Design thinking in the corporate DNA

How Intuit changed the mindset, skill sets, and environment to help its designers spur on innovation.

By Suzanne Pellican
November 17, 2015
A DNA molecule that is methylated on both strands on the center cytosine. A DNA molecule that is methylated on both strands on the center cytosine. (source: By Christoph Bock on Wikimedia Commons)

We started our journey to bring design thinking into Intuit more than eight years ago. We call it Design for Delight (D4D) — because it’s not about the process; it’s about exceeding the expectations of our customers in ways they couldn’t imagine. We realized that not everyone had the necessary innovation skills. Most of our employees hadn’t been trained, in school or at other jobs, to solve problems with design thinking. So, we needed to build the capability into all 8,000 employees to spur on innovation and ensure we create amazing experiences for our customers.

We’ve come a long way. And because we invested in building innovation skills into our employee base, we are not only a design-thinking company — we’re a design-driven company. Meaning, we’re going from creating a culture of design thinking to building a practice of design doing, where we relentlessly focus on nailing the end-to-end customer experience. This means that before anything gets built, the whole team — engineers, designers, marketers, product managers — are interfacing with the customers to ensure they understand the problem well, and together, they design the best solution.

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This is a big change from just a few years ago, where much of our teams’ time was spent figuring out how to make our existing technology look good. Today, we’ll throw out code and start over.

A designer’s dream, right? Change the mindset, the skill sets, and the environment to help designers do the best work of their lives.

But it doesn’t come easy. Leading this kind of cultural change takes time, and you get your bruises — a lot of them. Here’re my top seven and how we overcame them.

1. Stop talking, start doing

One of the most ironic things that happened to us was to fundamentally miss one of the core principles of design thinking — we talked about it for two years before we prototyped anything. First, it was fancy decks at leadership conferences. Then, when not enough was happening, 10 of us were asked to do something else. We were so intellectual — we sat around for months — pontificating how to roll this out. We had so many ideas and kept arguing with each other on what to do. We were almost paralyzed thinking about how to scale to all employees.

After months of us not doing anything, Scott Cook, our co-founder, came in and told us we were wasting time and asked us to just get going — maybe run a workshop for 10 people. Everything changed after that; we learned so much and iterated quickly. The biggest lesson: you can’t steer if you’re not moving. So, get going.

2. Principles over process

I know design thinking is a process, and I worked really hard to create a diagram for everyone to understand the process in the context of software development. Know what happened? Nothing. They didn’t understand how to reconcile this new process with their existing go-to-market or create-an-offering process. So, we pivoted. We stopped assuming we had to show the process. Instead, we boiled it down to three core principles that we really wanted our teams to focus on, principles they could apply to any process they were already using. They’re understandable, memorable, and repeatable:

Deep Customer Empathy: know your customers better than they know themselves. Our employees are out in the field all the time, watching, listening, and synthesizing, not just asking our customers what they want. A great example of this is with our TurboTax customers. It turns out that for most of our base, preparing their tax returns isn’t a burden — rather, they look forward to it because it’s the single biggest paycheck of the year for them. From that place of empathy, we are driving major changes up and down the funnel — from marketing, into the product, and into the care experience.

Go Broad to Go Narrow: recognizing that to get to a great idea, you have to create many. We’ve made a ton of progress here — there are sticky notes everywhere, covered with brilliant ideas. But one of the more curious learnings is what happens when we have to pick what we’re going to do. More often than not, the idea that’s most selected is the one that’s easiest for us to implement. In other words, the safe choice. So, we’ve had to push teams to remember to pick the ideas that would most delight our customers. And oftentimes, that’s not the easy choice; innovation never is.

Rapid Experimentation with Customers: Utilizing iterative cycles with working prototypes or live code so that you can see behavior versus just listening to what someone says. We learned a lot from Eric Ries and his book The Lean Startup to bring this to life in our culture. We’ve created “Lean Startins” — a bootcamp, of sorts, to help teams go from idea to prototype to live experiments within a week. This bias to action is another manifestation of lesson #1. I will say, though, that there has been a shadow to this principle. We’ve had teams stop making judgment calls in favor of running experiments, which slows us down. But even worse, we’ve had teams ship badly designed or undesigned products in favor of being fast. The biggest learning here: scrappy doesn’t mean crappy. So, if you go down this route, hold your teams accountable to stellar design and quality execution, even if the full functionality of the idea isn’t built out yet.

