René Raaijmakers
5 May

The high-tech industry is extremely innovative, but what if you want to innovate more effectively and even faster? Design thinking is an effective method for that, says Rex Bierlaagh, trainer at High Tech Institute. “Everyone can learn it. It changes the mindset of organizations.”

His father was a techie who invented multiple things at the Philips Natuurkundig Laboratorium (Natlab). At least, that’s how Rex Bierlaagh remembers it from his youth. Father and son still talk about it regularly. In retrospect, they’re always surprised at how few inventions from the Natlab have actually reached the market.

“For Philips, that success rate was apparently good enough,” says Bierlaagh. “But when I look back with my father at the 70s and 80s, he says, ‘What if we’d had a method that was even faster, more effective, cheaper and more in line with customer requirements so that we could have put more successful products on the market with less money? Surely that would have been wonderful.’”

HTI Rex Bierlaagh
Rex Bierlaagh: “IBM and Walt Disney claim they use design thinking to innovate even more effectively and faster.”

That’s why father Bierlaagh actually likes the fact that his son is now a design thinking specialist. Rex Bierlaagh: “I actually do process coaching. Teaching people to take steps to innovate faster and more effectively. My father saw this kind of method emerging in his time, but it didn’t exist when he started. Techies can also go a long way with stubbornness – so to speak – but what if you combine that with a powerful innovation method?”

Start with the person

At companies like IBM and Walt Disney, design thinking is at the core of their strategy. “They claim they can innovate even more effectively and even faster with design thinking,” notes Bierlaagh, who also points to the existence of the Design Value Index (DVI), a benchmark for companies that apply design thinking. According to the creator of the index, Jeneanne Rae of consultancy firm Motiv Strategies, companies that integrate design thinking into their business strategy outperform their peers threefold.

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Many sources link the term “design thinking” to the work Tim Brown’s marketing agency IDEO did for Apple’s iPhone and iPad. “What they did very well was ask questions to customers to find out exactly what they wanted, and based on that, come up with concepts and make very quick development moves,” observes Bierlaagh. “The cell phone was already there; the question was how Apple could design and market the iPhone in such a way that it connected with the customer straight away. In the end, this resulted in an innovation method that’s now called design thinking.”

Innovation with design thinking

Design Thinking is a way of innovation in which people are key. It integrates creative and intuitive thinking with analytical thinking. The latter is particularly well developed with us (adults). Have a look at the training at High Tech Institute 'Innovation with design thinking'.

The anecdotes about Steve Jobs always tell that he didn’t do market research because he knew better than consumers. “Yet, Steve Jobs was at the forefront of using design thinking. With the help of IDEO, Apple immediately started testing whether its products worked. They checked whether or not specific ideas were catching on. Jobs did say: if this is the product, what’s a customer missing? How can we use those answers to change it into something he likes even better. Design thinking starts with the person, rather than the product, service or technology.”

Still, product developers often start with the technology. “To see how if can fit in the market. Design thinking means talking to stakeholders first, internally in your organization or externally to customers or consumers. Where exactly is their friction? What are they up against? What do they want, what do they want differently? Based on that, you think of new things and you keep repeating the process. That makes design thinking unique.”

Gain momentum

The high-tech industry is bursting with analytical skills, has intensive relationships with customers and often delivers highly successful services and products. On the other hand, high tech is littered with failures, although you could put a positive spin on that and also file it under the heading of ‘innovative capacity.’ Anyway, high-tech companies already invest a lot in innovation and certainly in R&D. So what does design thinking add?

“A fair question,” acknowledges Bierlaagh. “What I often hear, also from technical organizations I work with, is that they do innovation on intuition. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can be more efficient if you know exactly which steps to take. An R&D environment is pre-eminently suitable for dealing with customer questions in a structured way and design thinking is a very good tool for that. It allows you to innovate much faster and much more efficiently. You go through innovation processes in less time, so it’s cheaper. Especially in technical companies where innovative capacity and inventing new products are paramount, design thinking helps to gain momentum.”

What changes in organizations once they start applying design thinking?

“Their own patterns of thinking and behavior change. The reason innovations often fail has to do with self-imposed limitations. Because we continue to think in patterns, continue to assume our own truths and don’t take enough of a customer perspective. To do that, you need empathy, creativity and imagination. That’s the key to successful innovation. You also need tools, a method. Design thinking offers beautiful, easy, effective, practical tools. They help to break through patterns of thinking and behavior. That change of mindset, that’s the most striking change in organizations that get going with this.”

Penetrate deeper

In Bierlaagh’s experience, as much as twenty weeks is needed for a design thinking project. “That’s what you need for a really successful innovation, something that’s original, something that really acts on what customers want and resolves their frictions.”

Thats quite a lot of time.

“Twenty weeks of development time is already pretty fast. Most of the time is spent talking to customers and discovering what they actually want. You can’t do that in a one-hour conversation. The moment you have that on the table, things can go pretty fast. Then you can test and validate something within four to eight weeks. If you invest time in contact with customers, then things can start to fly. I witness that at companies.”

Your training at High Tech Institute lasts two days. What do participants learn there?

“Among other things, it’s about communication techniques. How to penetrate deeper into customers. What information is there but doesn’t come out spontaneously? How do you get that on the table? With the right conversation techniques, people start telling a lot more about themselves and the problems they encounter in their work. I teach those techniques.”

“In addition, I teach participants to step out of their own thinking patterns, to tap into their imagination and to use creative thinking techniques. As a result, they really come up with original, creative ideas. Anyone can do that because everyone has been a child at some point. It’s a muscle you can train, so to speak.”

“I also teach them how to make concepts out of those innovative solutions. How to make ideas tangible, translate them and test them quickly in the market. Participants can apply that immediately after the training.”