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Featured image: The Thales Design Journey - From Trial Run to a Global Design Center Network

The Thales Design Journey - From Trial Run to a Global Design Center Network

Didier Boulet, Group Chief Design Officer

"What do science fiction author Isaac Asimov and manga comics have to do with design thinking? Let's find out!"

In this episode, Didier Boulet, THALES' first Group Chief Design Officer takes us on an exciting design journey and tells us how a one-year trial run evolved within a few years into a global design center network that now includes 13 design centers worldwide across the THALES Group.

Since 2013 Didier has been leading the group-wide THALES Design Transformation with the goal of transforming the company into a world-class design organization.

If you want to learn more about Didier's activities around the THALES Design Transformation, or why it can sometimes be important to take a few steps back in time to better understand what the future might look like, then you shouldn't miss this episode!

Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.

Leading THALES' design thinking transformation

Chris: Hi, and welcome back to the Innovation Rockstar interviews. My name is Chris Mühlroth. And I'm pleased to welcome Didier Boulet from THALES today. Didier helps companies innovate and create new ventures. He is a thought leader in developing innovative products, services, and platforms. And he has developed such opportunities for THALES by disseminating design thinking in the organization. He is in charge of the THALES design centers, and his role is to actively engage the THALES innovation communities with human-centered design, business model innovation, as well as product service and organizational design. And more recently, he has been appointed as the leader of the THALES user experience design transformation. Didier, I'm really excited to have you with me today. Thanks for joining.

Didier: Hello, and thank you for having me. 

Chris: Okay, so we start with a short 60-second introduction sprint about you, your career and your role at THALES. The stage is yours for the next 60 seconds. Let's go.

Didier: So basically, I've been working at THALES for 20 years. I held multiple positions during this time. I started in the business, then I moved to Innovation Research. I've been part of the technical director of the company. But of course, the most important part, especially for me, of that journey has been the last 10 years. During which I created the design center we are going to discuss today, which has no network. It's kind of a design-thinking organization in the company. And finally, for three years now, I have had the pleasure and privilege of leading a more profound design transformation of the company and being appointed to that as the first chief design officer.

Chris: Wow, that was on time. Thanks a lot. Okay, next, here are three sentence starters for you. And I would like you to complete the sentences. Number one, design thinking is not … 

Didier: … it's not just about creativity or jobs. 

Chris: Alright, number two. THALES is best known for… 

Didier: … for its advanced hightech systems and sensors.

Chris: And lastly, number three, one of the most significant technological disruptions in the next few years will be…

Didier: … will be quantum sensing.

"One of the most significant technological disruptions in the next few years will be quantum sensing."

Chris: Quantum sensing. Wow, great one. Okay, good. Now that we have clarified what design thinking is not, can you please describe what design thinking actually is?

Didier: So you can look at design thinking as, first of all, it's an innovation framework that leverages on the creative process that has been perfected over the years by designers or, more generally, creative professionals. It's by construction, multidisciplinary, which means that any person can participate, with a lot of examples of different professions using design thinking. But also that within a project, you're going to tackle all the dimensions of the problem space, and that's the famous Venn diagram, feasibility, variability, and so forth. And last, on the process side, I think what characterized, you know, the way you do design thinking projects, it's this rotation of divergence, divergent and convergent cycles. You can think of problem-finding and problem-solving. And you move from one mode to another. That would be, I would say, in a nutshell, my kind of definition of design thinking.

Implementing design thinking at THALES

Chris: That's a great and concise definition. When people think of large multinational corporations, they often coin terms like processes, compliance, governance, workers' council, reorganization, and so on. And I would imagine terms like ''design thinking'' probably won't generate too much enthusiasm at first. So why don't you tell us a bit about your journey to implementing design thinking at THALES and maybe let's start at the very beginning and talk about the why for a moment. So why introduce design thinking for THALES

Didier: The why pushes back more than 10 years ago, when Telesto organized a learning expedition in the Silicon Valley and visited Stanford. And at the time, it was all about design thinking in that area of the world, so it was on the program. And out of that, they came back and we signed a collaboration agreement with the at Stanford. So that gave us the first experience with design thinking with probably the best you can find. And then, to make the design center happen, it was more of a collision. It's a company one and a personal one. The company, I think 10 years ago, you could see a lot of signals in a company that needed to introduce different types of innovation approaches. It was all about tech and technology-driven innovation. And you can see business models and you can see user-centered approaches coming in a lot of different domains. And so I think the company was ripe, to be introduced by a new approach, and a personal one.  I left the technical directory around 2012. And after I pitched the HR, they asked me what I wanted to do after that, and I said, ''My dream job now would be to create a design center to take what we learned from Stanford and internalize the concept in the company.'' And they basically let me do it.

