The Principles, Practices and Applications of Enterprise Design Thinking


At a high level, design thinking is a process used for creative problem-solving and has the power to promote innovation. A design thinking approach (made up of 5 steps) is based on the belief that the end-user should be at the core of all decision-making. This human-centric lens is necessary for business – successful enterprises go beyond thinking about just the product or service itself, and instead serve their end customer by providing a solution to their wants and needs. Enterprise design thinking provides a variety of benefits necessary for businesses to succeed in today’s complex, modern environment.

Applying enterprise design thinking principles and practices can result in faster innovation and an ability to stay ahead of the competition and minimize uncertainty and risk. According to research by Forrester, teams that apply Enterprise Design Thinking are 75% more efficient and can deliver products to market almost twice as fast. Read on to learn more about the enterprise design thinking framework, and how to successfully apply it within your organization. 

What is Enterprise Design Thinking? 

Enterprise design thinking is an approach originally developed and utilized at IBM to apply design thinking at the speed and scale of a modern enterprise, built to result in innovation and brand differentiation. It is now widely used by many organizations and companies, across various sectors and teams. IBM created this framework specifically to help diverse teams collaborate on larger enterprise-level projects, with a focus on user outcomes. Similar to traditional design thinking, enterprise design thinking is an iterative process and involves understanding, exploring, prototyping, and validating ideas with users. 

Enterprise design thinking is rooted in three principles (a focus on user outcomes, restless reinvention, and diverse empowered teams) and adds three core practices to traditional approaches: hills, playbacks, and sponsor users. Utilizing enterprise design thinking can help your team and organization generate ideas faster, design, evaluate and test them faster, and develop code for them faster. Arguably, the most important benefit is delivering value to your end customer faster. 

Enterprise Design Thinking Principles

To paint a clear picture of how to incorporate enterprise design thinking principles in your organization, we’ll reference IBM’s approach. In its course on enterprise design thinking, the company encourages organizations to ask themselves the following questions:

  • How do we better understand our users? 
  • How do we deliver breakthrough solutions that fulfill our users’ needs? 
  • How do we do this at enterprise speed and scale? 

Enterprise design thinking helps teams get to the root of these questions, beginning with a set of principles. These three principles provide the groundwork for creating solutions that meet and/or exceed your end users’ expectations. 

The IBM model of Enterprise Design Thinking is focused on three major principles:

Source: IBM’s Enterprise Design Thinking Framework

1. A focus on user outcomes

Enterprise design thinking, similar to traditional design thinking, puts the focus on users’ needs first. This includes creating user personas that define who the users are, the problems they face, and how their experiences can be improved. Business problems (i.e. revenue or customer retention) must be looked at through a new lens, with a focus on the user problems that lead to or result in those problems. 

“When we shift the conversation from one about features and functions to one about users and user outcomes, we deliver more useful, usable, and desirable solutions.” – IBM Enterprise Design Thinking

2. Restless reinvention

Restless reinvention means rapid prototyping to validate ideas quickly. This includes developing products for users more quickly, listening to their feedback, learning from it, and course-correcting.

“Being essential to your users and clients over time is about engaging in a continuous conversation with them through the solutions you offer. As you iterate on the next generation of offerings, stay true to the fundamental human need you’re solving, and stay in touch with the evolving context it inhabits.” – IBM Enterprise Design Thinking

3. Diverse empowered teams

Working with diverse teams that bring varying perspectives and skills will result in more ideas and increase the likelihood to find breakthrough solutions. The practices involved in traditional design thinking (i.e. research, user observation, brainstorming, ideating, and testing) will be amplified when working with diverse people and diverse teams.

“Diverse teams see the same problem from many angles. They have a better understanding of any given situation and generate more ideas, making them more effective problem solvers. While it takes effort to harness and align such different perspectives, it’s at the intersection of our differences that our most meaningful breakthroughs emerge.” – IBM Enterprise Design Thinking

The Loop

IBM’s visualization of the firm’s approach to design thinking is called the Loop. It represents an infinite cycle of observing, reflecting, and making. The Loop’s learning process lets a team “fail” early and fast, minimizing risk through incremental changes and eventually resulting in breakthrough innovations.

Source: IBM’s Enterprise Design Thinking Framework
  • Observe: Learn about your users via research. This includes interviews and observations.
  • Reflect: Synthesize learnings from your observations and determine next steps from there.
  • Make: Concretely execute on ideas and then validate these ideas with users. The faster that ideas are put in front of actual users via prototypes, the faster innovation will occur. 

The Keys

Utilizing the Keys helps teams move from an idea to a tangible outcome, and also helps ensure diverse enterprise teams get and stay aligned. IBM typically utilizes the 3 Keys on their largest teams but has found them to be invaluable for teams regardless of size. 

1. Hills

Hills, in enterprise design thinking, was developed to provide a new business language for alignment around user-centric outcomes (instead of feature-based ones). This language is rooted in user wants and needs. Each hill represents an ideal end state for users. Hills define the mission and scope of a project and focus the design and development work on measurable outcomes and deliverables. IBM recommends that for each project, define no more than three major release hill objectives plus a technical foundation objective.

2. Playbacks

Obtain lots of feedback as things progress and move forward. In order to get this feedback, teams will need playbacks. Because all design and development work is iterative, enterprise design thinking organizes user-centric “sessions” into playback milestones that align everyone around a “set of high-value scenarios that show the value of your offering[…]Early playbacks align the team and ensure that it understands how to achieve a hill’s specific user objectives. In later playbacks, the development team demonstrates its progress on delivering high-value, end-to-end scenarios.

3. Sponsor users

In enterprise design thinking, your sponsor users are people who are selected from a real (or intended) user group. Through working with these sponsor users, your team can more successfully design products and experiences for your actual end user and target audiences (rather than guessed or imagined needs). The best practice is to work with sponsor users throughout the entire process – from creating the personas through design and development. Sponsor user feedback is invaluable in providing direct insight. 

Apply enterprise design thinking to your next project

The specific steps and process will differ based on project scope, scale, complexity, and team/organization. However, enterprise design thinking maintains the same fundamentals and goal regardless of each specific scenario: to remain deeply rooted in user-centered problem definition, brainstorming, validation, and iteration. The ways to apply this in your next project include: 

  1. Define the problem with a statement formatted in a user-centric way.
  2. Include diverse team members and teams in brainstorming.
  3. Validate ideas with actual users.
  4. Measure progress by how well their wants and needs are being fulfilled.
  5. Treat everything as a prototype and constantly iterate.
  6. Always remember to focus on serving user needs instead of building products or features.

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