time they learn many new things through our processes. They learn how to talk to people, how to work in a team and how to integrate things. They learn to cooperate with each other instead of competing with one another. They learn to respect others’ thinking to the same degree as theirs. We have these classes just for 2 days/week. So, for 3 days they are still working on their specialized fields. The point that I am trying to make is that design thinking process adds to the learning of specialized fields and gives them a new dimension of thinking.

    tejas@iimb: Can you tell us of a few practical applications of design thinking, where you might have actually worked for a company to solve their management problems by using this approach?

    UW: Whichever large companies I have worked with, usually had specific innovation departments. DHL for example, has their innovation centre at Bonn. Now, they have also started to use the design thinking approach. Our students developed a special system called bring.buddy which allow the transportation of packages in inner cities of the future, where cars are not allowed any more. But the greatest hurdle is to change the mind set of people. Everyone thinks that there is an innovation centre for this job and so it is not my responsibility to innovate. We presented the design thinking model in a very interesting way to them so that they felt motivated to apply the concepts. Another example is Metro, an international retail company based in Germany, who are working with us for last 4 years. We are part of their future stores initiative. This future initiative is special as they are thinking of future sales in a way that all the other companies have not ever thought of.


    From the interview, it is quite clear that D-Schools present a very new approach towards innovation. The generic approach is applicable to all the fields and aspect of management. According to Prof. Weinberg, a set of systematic processes can bring out the innovation potential in an individual.


    Ulrich Weinberg is the director of ‘School of Design Thinking’ at HPI Hasso Plattner Institute, Potsdam, Germany. He has studied fine arts and design at the Academies of Fine Arts in Munich and Berlin. He has specialized in 3D computer animation on scientific, industrial and art projects for companies like ARD, BMW, Daimler Benz, Siemens, etc. He is also the founder of companies- Terratools and Cyparade, specializing in 3D animation, simulation and interactive 3D projects. Since 2004, he has been a visiting professor at the Communication University of China, Beijing.


    1., Last accessed August 16, 2011
    2., Last accessed August 16, 2011


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