Design thinking, when done right, results in the launch of successful products that delight their customers. As Jeremiah Owyang, founder of Crowd Companies, discussed in a recent post, design thinking encourages exploration of unconventional solutions that lead to innovation. But design thinking is still evolving, and not every design thinking team succeeds; in fact, design thinking practitioners can stumble for a variety of reasons. So how does a team of design thinkers know they are on the path to success? In my experience helping businesses launch new products successfully, I have noticed four attributes of high-performance design thinking teams. If you run a team that embraces design thinking, use the following four questions to find out whether you are doing design thinking right:

How Customer Centric Is Your Team?

Design thinking is supposed to make a team more human centered, which means team members make decisions rooted in empathy for the customer. I can tell whether a team is really human centered through the language, tools, and processes they use. For example:

  • Language: does everyone express a shared understanding of who the customer is and what they care about? Do team members ask “What does the customer want?” instead of obsessing over the details of project deliverables?
  • Tools: are artifacts — such as personas, customer journey maps, service blueprints, ecosystem maps, value propositions, interview readouts, competitive audits, storyboards, use cases and scenarios, and features roadmaps — a core part of every project initiation?
  • Processes: is testing and validation with customers a natural part of the process?

High-performance teams know how to reframe questions around the needs of customers, and they resist letting personal opinion dominate the conversation. They challenge each other to validate their assumptions about customers.

Does Your Team Focus on Outcomes or Outputs?

High-performance teams of design thinkers are obsessed with creating great outcomes. They test and validate until they create a great product that meets a business objective and makes customers happy. They practice a continuous cycle of building, measuring, and learning against an outcome (the lean startup loop, as espoused by Eric Ries). But teams stumble when they become overly concerned with creating outputs, or deliverables that contribute to outcomes. Project outputs, while important, are a means to an end.

An obsession with outcomes doesn’t mean a design thinking team stays focused on an expected result come hell or high water. A team can deliver project milestones perfectly on time and on budget yet still create a flawed outcome, and a high-performance design thinking team understands when to call out a failing outcome. As I discussed in a previous post, “Design Thinking Needs Implementation to Succeed,” creating a prototype does not guarantee the creation of a successful product. Courageous teams might even pull the plug on a prototype that just isn’t delivering what the team thought it would deliver no matter how well the project is managed.

A good way to test whether a team is obsessed with outcomes instead of outputs is to ask:

  • Are your products and experiences generated through design thinking being tested and used by real customers in real situations?
  • If so, are the products and experiences achieving the intended results?
  • If not, does the team know why?

Focusing on outcomes is both exciting and scary. Teams that truly keep outcomes as their north star have the courage to keep asking, “Are we delivering the right product?” instead of declaring victory with the completion of each project milestone. Only by constantly testing your work against outcomes do you keep your attention where it belongs: a product that delivers value to customers.

Does the Workspace Foster Design Thinking?

One excellent way to assess whether a team is doing design thinking correctly is to take a look at what’s right in front of you: the workspace. What do you see when your team is working? Is everyone perched at their cubicles in isolation, with their headphones on while they hammer away at the day’s tasks? Are teams “collaborating” by sitting around a conference room table listening to the HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion)? These are signs that the team is not embracing design thinking.

On the other hand, a productive environment for design thinking looks and feels different from a typical workspace. Teams are often standing in small groups at whiteboards or clustered around Post-it notes while engaged in healthy discussions. Yes, people work alone when they need to, but they do so with short bursts of effort and then share their ideas with the team for feedback and sharpening. And as I noted earlier, the walls of the workspace for high-performance teams are crowded with the tools of customer-centric product design.

An effective workspace achieves a healthy balance between divergence and convergence. Team members need to have the freedom to go off on their own and ideate. But design thinking teams need to work together to challenge each other’s assumptions and develop the ideas that people create individually. Good workspaces have a healthy rhythm — a push and pull between individual ideation and development within a group setting.

How Strong Is the Team’s Muscle Memory?

Muscle memory refers to how well a team adapts to a new challenge, both positive (an unexpected opportunity to tackle a new product development idea) and negative (a project setback). When something unexpected happens, teams with strong muscle memory don’t wait around to be told what to do. They don’t devise solutions on the fly, which can result in reinventing the wheel. Teams with strong muscle memory tap into a toolkit of processes, and they take action. For instance, they rely on the widely accepted steps of design thinking (or some variation of it):

  • Empathize: establish a shared understanding of who the customer is.
  • Define: align on the core problem to be solved/jobs to be done.
  • Ideate: have structured ways to generate ideas in quick succession.
  • Prototype: Turn those ideas into testable prototypes.
  • Test: Validate the prototype with real customers.

They also rely on the tools I’ve discussed, such as journey maps and personas, to stay customer centric when they develop a solution to a new challenge. High-performance design thinking teams are always “on the ready” to put into action at the drop of a hat.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of muscle memory. Muscle memory is to a successful design thinking team what an effective playbook is to a championship sports team. Winning sports teams at any level don’t rely solely on talent and team chemistry. They execute an agreed-upon process that they’ve learned and internalized. Good teams know how to improvise, but a process makes a successful outcome repeatable.

Next Steps

If you are a team leader, I would suggest you first do an informal audit of your team, relying on the four questions I’ve asked here. You can do so informally or work with an outside partner such as Moonshot to do the heavy lifting and note taking for you. (An outside partner can also give you a more objective perspective). In due course, you will get a sense of how you are doing. Don’t be disappointed when you find gaps in performance. After all, no one is perfect. In fact, congratulate yourself for having the courage to identify performance risks. Then work with your team to understand why those issues exist. Doing so will probably identify some shortcomings that require a mid-course correction. For instance, the lack of journey maps and personas may point to a team that has lost sight of the customer and is neglecting the processes and tools that build muscle memory.

Moonshot has a formal process for auditing and improving the way your team deploys design thinking. Contact us to get started.

Mike Edmonds

Mike Edmonds

Managing Director, VP Product