First stop: Design Thinkers Group, The Netherlands

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The first stop on my walkabout was Design Thinkers, – and what a place to start! They are a design driven innovation company based in the Netherlands, working with different businesses to foster service design and bring design into the DNA of organisations – however, as I have found with all Dutch design, there are some twists to how they work!

Arne Van Oosterom, Marjo Staring and Tim Schuuram (pictured above) are the core of Design Thinkers, and draw on their creative, business, marketing and communication backgrounds to help companies build a more human-centred and sustainable vision through design doing and thinking. Design Thinkers work in a multidisciplinary team of associates and partners around the world (one of whom is Simone Veldema – the sustainability business specialist pictured above). The first twist I saw, which really intrigued me about their approach, was that they do not actually employ anyone – rather, they work as a network providing innovation services to help strengthen and co-create the way services are delivered, entering into the heart of companies, fostering collaboration and developing new value streams. Normally design is viewed as an ‘add on’, but Design Thinkers go to the very core of businesses – so I was really excited to join their team, not only to explore design in business but to be part of their entrepreneurs network who work together to better themselves and others!

Here was the second twist! Responding to a tweet Design Thinkers had sent out looking for support on a service design project, I sent over my portfolio – but Design Thinkers never officially interviewed me, they just said ‘Come over!’ They didn’t really value the interview process, commenting ‘you don’t really know what someone’s like until you’re working with them’.

Design Thinkers asked me to join them from September 2011 till March 2012 with the main role of supporting Arne Van Oosterom by Professor Simon Clatworthy at the Centre for Service Innovation, AHO university, Oslo, Norway to deliver innovation projects with four large organisations. Through design thinking tools and methods, each project would help an organisation to explore a service innovation question, finding new customer-centric business models and services

When I arrived Design Thinkers were moving into their amazing new collaborative space on the Amsterdam canal (picture below), they had a big whiteboard wall – which I could not wait to use – and an amazing coffee machine. I soon found out Marjo made the best cappuccino! But coffee was always black in the Netherlands – so I had to get used to taking my coffee without milk!

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They made me feel so welcome, and I soon felt like part of the Design Thinkers family. Finding out they all had a great sense of humour, I felt that some fun was just around the corner.

There were only three weeks to go until the first project in Norway began, working with a large multinational communications company. During my first week I was introduced to the At-one tools develop by Simon Clatworthy and approaches developed by Design Thinkers (which are featured in ‘This is Service Design Thinking’). We were also creating new tools to respond to the service questions of the company we would be working with. In this case, their question was ‘How do you develop a customer-centric organisation and design a service to demonstrate the thinking in practice?’ The tools created were not only helping people to design services, but also to explore their context, and I was finding out that for services to really work people from across the business need to come together for the first time and collaborate.

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The thing I struggled with the most at the start of my time at Design Thinkers, was letting go of the academic rigour of planning and researching in-depth. There just wasn’t the time in this context, and the main purpose of the work was to help people have good conversations and design together. There was much more reliance on intuition, and I found using coloured pens to listen to the conversation and communicate the best way forward. As soon as I let go of the rigour, which had been so valuable in my Design PhD, things started to become much easier for me at Design Thinkers. It reminded me of when I was at school – during an art class I had spend a lot of time (6 hours) creating the image below – but the teacher preferred a sketch which took 10 minutes. While my academic training had been invaluable to me I found that when I did let go, I actually had more control.

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I think that I learned this lesson just in time: Next stop was Norway, and I was very much looking forward to seeing how Design Thinkers’ tools would enable a conversation across all of the business and respond to the multinational communication company’s question!

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