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Design Thinking for Senior Management Workshops – Part I

“I think these workshops are almost like rock concerts.

The first three songs on your setlist (agenda) need to be
and the finish needs to phenomenal.

In between you need to be ready to change songs on the

fly depending on the mood of a really demanding crowd.”

DT for Senior Management - Blog.jpg


You get a request to facilitate a Design Thinking inspired workshop for a team of senior managers.

About ten senior managers fly in from around the globe to meet for three days.
Their objective: To layout the strategy and initiatives for the upcoming year.

You have 7 days to go…

In this blog I want to share some of the major learnings I’ve made throughout three years of Design Thinking engagements. The situation stated above happened many times and I hope this blog will inspire you with some food for thoughts for your next workshop. Hence this blog is for moderators, Design Thinking coaches however it’s also for everyone who wants to get some insights on how strategic workshops can be done within companies.

“So what’s so special about workshops with Senior Managers?”
Basically they want to have a bold framework of strategic directions and at the same time operational excellence to steer the company or lines of businesses towards success and growth. They are used to make decisions, derive and assign actions. They don’t like uncertainty, especially not in workshops (“Are we still on track?”). So the objectives etc. must be crystal clear. If they don’t see corresponding progress during the workshop, they will let you know – most probably immediately. But no need to get nervous. Find some of my key learnings in the following blogs.

“First you need a decent Cup of Coffee”
It takes time to understand their objectives and prepare the agenda. You normally get a dedicated contact person (e.g. COO) to help you with the preparation from a content point of view. Typically another person helps you to arrange logistics like room booking, food etc.. If you don’t get this support, ask for it. You need someone that can give you insights to the topics, drivers, objectives and the team setup. Very often the main contact person is not the main sponsor of the workshop. Insist on getting at least fifteen minutes with the main sponsor. It will for sure give you an extra spin.

“Create good Rapport”
Privacy is key for strategic discussions. A statement like “everything I hear and see will stay in this room” helps to build trust. At the same time ask for open knowledge exchange. You need to understand what’s going on in the group to do your job best. That also means you can openly ask about political hurdles, challenging participants etc.. You could say: “I certainly need some kind of ‘behind the scenes’ information to best facilitate your workshop”. Design Thinking can’t do miracles “crap in – crap out” is a statement I make in every engagement. But you can be sure, with senior managers as participants, you don’t have to worry about passive or non-motivated participants.

“Get the Red Thread – What are the Objectives of the Workshop?“
Together with your contact person define one Design Challenge so every participant understands what the workshop is about. Your contact and (even better) you should validate it with the main sponsor. Design Challenges sometimes get overloaded with objectives and sometimes also imply solutions. That also happens here. Keep it crisp and clean with demand and need in focus (not solutions).

To understand the objectives of your stakeholders is essential. Very often these are in the area of growth. Working with senior management teams often means that the agenda needs to cover strategic aspects as well as operational topics that can be executed. Therefore your agenda likely needs to differentiate between:

    1. Strategic topics and targets              (e.g. vision & mission statements, company / market trends)
    2. Operational topics and targets         (e.g. key challenges and initiatives)
    3. Operational excellence                     (e.g. contribution from different LoBs, collaboration model)
    4. Gameplan                                         (What to do tomorrow and beyond)

There is a relationship between these elements. You could for example start a workshop with topic two, meaning you can skip topic one. However you still need topics three and four to have a tangible outcome. Just doing topics one and two does IMHO make not much sense, as the question ‘how to bring the strategy into execution?’ is not answered (but a difficult one). Sometimes there is also a follow up workshop planned. If not, make sure you get to the point of the game plan as this is the only executable piece for the team to take away.

“Get the Red Thread –  What’s the Starting Point you can build on?“
Understanding the objectives is an important. I’ve found it sometimes even more difficult to understand the starting point. The starting point defines what information, processes, levels of contribution etc. you can expect as given. Be bold to ask for existing strategy papers, operational models etc.. This information is relevant for you to exactly understand what’s already there and what buy-in these elements have (e.g. a strategy document is meaningless if no one signed it, an operational model is questionable if it only exists on paper).
So questions like “Who created it, when was it created, who knowsabout it, is the team committed to do this, is it operationalized?” will lead you to important insights.

Besides understanding the content side it’s also important to get some insights into the different personalities you’ll meet during the workshop. With your contact person you can literally walk through the different team members and ask yourself questions like:

    • Why does the person attend?
    • What does the team know about this person’s role?
    • What does the person know about the others?
    • What is the “personal” agenda of this person?
    • What is it that the person can contribute to the overall workshop objectives?

This gives you a sense of how strong the current collaboration within the team is. Your agenda might need some team building and knowledge exchange aspects if you think there is the need for it.

What’s next?

You might have noticed that I didn’t talk a lot about DT until now. It’s basically because I want to provide a complete picture, meaning from preparation until post-production. So there will be an upcoming blog talking about:

  • setting up the Agenda and how to infuse DT techniques into it
  • how much time is needed for preparation,
  • how to change the agenda on the fly during the workshop,
  • and how to capture momentum and follow up activities.

You can find part two of this blog here:–part-ii

Maybe you have a question or a learning to share, then please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

All the best,

About the author:
Marc works in the Services Innovation & Design Thinking Center of Excellence Team at SAP since 2011. His main tasks are global program management, workshop facilitation and DT coaching for strategic internal and external customers. He holds two diplomas, one for computer science and one for economics and engineering. Marc started as a software developer for Windows and Linux Systems, ran 8 years his own business in the context of interactive & dynamic web content. 2006 he joined SAP in Business Transformation Consulting and was part of some of the major SAP implementations in Retail, Banking and Public Sector.

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      Author's profile photo Jochen Guertler
      Jochen Guertler

      I love your intro based on a rock concert !!! We should meet soon for a cup of coffee 😉

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you Jochen for the feedback!

      Actually I have to admit that I don't drink coffee but prefer hot chocolate.

      However I was too shy to write about it 🙂

      But yes we definately should find some time to share stuff during a coffee break.

      Author's profile photo Sylvia Santelli
      Sylvia Santelli

      Now we know your weakness, hot chocolate!

      I also love the quote and perspective. Great to understand a "day in the life" of a DT Coach.

      Author's profile photo Heike van Geel
      Heike van Geel

      Great blog Marc. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to part the sequence 🙂

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you Heike, I'm on it.

      Author's profile photo Tim Teinzer
      Tim Teinzer

      Thanks, Marc! Excellent that you share your vast experience with the rest of us via this blog series. Looking forward to future opportunities to participate in a Design Thinking workshop together with you.

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you Tim for your comment, that keeps my energy up. Yes we should definitely do some more workshops together!

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Hey Marc. Thanks for sharing this excellent summary of your learnings.

      You really are a "rocker". 🙂

      Author's profile photo Anja Fehlau
      Anja Fehlau

      Great article, thank you! Like your quote - rock on! 😉

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Blog Post Author

      Hi everyone,

      Thank you all for your feedback!

      Part two is out, you can find it here:

      Looking forward to read your comments and/or questions.