Chris: So they let you do it. So, they endorse the initiative or audit, you also have some bigger concerns being addressed. And if so, what were the concerns? What was the concern about introducing that?

Didier: Yes, it was endorsed, and one person took the risk, it was the general manager of THALES University at the time, his name was Allan, and he took the risk. And he said, okay, we try for one year, and we show it works. If it works, we continue, if it doesn't work, we've learned. So that's how we did it. And our main concern at the beginning of the adventure was really about proving the value. It's always like that you need to prove it works. And you need to prove it brings value to the business. So that was the number one concern to prove it works in the first year. The second one, we decided that we would establish the business model of the design center as an agency, meaning that we would charge for the services, and we would deliver innovation services to the different entities of the group. And that would also be a very resilient, sustainable business model. Because you don't depend on money given to you by the organization you generate. And if it works, you get projects and mandates, if it doesn't work, you're out of business, and then you do something else. So that was a second concern. And the third one, we had a pretty good idea with the experience of Stanford that we wanted to do, I would say the real design thinking so you do it, you do the projects, you do the full fledge design thinking projects, not creative workshops, what people confuse for design thinking is creating facilitation and workshops, we didn't want that to be the only thing we would do. But within projects, we do workshops, but design thinking is about the project. And to do that we wanted to remain quite independent, we fear that being acquired and absorbed by other teams would jeopardize that integrity. So, those are the big concerns we had when we sat.

"And our main concern at the beginning of the adventure was really about proving the value. It's always like that you need to prove it works. And you need to prove it brings value to the business. So that was the number one concern to prove it works in the first year."

Chris: Yeah, that's interesting, and you know, we have different things and one year is actually not long at the same time, right? Because to stop this and to produce first results is actually quite challenging. So,how did that go, after you started, what was kind of the next step towards proving that this works in a one year horizon, or one year time horizon.

Didier: Yes, the reason is that one good way to show it works is to show projects and outcomes. So the first year was quite intense. We spent the first few months you know, you work on your content on your page, you go and see a lot of people in public companies, so we could spend quite some time doing that. I work with the design intern to build the identity of the design center and some branding and stuff like that. And then, for the second part of the year, we started to have first workshops, and then projects and training. And after one year, we already had some good outcomes to show and confirm that the approach is working and is bringing value.

Boosting innovation with design thinking

Chris: Okay, now, let's get real, in that year, and also after that one year, what was kind of the impact on innovation at THALES in this short timeframe?

Didier: We basically generated a lot of attention, especially in marketing and the service organization. So we receive quite a lot of demand from these guys. And the big impact, I think, which we didn't anticipate, was that it was not just about one design center. We had a lot of innovation teams that came to us and asked, ''Can we use the same concept for a team and do you train us, can we use the same name for the design center?" And so within a year, we had already a number two and number three design centers in discussion. And after three years, we had five. And that was very unexpected. We wanted one. And suddenly, we built an innovation franchise in the company for all the practitioners of design thinking.

Chris: ''Innovation franchise system'' is a great term that you just coined. Interesting. Yeah, Okay, So, what happened afterwards? I mean, okay, first it was successful, then you started to build more and more design centers. And that was always kind of your role in that. Did you actually go and build these things? Did you hand some licenses to other people who are actually in charge of doing that? So how did you expand and scale that concept to possibly the entire world?

Didier: At the beginning, the ambition, you know, we were surprised. So we built it, like a franchise. We said, "Okay, this is the package. You have the brand, the methods, and this is how to use them. " We train you a little bit, and then you're basically on your own. And then we stay somehow connected. For the first few years, for five years, it really worked like that. Then, when we started with seven or eight design centers, and in the last few years, we added five more. So today, there are 13 design centers. This is basically too big not to try to do more with that. For the last three years, we have really tried to operate as a design center network, sharing resources, rituals, and being connected, delivering projects all together. And this is working great. And so, now speak about design center networks rather than franchises or single design centers in particular.

Chris: And how can you, possibly make sure that the different design centers that are operating now, maybe also independently, but obviously also working together? How can you make sure that they don't do the same stuff over and over again? Is there some sort of higher level, I don't know, portfolio management, or consolidation of activities that basically prevents you from doing the same and different design centers?

