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Author's profile photo Heike van Geel

Design Thinking Year of the Dragon at SAP – 10 Tips on Facilitation

  “Design Thinking….

…you may have heard about it.” 

This was the tag-line of a wonderful video for SAP’s internal DKOM (developer kick off meeting) in 2011.

image source:


Reflecting on 2012, the ‘year of the dragon’ just ended and the design thinking dragon is out at SAP and its eco-system.

Now, what does Design Thinking mean beyond that fact that everybody talks about it?

In this blog I’d like to share my perspective on a couple of things we ought to keep in mind when talking about design thinking and more in particular when using design thinking as a basis for interactive  workshops. 

Before sharing my perspective and 10 best practice tips on facilitation, let me share a best practice that applies to many innovation and problem solving approaches or methods – it ought to be facilitated. This may mean having a designated coach or consultant for a project or having a designated facilitator or the by  now so popular workshops.

Some points beyond the definitions of Design Thinking, which I am sure you have heard or read about.  


To the best of my knowledge nobody “owns” the term Design Thinking, hence there are variations of its definitions out there, this should not mean that it makes it more difficult but perhaps a bit more challenging for people to wrap their heads around it.  David Kelley and others talk about “it doesn’t matter what  we call it; it’s about what we do.”  Design Thinking is a practice.

Design Thinking does not come in a box

Design Thinking is not an approach that can be conveyed or followed by so called “guided procedures” or completed like “paint by numbers”. Sorry. Most practitioners and people who have experienced it will agree it is a practice and a mindset and it takes practice to learn, apply and convey.  There is a sequence of steps when applied in product and service development,  


Design Thinking is Complementary

It is not all Design Thinking. We know that already, but let me simply re-iterate and mention that a lot of people have done great work on how Design Thinking fits and complements approaches like agile/lean/scrum and user story mapping.

Design Thinking workshops

Clearly Design Thinking is not limited to use in a workshop format.  But the workshop format turns out to be a popular vehicle for Design Thinking. I am simply accepting that as a fact as there have been many successful workshops that triggered new ideas and concepts as well as tackled many different problems and kicked-started great projects.

Here are 10 tips for Design Thinking Facilitators.

What does a facilitator do?

Provides the space and guidance to experience, embrace and practice Design Thinking.


facilitators and coaches in action

1. Set Expectations

While workshops have become a popular format approach, we need to delineate what purpose it solves? 

What is the goal? Is it training or is the intend to solve a problem or reach a particular goal?  Is it participatory, meaning the workshop participants are the beneficiaries of workshop results? Or is it designing for others aka end users? Or part of a project or program?

Chances are it’s a little bit of all of the above.  As a facilitator you want to be prepared for those scenarios before choosing format, tools and techniques. 


Note: for any of the formats it is a best practice to first introduce the concept of an exercise and technique via a warm-up exercise. Allow participants to get familiar before applying it to the “design challenge” at hand.

Ask your client:

Is it training?

If so, let a training be pure training and don’t ask the participants to take on a “so called” design challenge that relates to their daily work, as they will get caught up in their expertise and may not immerse in the approach. As a matter of fact, many facilitators started to call this kind of workshop, experience workshops instead of training. Experiencing Design Thinking is the first step to the practice.

Is it solving a problem or reaching a particular goal? 

Whose problem are they trying to solve?  What is the goal? Who are the beneficiaries of the outcome? 

Take time to prepare. Get familiar with “the ask” and choose exercises that might best fit the ask. (Yes, I know, it is starting to get dicey.)

2. Keep in mind Design Thinking is public domain and open source

Remember, design thinking does not come in a box, however as a facilitator you want to have a box with tools & tricks to pull from.  And there are many oof them, which are complementary and happen to have quite an affinity to the community of design thinkers and its thought leaders.

Here is one of my favorite resources:

3. Continuously Observe & Learn

When I first came to the US 16 years ago I learned that saying “oh, this person is very observant” is a polite way of saying “that person is nosy and a smart a**”.  16 years later I see this differently, we ought to observe, reflect and ultimately learn to build our own practice.

If you are ever so lucky and have the opportunity to attend a workshop with David Sibbet from The Grove or Alexander Osterwalder, co- author of Business Model  Generation or any other thought leader in the realm of Design Thinking and similar approaches – do it! Observe them how they facilitate and learn from them.

