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I experienced the power of Design Thinking; I got converted

About a month ago Philipp Skogstad, an inspired SAP colleague, encouraged me to attend a one-week Customer Focused Innovation course at Stanford Graduate School of Business. What could me more relevant for me than a course on how to best create a culture of innovation that takes place at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford?

I applied, I got accepted and I got delighted. I joined 56 other executive students, from all over the world, in a fantastic week of learning that ended on Nov 4 2011.


What did I learn?


First I learned how to collaboratively and quickly change a Nascar racing car tire. You may wonder why it is relevant to my job… It was a great lesson about the power of learning by doing and failing. It also revealed the power of competition for fast innovation. The racing car tire change was a nice and energizing team building exercise before we got into the course…


On Day 1, we started with an inspiring discussion about Rite Solutions, where we learned about another way to define a company around Friends Enjoying Work (FEW). Small and interesting company that created “Mutual Fun”, an internal stock marketplace for ideas.

We then began our learning journey about Design Thinking.

Our challenge was to “Humanize the ground experience of jetBlue”. I joined a team of five. My teammates were Ted, Jamie, Mitchel and Khashi. Our design thinking coach was Carissa Carter, co-founder of Parallel Design Labs.

We empathized with passengers by observing and interviewing them during an afternoon at San Francisco International Airport. I teamed up with Mitchel Chang from Trend Micro and we extracted amazing stories from passengers, airport staff and jetBlue employees. We came back with more than 20- rich stories that would shape the rest of our journey with design thinking.


On Day 2, Charles O’Reilly lead the morning with a course and discussion about the challenge of change and the biggest obstacle to change in most companies: cultural lock-in. “Cultures are expectations about the right ways to behave”. Charles explained why ambidextrous organizations are often necessary in order to address disruptive changes.

We then learned about of the human brain and how to best design for it. We learned about the importance of emotions and behaviors in buying decisions and loyalty.

We then continue with Phases 2 and 3, Define and Ideation, of our design thinking journey.

Each of the 10 teams defined a Point of View = User-Need-Insight. My team’s point of view (POV) was: “New travelers need to feel in control through the airport experience because traveling is its own language”. We then brainstormed ideas of solutions to our POV. This phase was amazingly productive. We had so many ideas! We filled a board with post-its in less than 20 minutes.

Then the most difficult was left: agreeing on which ideas to keep. Each of us had 6 votes: 2 on highest chances to succeed, 2 on most desirable, 2 on most break-through. We finally kept two ideas: “blue buddy” boarding-pass with tracking device and free “Fresh Blue” drinks and fruits at gate.


On Day 3, Robert Burgelman talked about Strategic Leadership. The title of his talk was “Strategy is destiny”. He talked about Culture and Strategy and explained the importance of Strategic Leadership for sustaining successful organizations. I captured a few inspiring quotes that I thought I’d share: “Culture needs strategy to be aimful and strategy needs culture to be realized”; “Real strategists are not market-driven, they drive the market”; “We need leaders who do those things that are difficult and not natural”. I really liked one of his models where he showed that a strategic leadership culture is what holds together the links between Product Market Positioning (What it takes), Distinctive Competence (What you have got), Official Strategy (What you say) and Strategic Action (What you do).  When the links are stretching too hard, overall adjustments are necessary.

The following lecture was about Marketing. We learn about Conjoint, a tool for analyzing and understanding customer preferences. While many students – in Marketing – knew about Conjoint and had already practiced with it, it was a discovery for me. I thought that the method was very powerful for incorporating customer preferences into product/service planning and pricing decisions. I was convinced that we should use Conjoint for defining our Developer Program offerings…

In the afternoon we headed over to the Design School, for the 3rd time, this time for starting to build and test our prototypes. With my team we got busy at building 2 prototypes, one for “Blue Buddy” and another one for “Fresh Blue”. We solicited feedback from 3 external volunteer testers (Stanford students and friends). It gave us very useful insights about the usefulness and usability of our prototypes and used the feedback to decide on what to do next. We decided to give up on “Fresh Blue”, not because we had negative feedback but because it was less breakthrough and less interesting to share. From now on we would focus on enhancing “Blue Buddy” for the real testing, next day, with jetBlue Executives.