Didier: So THALES is very diverse. So the probability that we do the same thing is very small because we work with different countries and different units. So I think that's not a big risk. If you speak about creating the same material or stuff like that, everything we do is completely shared. In the common repository, we've been the first users of Microsoft Teams in the company. And before that, we used some shadow IT to make sure that we have access to the same content. Two years ago, we launched a design system for the Design Center. So we have one place where you can find the methods and a description of how we organize the different spaces and also describe in more detail what we call the value proposition. So the different services and formats we support, and we classify them into there is a primary value proposition if you want, which is a fundamental design thinking service design, every design center needs to be able to deliver that. And then we have a secondary level, which is specialized because you need special crafting skills. Strategic deciding would be one of them. Design fiction: industrial design. And so that's a specialization of some of them. And then we have an incubation zone where one or two designcenters really venture into something really new. And if it's successful, then we can try them to scale it in a network. So in organizing stuff like that, on one hand, we avoid that to say the same thing without knowing it. So we know what we do. And we encourage people to try different things, new things. 

Chris: Let's dive deeper just for a moment into the capabilities required. You just mentioned what is, what exactly, design fiction?

Didier: So design fiction is, especially if you're like me, during your teen years, you read Asimov and all these great science fiction writers. Design fiction is a way to boost innovation and imagination, and it relies on a theory that says that what people think of science fiction, like a few decades ago, tends to become a reality today or in the near future. And so you go into the past to basically understand what's coming to happen right now. And so you dig into science fiction books, manga, comics, and movies, and you try to find a pattern, and then you try to find inspiration insights in there. And then you use that as input for your maybe a design thinking project or any kind of innovation project that you have.

"Design fiction is a way to boost innovation and imagination, and it relies on a theory that says that what people think of science fiction, like a few decades ago, tends to become a reality today or in the near future."

Chris: How could I possibly imagine such a design fiction process happening? I mean, is there a research phase saying, "Okay, now, guys, please have a look at five mangas and ten different, I don't know, scientific, sci-fi, or futuristic movies, and then watch them come back tell me your ideas, or how could they possibly work?

Didier: Yeah, there is a phase of research where the cool thing you need to go back to books and movies, but usually in your teams, you have people that have already extensive either collections of manga or comics, or are passionate about these things. You need to have an intent. It's like any design thinking project that you don't do for everything. So, for example, one recent project was about how to design for AI and explore the relationship between humans and future AI. And this is a perfect field for design fiction, because the relationship between intelligent machines and humans has been explored for decades in movies, so we went in there and tried to find patterns and a different type of relationship between humans and AI, and we used that as core material in all our design for AI methodology frameworks, meaning that when we do design thinking projects with AI, and we want to bring new inspiration, or we want to bring elements of language, about AI and so forth, we can use this design thinking content that we created through the design fiction content on the table, and usually it really opens the mind and boosts creativity in the process.

Chris: Okay, I think I got it. And then now you also said, you know, strategic foresight is or will be added to your toolbox of capabilities. How does strategic foresight and design fiction now work together?

Didier: Today, practicing design fiction or strategic foresight doesn't work together. There are different ways to basically do the same thing, which is maybe anticipate the future or predict it. Not predict the future, but predict the futures that are there. Strategic foresight probably appeals to us even more than design fiction because it brings a very nice extension to our user-centered innovation approach and so forth with something that is very structured to establish a landscape of signals, trends and gives us not one, but multiple futures, opposable ones, so probably one of the desirable ones, and so forth. And the magical trick with strategic foresight for when we engage with our strategic team is that from the start, we established that there is not only one official future, there are multiple, and we should think differently. If we are in on this one, or this one, or this one, and the concept and the variation in the strategy we should have, depending on what is the most likely future to happen, and so forth, and you differentiate strongly the concept and the ideation with this framework, so for me, it's really establish a very solid framework landscape with more data, more probability. And then we can play design thinking in there and go back to your user-centered approach. So, the two are very complimentary.

Design thinking projects and success stories

Chris: Okay, got it. That makes sense. So you're basically stacking up tools in your framework and, by that, increasing capabilities, giving more possibility, and capabilities, as mentioned, to the design centers and the entire network. So it makes total sense. Can you share some of the maybe non-confidential projects that design centers have been working on recently? I mean, you just mentioned one, which was how to work with AI. But is there anything that you can share in addition?