4. Use the Power of Storytelling  

Have your own design thinking stories ready to go.

You have an affinity to design thinking? Why? Can you tie your personal experience to the mindset, to some of the principles? Ask yourself how come? Prepare your stories to tell and to provide context to your participants.

As a refresher, here are the principles, which are not set in stone but inspired by thought leaders and researched by people whose job it is to scale the Design Thinking mindset.

  • Practice Empathy – it helps us better understand one another and the people who are our customers
  • Overcome Fixedness – helps us broaden the solution space and thrive for novel ideas
    Embrace Diversity – it opens more opportunities
  • Seek Inspiration from People – because necessity is the mother of invention
  • Cherish Multidisciplinary Team Work – no one knows or can do it all alone
  • Integrative Thinking – everything is part of a system. “see the wood for the tress”
  • Accepting Ambiguity – expect the unexpected to not miss opportunities.
  • Fail early and often – because failure is the stepping stone to success.
    “You can fix it now with an eraser, or you can fix it later with a sledgehammer.“
    Frank Lloyd Wright


5. Trust the Approach

While I truly believe everybody carries  in their DNA the ability to apply Design Thinking in their work as well as personal environment and I encourage people to be gutsy to do so, I have to admit, I never thought about that point until one of my colleagues pointed out to me “thanks for being a mentor, you taught me to trust in this approach and it works” – I simply take this as a compliment and advice people embrace and trust in it, if you feel not 100% certain you can, don’t take the facilitator role just yet.

6. Design Thinking does Not Scale

OMG – how can I say that?! Truth is simple, it will not scale if we insist on our defined principles and terminology i.e. not adapt them to the location and people we are dealing with. Remember: Design Thinking does not come in a box; we need to observe & learn and be open minded to adjust as we go.  Learn from our customers and be aware of cultural differences.  I learned from my customers to adapt or bring more context as needed. 

Simple example:

  • Fail early and fail often

Reality check, people simply don’t like to hear they ought to fail. From an Oil & Gas customer I learned very quickly “don’t mention the word failure, how about calling it ‘strategic learning’?” I love it, thank you dear customer!

Also, we are in a corporate environment and every individual carries a lot of pressures and responsibilities, not only in their jobs but also to their families.  Failure simply freaks people out and is often believed to not be an option.  This is where we very much differentiate between Design Thinking in the corporate world and Design Thinking in academia. 

This leads me to the next facilitators’ tip

7. Stay Humble

Don’t try to kill the dragon but work with it. This is not about you.  A few years ago when asked to give guidance to the DST (Design Services Team, chartered to define and drive Design Thinking insight SAP), one of the SAP Executive Board Members simply said “stay humble”. These 2 words which keep circling in my mind are by all means easy enough to remember.

SAP is looking back at over 40 years of success, as well as many of our customers and partners are looking back to great successes. As a matter of fact, each individual participant in a workshop will have had success in their career. Appreciate and value that. You may think we need a revolution to change and accelerate. Probably true, but you might want to avoid people to revolt and block. Having deep expertise in a room for one day or longer is a wonderful opportunity: thrive on it.  The assumption should be “everybody wants to add value”.

Design Thinking assumes positive change.  “Change is tough”, I’ve heard that many times from customers as well as colleagues. And the pace of change has to come from the people whom you want this change to be relevant to. 

8. Take Charge and Set Railings 

As a facilitator you are responsible to deal with the uncertainty which the approach may trigger among your participants. A lot of professionals in the  enterprise IT environment simply like structure. Provide them with some structure.  While other are perhaps very much free spirits, set some railings. 

In particular I’d like to encourage respecting the introverts in any workshop setting. Why? Listen to this powerful Ted Talk by Susan Cain and you will  understand why


A workshop means a bunch of people interacting; provide the environment to ensure that every perspective gets heard and gains an experience.