Day 4 was the highlight of the training. Jeffrey Pfeffer lead a discussion about Laura Esserman, UCSF Breast cancer surgeon, who had several dreams that would transform UCSF Breast care center. The case study and discussion were all about the power of overcoming resistance to change. We analyzed Laura, her qualities and her challenges, both personal and institutional. Above all, what made her succeed in realizing her dreams for UCSF Breast care center, was her persistence and her ability to never take no as an answer. Her coaches told her: “Whatever you do always ask yourself: do you want to be right or do you want to get something done? Fight for doing, not for being right. And take care of those on your critical path, especially your enemies.”

The afternoon was the conclusion of our Design Thinking journey. Polishing of prototypes and real story-telling in front of jetBlue executives. 10 teams, 10 different Point of View, 10 unique demos. I was amazed and the jetBlue executives seemed very pleased about the results of the workshop. I got fully convinced by the power of design thinking as a methodology to design solutions to real-world challenges, any challenge.

We concluded the day with a party where several alumni students from the class of 2010 joined us and shared their stories about what they had done after they went back to their companies last year. All of them became design thinking coaches and had successfully applied design thinking to solve real challenges in their own company’s context. Then I wondered, why weren’t there more people from SAP at this class, especially since our own Hasso Plattner founded the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, a.k.a. Stanford, where the class spent most of its time? I took it as a personal task to get at least 5 SAP employees to the 2012 CFI class.


Last half day, Day 5, was on Brand and Social Media. We talked about the new importance of Social Media and the power of friends.

We talked about what Happiness means and how it impacts choices. Check out Jennifer Aaker’s research and We Feel Fine.

We also talked about how one could extend the Coca Cola Happiness Machineinto a successful marketing campaign for Coca Cola. We discussed many interesting ideas… again. All in all Jennifer is a big proponent of Story-telling and she asked each one of us to think about the power of Story-telling for our own businesses.


After 5 intense days of learning and doing, we all left, full of energy and commitments. We’ll stay connected, online and in spirit until we get together and tell our stories as alumnis during the 2012 class…


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  • Hi Anne,

    Thanks for summarizing "Customer focused innovation course". Very nice job. I don't know if this would be useful to independent consultants like me. By useful, I mean is it worth spending $13,000+ + billable hours? I assume your target audience for this blog is company executives and not independent consultants. Instead of assuming, I thought I would ask anyway.
    Once again, nice job on summarizing the course.

    Best regards,

    • There were a few independent consultants in this year's class. They even flew from other continents... I think this training is extraordinary and yes it is expensive, even more if it makes you give up on several billable hours. I wanted to share my learning because even though it is designed for executives its value goes beyond executives. I loved it and I wish everyone could go! Maybe we could convince Hasso, who founded the dschool where most of the training took place, to get discounts for SCN members 😉 ...
      • Hi Anne and Bala,

        I am an independent SAP consultant and after the experience I had during last Teched Madrid I've got very interested in Design Thinking. I heard and read about the Stanford course, but as it is very expensive for an independent (also as you mentioned because of the billable hours we have to give up) and far away from my home, which makes it more expensive, I went to a training here in Brazil. I hope I have a chance to go to Stanford in the future, will work for that. In my training here there were not only executives, but also employees of the most diverse companies and areas, freelances (specially designers), and me, the only IT person there. Design Thinking is for everyone in my opinion. And as an independent consultant, I can try to improve my services using what I learned. You learn how to think in a different way, work in a collaborative way, exchange ideas, hear more and accept opinions different from yours, listen more to your customer and what he/she really needs. We all have challenges, it doesn't matter which area we work, and I believe we can try to use DT to solve them.

        Thanks Anne for sharing this training.

        Best regards,


        • Hi Raquel! I work in Anne's team and I am responsible for organizing the TechEd InnoJam in Madrid this year. This year we have changed the format of the event to introduce real Design Thinking mini-workshop where SAP Design Thinking coaches will hold the hand of participants through applying Design Thinking to the design of their prototype. It's a great way to experience Design Thinking, I hope you'll be able to join. The InnoJams in Las Vegas and Bangalore will also feature Design Thinking in the same way.

  • Hi Anne,

    Thanks for this blog post, very interesting. I think this course would be useful for many persons, executive or not. I had the privilege to walk around in Stanford while I was in Palo Alto which was already amazing. I can only imagine what a course like that would provide in terms of insight, inspiration and so on.

    Best regards