Didier: Yes, sure. Just to say, when we have an obsession with design thinking projects, today we have completed eighty design thinking projects. So these are usually projects of three, six months, up to a year. That's probably the track record where the most are proud of. A lot of them, like you say, are probably more confidential given our line of work. Now, a few of them just to give a flavor of what we are working on. For example, we worked two years ago, with the Special Forces in France, and we could design a new type of drone. Typically, the problem today is when they leave the headquarters to go on a mission. They need to decide if they should take the flying drone, swimming drone, and each of them is a different piece of equipment, and they cannot carry so much. And so they said it would be great if we had something that would be completely reconfigurable, so you remove the wheel. You put wings on, and boom, it's flying. So they designed a product line like that. The final product is absolutely fantastic. So this is the kind of stuff but all started with the field trips, interviews, and observations in the field, following them and working with them. So that was very rich. Another type would be, for example, a new luggage scanning system for airports that is poised to reinvent the experience for passengers when they have security scanning. And so that was also blending core technology, but also the passenger journey and the particle system, which is complex. So we have a lot of projects like this around that particular key passenger journey. And maybe the last one, as we work on digital trains and the industry follows two problems of opportunities in the space industry. When someone wants a satellite in space, it's quite difficult to touch it, or to reconfigure it, and so forth. So we developed a lot of technology around that. And again, the relationship between the operator and how to work with these digital twins is a very interesting topic. And we work on these things using the design thinking approach.

Scaling and evolving the design thinking approach

Chris: So that's really some exciting project examples. And also technology examples. Thanks for giving the insight into that. Now, let's talk a bit about the future of design centers at the design center network as a whole. So, in your opinion, what's next for the design centers and for the design center networks?

Didier: Like I said, for three years now, we are pushing for a more global design revolution in the company, not only on the innovation side of things with his thinking before transverse design, and in there, we're looking to establish what we call this design continuum so that we make sure that what is acquired in terms of insight and design during the innovation phases is not lost when you go to the engineering side of things. And so, establishing this continuum, plugging the different design disciplines, from design thinking to UX, to industrial design, to service design, so we're really looking closely at that. And so for design centers, for example, it's about finding their place in that design continuum, which will be easy. It's one of the design centers, one of the areas where we find the most designers today in a company.

Chris: So, it sounds like there is a lot to accomplish in the next few years. And let's have more kinds of futuristic questions. So not for design centers. But for the discipline of design thinking in general, one of the trends in design thinking and other methodologies in that context, what's next?

Didier: First of all, one thing that is remarkable with design thinking is that from 2005, when I picked my first book, to today, all the principles remain actually valid. So it means it is a very solid foundation, approaching problems with a user-centered mindset. Keep proving that it is very valid to do it like that. Also, something we discovered by doing design thinking in a company like us on very large systems and very large problems is that that is not always enough. So approaching every problem from the eyes of the end users or the human in the loop is a good approach. But you probably need to complement it with other approaches and with a wider angle. And that's why I think that we'll see more and more extension, or complement practices, system thinking, strategic foresighting, we spoke about it, just to have a wider angle and be able to approach more systemic kinds of activities in the process.

Chris: And that's great. And I think it would definitely be compelling to see how the entire field is going to advance in the next decade or so. And that kind of leads us to the end of this episode. But Didier, before we finish, I'd like to hear your answer to our signature question, which kind of gives this whole context, kind of a closing. Now, if you look back on your career at THALES so far, what would you say was the greatest innovation rockstar moment so far?

Didier: I had two actually. So one internal, one external, and one internal in 2015. We won a THALES Innovation Award, recognizing the accomplishment of creating the first five, I think at the time, design centers. And we started as a rogue unofficial organization, so being recognized a few years later by OPS for innovation in the company was like, "you call it a rock star moment." We were very proud. My team and I, the other externally, happened. Last year, we published an academic paper with two business schools about the introduction of design thinking in such a high-tech company. And we did that with Accuracy in France and at Babson College in the US. And this paper won an international innovation award. So that was my second, and I'd say rockstar moment in that moment more for the external world and appears outside of THALES.

"And we started as a rogue unofficial organization, so being recognized a few years later by OPS for innovation in the company was like, 'you call it a rock star moment'."

Chris: Beautiful. Congratulations to these innovation rockstar moments. I think they definitely make up for the rockstar moments. Now, that's it for this episode. Didier, thank you so much for being my guest in this episode. It was a real pleasure to listen to you and your thought leadership on those topics. Thanks so much. 

Didier: Thanks for having me. Bye-bye, Christian.

Chris: And to everybody listening or watching, if design thinking is your thing, then leave us a comment on this episode or just drop us an email at info at Thanks for listening and take care. Bye-bye.

About the authors

Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Didier Boulet is Group Chief Design Officer at THALES.

The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy or growth? Then shoot us a note!



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