Design thinking has often been touted as the best way to ramp up a company’s creativity and innovation. It can change your organisation to be better at listening to customers, and creating products closer to what they need or want.

I’ve worked with several clients to see the amazing things they have accomplished like shortening time to market, releasing new projects with calculated risks, and an improvement in overall teamwork. But this only happens if you apply it right.

If you’re planning to embrace design thinking, or have started the journey of aligning your business to it, how do you ensure it’s a success? There’s more to it than hosting regular workshops and tweaking a few processes. Here’s my list of the things I’ve seen that impede the design thinking transformation.

1. You’re still stuck with the old mindset.

Essentially, design thinking is creative problem solving. As such, you are required to be curious, continually explore and test different scenarios and possibilities. It’s not a linear process, it is iterative, and you’re always improving your last solution.

Furthermore, in some cases, your last solution could be the onset of a new problem. Take the case of fossil fuels and plastics. Back then, we thought they were revolutionary, didn’t we? But look at the problems we have now with pollution and climate change.

Embracing design thinking requires you to shift your mindset, from one that’s fine with any answer to one that’s willing to find the best answer. It doesn’t happen overnight, and if you have big teams, it’s going to take longer to get there. This is why you also need the right people, processes, and team organisation in place.

2. You don’t understand the importance of empathy.

If your company doesn’t thrive from customer or client feedback, you will never get design thinking past the first gear. Feedback is the crux of your innovation. It needs to be baked in the design process. Without it, you’re flying blind.

Empathy is the foundation of good design. You need to be able to put yourself in the shoes of your customers, understand their pain points, and what they need. It is an underrated skill, which can do wonders for your career, even if you are not in design.

3. You can’t stand failure.

Failure is part of the process, and you certainly won’t eliminate failures when you adopt design thinking. What design thinking does is to minimise the risk you’re taking through its iterative process and principles. You’ll be taking calculated bets instead of big gambles.

But do understand that there will be times when you will launch something that’s mediocre because, well, mistakes can be made. And that’s when design thinking helps you to go back to the drawing board to refine your product, or ask a better question to draft better solutions.

4. Your company has a pecking order.

If you have a group of people where the loudest voice always wins, it’s hard to get the best ideas out. Look at your organisation chart. Are you top heavy? Are there more people directing than doing work? Do you know where your best ideas come from? Do you know how comfortable people feel when giving ideas and voicing opinions?

It’s difficult to innovate or be creative in a stifling environment where there is constant judgement, and a hierarchy of whose ideas and opinions are more important. No number of creative strategies, innovative tools and processes can help you generate extraordinary products and solutions if you have this kind of culture. And soon, you will start losing your best talent.

5. Your teams work in their own siloes.

It’s not enough to put everyone in a room and provide them with post-its and markers. Sure, everyone brings their heads together during the meeting, but what happens after that? If everyone goes back to their desk, hardly talks to each other, and only sends update emails, then you’re not getting much value from design thinking.

Design thinking is about fostering a collaborative culture where teams from marketing, product, engineering, sales, and even customer support feel comfortable to exchange ideas, provide feedback and opinions, and work together towards a common goal.

6. Your process is messy.

You can be sure you will have a lot of data in your hands – ideas, customer feedback, proposals, notes, you name it. You’ll need to design a process and implement tools to ensure the information is available to the people who need it, they know what to do with it and can do something about it. In short, things get done efficiently.

It’s worth rethinking how your teams work, and then re-design processes and get tools that make everyone’s lives easier. If something is hard to do, there is a higher chance people won’t do it. Your job as a leader is to remove as many barriers as possible for your employees. You want people to feel empowered to contribute and make a difference.

7. There is a problem with follow-through.

I sometimes see things don’t get actioned upon due to a myriad of reasons. It could be a bottleneck process, priorities, or a general attitude. If you’re lucky, someone who is proactive will chase it up. But that’s not always the case.

Basically, you want to make sure that great ideas and resolutions are pursued, instead of dying a slow death. Note the word “pursued”. I understand there will be things like budget constraints, team capabilities and resourcing issues. But you must make sure that there is an avenue for your employees to chase up solutions and ideas.


Design thinking can certainly help you rethink your business approach, your market positioning and the products and services you offer. However, it’s not a be-all and end-all solution. Sure, plenty of big names such as Google, IBM, Toyota have created hit products from applying design thinking principles and methods, but there were also several big misses.

Remember Google Glass, Microsoft’s Zune, and Toyota Scion? Remember that there will always be factors and elements that are beyond your control such as timing, market trends and economic environment. And you won’t ever get it perfect – your processes, the people you hire, the culture you foster and the strategies you adopt. That’s not the point. The point is to continually improve yourself, your teams and organisation.

Alvin Hermanto

Alvin Hermanto

Alvin Hermanto is a design leader who is passionate about practicality, quality, and human-centred design. As founder of award winning digital design agency, Relab, his clients include leading businesses in retail, education, real estate, and hospitality. He has personally grown Relab to be one of Australia’s leading design sprint agencies. You’ll find him speaking at design sprint, business, and educational events. His mission is simple: help others build and launch products faster without compromising quality or sacrificing user satisfaction. He also thrives on mentoring small businesses and startups, getting them to simplify processes, build better businesses and create productive teams.