3. Take the long view

A common trap for us is to take something in its infancy and try to scale it big. Build it. Launch it. Move on. Well, it doesn’t work like that. Remember how long it took before you mastered design thinking? This isn’t something that you have people try once and then expect them to get it. It takes about six to 10 experiential, immersive, contextually relevant experiences before someone finally “gets” it and can make it their own. Eight years later, we’re still building this skill into our employees, one experience at a time.

4. Don’t bother measuring why design thinking is a must-do

The best advice I got from an SVP at the company was to stop wasting my time trying to find metrics to prove that Design for Delight was worth doing. It was such a relief. Because the fact of the matter is, you’ll never be able to show causality between the technique by which you design an experience and the financial outcomes of that experience. Ever. It’s an investment in your employees to make them more capable of solving the right problems in the best way for your customers. And there’s enough evidence in the industry and on your most successful teams that design thinking is the way to do it. So, take the leap.

5. Quality over quantity

About a year into the Innovation Catalyst program, we were pulling together our third or fourth round of training. We started to introduce folks to new methods for each of the principles — like digital mind mapping, a new format of a need statement, or physical prototyping. They had hardly gotten the basics, and we said, “Oh! By the way, here are five to 10 other ways you can do this, too!” We thought we were being helpful — and even smart — showcasing to folks just how capable we were. The problem was, it was overwhelming. Folks ended up focusing on methods and learning as many as they could rather than helping teams get to better designs for their customers. It was a mess, so we pulled back to the bare bones. From then till even today, we train with the minimal set of methods for our D4D principles.

For deep empathy, we take folks out in the field with a design challenge and no moderator’s guide. When they come back, we have them fill out empathy maps and craft problem statements. When going broad, we start with an improv activity to loosen everyone up, then usually start with quiet brainstorming, then sharing out, and then grouping. We tend to ask folks to do this a few times. For experimentation, we crafted our own interpretation of the Lean StartUp methodology and created tools for teams to use to help them articulate their insights, their assumptions, hypotheses, and then their experiments. It also helps them capture their learnings from each of the experiments they run.

Having these go-to tools and techniques — some that are time-tested and some that are made from within — reduces the noise for folks so they can concentrate on the content, not the method.

6. Give it away

One of the biggest surprises of all the learnings was after the first class of Innovation Catalyst training. We really wanted to incent folks to go out and create experiences for others — of which half the class did. The other half? Nothing. They kept it to themselves, did better work on their teams, and took the credit. Which made us realize: when you want to make this kind of change, it takes a certain type of personality, one of humility and of service to others. So, find the folks that are ready, willing, and happy to give it away. Enlist their help first because this is work of passion and commitment, not ego.

7. Be bold

Look, let’s be real. We were not done after we got D4D into our DNA. Design thinking is nothing without design doing. We have incredible designers and engineers at Intuit, but there are still barriers that get in their way — our organizational structure, technology, apathy, fuzzy roadmaps, you name it. So, while you’re bringing design thinking capabilities into your company and empowering folks, don’t forget to use it on yourself, too. Get that deep empathy for your leaders, for your team members. Create experiences for them to get that empathy, too.

One of my favorite examples was designed by Lionel Mohri, director of customer insights and design strategy at Intuit, to help leaders understand how they slow down decision-making and get in the way. He grouped all the leaders into teams of three to build a Lego truck in 30 minutes. Easy, right? Except, he made them build a deck to justify why they had to build the truck. Then he made them get approval from three different people for the color of the truck, where to put the stickers, and for the timing of its creation. Then, to get the tires for the truck, you had to go to a “Chief Tire Officer,” who held all the tires for everyone’s trucks. Only one team finished putting the truck together — and they did it by totally ignoring what was asked of them. The experience was so effective in helping the leaders understand how they get in the way that many went back to their teams to apologize and started removing barriers immediately. So, assume you can poke at those sacred cows.

I hope these are helpful to you. I would’ve never have guessed, as a practicing designer, that I would spend so much of my career building capabilities in others to create a culture of innovation. Or that I would spend so much of my design skills on challenges that are more employee-facing than customer-facing.

But what I now know is that when I do that, designers can really do the best work of their careers — in ways that are delightful to our customers. And for me, it becomes the best work of my own career.

Post topics: Design and Business