A few more points on the environment you want to create:

    • “In this workshop we are using paper to get rid of paper based processes.” ~ Client during a workshop -> use low tech materials to avoid constraining creativity and imagination
    • Give things a meaning. Using multi color post-it notes? Give each color or shape a meaning
    • Having a tag team of two facilitators goes a long way. Not only for moral support and the advantage of having a “wing-man”, but it is also much
      more pleasant and engaging for participants to follow a dialogue than having to listen to monologues. Assign roles and tasks to any additional facilitators (in training) or moderators and make sure every participant knows about their roles – could be photographer or time keeper.
    • Avoid “overhead spectators” in the room. Design Thinking is fun but still hard work, if one person does not have a purpose, there is no need to just hang around. Design Thinking is not a spectator sport.
    • Use of digital media to capture results and artifacts. Clarify up-front that photos and video is okay.
    • Prepare the space for documenting, team number/name visible in designated team area for tracking purpose. Takes photos/video as the workshop progresses, systematically and in high-resolution, in a quality that it can be transcribed afterwards.
    • Time box. Timing is at the facilitator’s discretion. Unless there is a serious conflict proceed as planned to move forward as there will never be enough time to fully flesh an idea our concept out within a workshop setting. This might be tough for participants as you’ll ask them to switch between a divergent and convergent mindset, be prepared to address this.
      Here an interesting perspective from
      JohnCleese on this how creativity depends on fast and slow thinking 
    • Give each person a chance to shine, make it interactive. Rather than lecturing ask if anybody may have heard of or is already familiar with the concept, then provide further context as it relates to the approach.
    • Avoid early “solution thinking”, keep in mind that thus far many innovations were inspired by existing situations, build on understanding the current and past ’cause that’s what we know and can work with.

9. Keep the Momentum Going

During a workshop there is the chance to create great momentum. Be prepared to keep it going after the workshop. Having a virtual collaboration space prepared to gather feedback, further artifacts and remember to follow up post workshop. Your responsibility as a facilitator does not stop at 6PM last day of the workshop. Reflect back on what people did and rub it in their faces  “You did it! You are creative!”

10. The Holy Grail of finding a Short-Cut to Success

Keep in mind the Holy Grail does not really exist, neither you nor anybody else sits on it, stop wasting your time trying to find it.


Image from “Hitchhikers Guide through the Galaxy”

Design Thinking is fun! Facilitation of it is fun but it also hard work.  Before receiving the ultimate answer, we need to ask many questions and observe otherwise the answer might simply be “42”. And then what?

In the spirite of exploring different perspectives I am looking forward to your perspectives, comments, feedback and additions.


Marilyn Pratt has submitted the idea for a designated Design Thinking community in SCN, please vote and comment, here is the link

Final Comment

I do get my inspiration from many different sources; I’d like to mention a few who I’ve been co-facilitating with and/or that are a source of inspiration for this blog, and/or been an editor, coach or mentor.  Or all of the above 🙂

Thank you:

Anja Bog Chirag Mehta Deepa Iyer Edwin Geel , Erin Liman, Hester Hilbrecht, Jeremy Thomas Manuel Zedel Marc Dietrich, Marc Leu, Marilyn Pratt Pratt, Meeta Patel, Peter Weigt, Simon Blake,
Stephen Wood, Suzanne Kennedy, Tobias Hildenbrand, Varik Torsteinsen

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      Author's profile photo Edwin Geel
      Edwin Geel

      inspirational and an excellent overview for helping others to understand what design thinking and facilitation is all about.

      Author's profile photo Heike van Geel
      Heike van Geel
      Blog Post Author

      thanks Edwin

      Author's profile photo Daniel Grimm
      Daniel Grimm

      Good article, just the link to does not work for me.

      Author's profile photo Heike van Geel
      Heike van Geel
      Blog Post Author

      thanks Daniel Grimm . sorry about the link, it is 🙂

      Author's profile photo Jeanne Carboni
      Jeanne Carboni

      Excellent blog, Heike! Thank you for sharing. As Marilyn Pratt and I have been discussing with you, the Design Thinking space will be coming to SCN soon. At that time we will be able to collect this and other great DT posts for many eager eyes!  For now, tweet, re-tweet, and repeat. 😉


      Author's profile photo Heike van Geel
      Heike van Geel
      Blog Post Author

      thanks Jeanne Carboni - looking forward to that space 🙂

      Author's profile photo Heike van Geel
      Heike van Geel
      Blog Post Author

      and there is more, for managers

      based on the project experience of Tatjana Borovikov, Satya Viswanathan and Chris Peters

      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt

      Just like in the marketing of technologies there is much buzz, hype  and conceivable Hype Cycle around Design Thinking. There needs to be a great deal of mindfulness around avoiding the "trough of disillusionment" .  This methodology, as other emerging Technologies can pass through Five phases.

