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Idea Management | Customers & Community

How To Leverage Design Thinking In A Global Company: Best Practice

In his Innovation Rockstars Podcast episode, Didier Boulet from the THALES Group took us on the THALES Design Thinking Journey. He shared insights on how Design Thinking contributes to success in a global company.

The THALES Group has been delivering high technology solutions globally for over a century. As a world leader that serves the aerospace, defense, security, and ground transportation sectors, innovation and transformation are crucial. With over 80,000 employees across 68 countries, design thinking as an innovation framework has propelled a cross-organizational revolution. Didier Boulet has been at the helm of that revolution at THALES for the past 10 years. 

Having been with the company for 20 years, Didier held various positions within the organization that finally led him to Innovation Management, the precursor to his current position as the groups’ first Chief Design Officer. During the last 10 years, Didier has created a design center network that acts as the main design thinking organization within the group. 

Design thinking at THALES started after an organized learning expedition to Stanford D.School. Today, the design centers have firmly embedded this innovation framework approach amongst 13 design centers that function as a network that shares resources to deliver innovation projects. Didier describes it as an ‘innovation franchise system’ that grew surprisingly fast due to other business units wanting to position themselves according to the design thinking approach. 

Didier joined us on the ITONICS Innovation Rockstars Podcast to share how design thinking contributed to positive change at THALES.

For 🎬 the full video podcast or for 🎧 pure audio enjoyment, tune in on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

What Is Design Thinking

Design thinking is often associated with creative facilitation, but the discipline is much more than creative workshops. It refers to user-centered methods to guide innovation, and as an innovation framework that enables non-designers to approach problems like designers. It leverages the creative process between multiple disciplines (Design, Business, Tech, Social, …), and according to Didier, various professions have been using design thinking to drive innovation thanks to its open, flexible, and human-centered nature. 

He also describes the process of divergent and convergent thinking as crucial for problem finding and problem-solving. Divergent thinking is open to generating ideas and possibilities and is characterized by exploration, metaphor, visualization, playfulness, the non-linear, hunch, intuition, and gut reaction. Whereas convergent thinking is much more structured and organized, seeking to apply deliberate focus, characterized by linear thought, analysis, synthesis, reason, logic, facts, numbers, and rationality. Moving between divergent and convergent thinking within this framework is an iterative process that enables problem elicitation and solving based on an emergent understanding of the problem space and user's needs.  

Design-driven companies have outperformed the S&P Index by 219% over 10 years.

Design Management Institute 

Design Thinking as an Innovation Approach

At THALES, Didier explained how, over ten years ago, it was understood that technology-driven innovation alone, could not address the full spectrum of business challenges. The need for human-centered innovation was growing stronger and addressing this through design thinking could translate to better business outcomes and competitive advantage. It was here that the seeds of the first THALES Design Center were sown.

Creating a Global Design Thinking Network

The THALES design center “franchise” developed from what was essentially a trial run. Initiatives of this kind are challenging, and in established organizations can be met with skepticism and resistance. In recognition of this, strong sponsorship for the first design center as a ‘guerrilla’ experiment was secured.  

How Difficult Was it to Get Endorsement and Implement the Initiative?

For Didier, the opportunity to set up a design center resulted from the desire to implement what the team had learned from their time at Stanford Design School. Didier explained “When I expressed my desire for this, one person inside the company, Alain Oumeddour, the Thales University General Manager at the time took the risk. He said OK, we’ll try it for a year, and if it works, we will continue. If it doesn’t, we will have learned something.” 

With sponsorship secured, the challenge to prove the value of the initiative became the primary focus, “It’s always like this at the beginning of anything, you must prove the value to the business” says Didier. “The first year was preoccupied with proving the value, and only in the second year did we fully establish the business model”. The decision was made to structure the design center as an internal agency that would charge for delivering its innovation services.

With this model, the design center could maintain financial independence, stay true to the ethos of design thinking and retain control over the development of the initiative. It also meant that the design center would live or die by its ability to generate revenue through the provision of its design-led innovation services.

If you're trying to design the right solution, you need to make certain you're addressing the right problem.

Didier Boulet, THALES

Proving the Value of Design Thinking

“Demonstrating value is probably easiest done on an axis that shows projects against outcomes”, says Didier. “What also happened very quickly, is that other business units noticed what we were doing and quickly approached us to help them set up their own units in line with the spirit of the design center and design thinking”. Using design thinking principles to approach problem recognition and then problem-solving from different dimensions yielded positive results. 

Scaling Design Thinking Centers

“Building an internal franchise meant that we provided each center with branding, methods, and training, after which it was up to the individual design centers to make the most of local opportunities”. The advent of the THALES Digital Transformation saw a rapid scaling of the design center across THALES as the human-centered nature of the digital business was realized. By 2020, the design center had grown to 13 centers across the Group, “We began to think less like independent design centers and more and more like a design center network. We needed to stay connected, and after setting up these 13 centers, we now function more like a network. Everything we do is completely shared” explains Didier. “We have access to the same content through common repositories, and we have now implemented design systems that ensure shared resources and aligned output”. 

“As part of the value proposition for the design centers”, says Didier, “we also offer specialized services based on design skills & crafts. Incubation zones allow us to harness new approaches that are trying something really new to measure whether these can be successful. And if so, we try to scale them across the network”. 

The Capabilities Needed to Perform Design Thinking

Design thinking requires us to suspend judgment, open our minds, explore, understand, and empathize with users to identify and solve problems in a way that creates human, business, and societal value. Beyond this, the same principles can be applied to help us speculate about the future and how this relates to a company’s strategic orientations. In the context of design fiction, we can focus exploration within the field of science fiction, “For example, one recent project related to exploring the relationship between humans and future AI. And this is a perfect field for design fiction because the relationship between the intelligent machine and humans has been explored for decades in movies, books, comics, etc. So, we went in there and tried to find patterns that served as the core material in our design for AI solutions.”

Several techniques, including design fiction, can help anticipate futures. Didier stresses that the future is ultimately unknowable, yet the techniques of design research applied to science fiction can uncover signals and trends that help us imagine plausible futures. Systematic exploration of these futures can uncover patterns or outliers that have implications for design speculations and strategic decision-making in the present. This sets a foundation for subsequent design thinking and user-centered innovation.

The Future of Design Thinking

“One thing that is remarkable with design thinking is that from 2005, when I picked up my first book, until today, all the principles remain valid. It is a very solid foundation, which approaches problems with a user-centered mindset.” Didier explains that practicing design thinking in an engineering and technology focussed company like THALES encourages more emphasis on the end user’s perspective, and ultimately on the perceived value of the company’s products and services. Longer-term, Didier believes that we will see the emergence of complementary practices and techniques that enhance current design thinking approaches. 

Didier mentions an example of a project where user research with the French Special Forces revealed constraints in their ability to exploit tactical drones, "the problem when the special forces go on a mission, is that they need to decide if they are more likely to need a flying, crawling or swimming drone, each with a variety of sensor options. Each option is addressed with different equipment, which can be very problematic. We discovered the need for something that would be completely adaptable or reconfigurable regardless of the mission. In the end, a product was designed to meet the requirements."

Building on the success of the Design Center network, Didier and his teams continue to push for a more global design revolution within the company. "We're now looking to establish a more profound design revolution and a design continuum between innovation and engineering. And so, in establishing this design continuum, we aim to connect the different design disciplines, from design thinking to UX to industrial design to service design. Creating Thales Design."

We thank Didier for this insightful interview!