      I've copied them from the Wikipedia page

      It takes real experts and proper focus to prevent this overhyped concept from getting stuck in the trough.

      Below the 5 phases that could be applied to the DT methodology as well.

      Five phases

      Hype cycle for emerging technologies as of July, 2009

      A hype cycle in Gartner's interpretation comprises five phases:
      1. "Technology Trigger" — The first phase of a hype cycle is the "technology trigger" or breakthrough, product launch or other event that generates significant press and interest.
      2. "Peak of Inflated Expectations" — In the next phase, a frenzy of publicity typically generates over-enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations. There may be some successful applications of a technology, but there are typically more failures.
      3. "Trough of Disillusionment" — Technologies enter the "trough of disillusionment" because they fail to meet expectations and quickly become unfashionable. Consequently, the press usually abandons the topic and the technology.
      4. "Slope of Enlightenment" — Although the press may have stopped covering the technology, some businesses continue through the "slope of enlightenment" and experiment to understand the benefits and practical application of the technology.
      5. "Plateau of Productivity" — A technology reaches the "plateau of productivity" as the benefits of it become widely demonstrated and accepted. The technology becomes increasingly stable and evolves in second and third generations. The final height of the plateau varies according to whether the technology is broadly applicable or benefits only a niche market.
      The term is now used more broadly in the marketing of new technologies.
      Author's profile photo Heike van Geel
      Heike van Geel
      Blog Post Author

      design thinking is the new currency of success....

      this is a very good video that describes *why* it became so relevant.

      it sounds like common sense, it's sounds simple, still does not make it easy for the corporate world


      [embed width="425" height="350"][/embed]

      Author's profile photo Deepa Iyer
      Deepa Iyer

      Thanks for sharing some of your best practices with us Heike!

      Author's profile photo Raquel Pereira da Cunha
      Raquel Pereira da Cunha

      Hi Heike,

      loved your blog, thanks for sharing your ideas. Totally agree that Design Thinking is not a "methodology" or a group of "guided procedures", but practice and a mindset. We need practice, practice, over and over again to really understand it and learn how to use it.

      Thank you for helping me understand better what a facilitator does.

      Looking forward for the Design Thinking space in SCN!

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Great Post Heike!

      Just linked to this article from my Blog It Forward post.

      I am a big advocate and practitioner of Design Thinking and will definitely contribute to the new Design Thinking space in the future.

      Also thanks for all your help on the business model canvas - it has really taken off!



      Author's profile photo Heike van Geel
      Heike van Geel
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks Matt. That's great to hear 🙂

      Author's profile photo Kumud Singh
      Kumud Singh

      Another great post Heike!

      I am looking forward to attend design thinking workshop this year at TechEd with Marilyn Pratt and also consider me in for anything that I could do to help in organizing this event here in India. I would love to be part of the team. Thanks.



      Author's profile photo Jan Koster
      Jan Koster

      Great post Heike, thanks for informing me!

      I recently got hold on two books that deliver great insight on facilitation:

      • The Secrets of Facilitation, the SMART guide to getting results with groups (Michael Wilkinson)
      • Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (Sam Kaner)

      I admit, I haven't finished them yet, however I have opened them and gone through the content diagonally: it already gave me great new insights and I will definitely consult the books for upcoming workshops.


      Author's profile photo Fred Verheul
      Fred Verheul

      Hi Heike,

      Your excellent blog post has been on my read-it-later list for quite some time now 🙂 , but I'm glad I've waited until now. After attending a designthinking coaching workshop last week, run by Julia Dorbic, the whole post makes so much more sense!

      I will certainly come back to it regularly.

      Thanks for sharing all these tips, tricks and pieces of advice!

      Cheers, Fred

      Author's profile photo Heike van Geel
      Heike van Geel
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks for the compliments Fred Verheul .

      Yes, it's a long one and intended for DT practitioners 😉