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Author's profile photo Laura Nevin

Applying Design Thinking to How We Run

Design thinking stands for design-specific cognitive activities that designers apply during the process of designing.

Visser, W. 2006, The cognitive artifacts of designing, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Think it’s possible to shut a (baker’s) dozen bright minds into one room and expect them to agree on a list of cultural themes and behaviors that define a successful organization – in one hour?

I sure didn’t. 😏

Then I participated in a brilliantly executed Design Thinking session called How We Run, facilitated by two of my colleagues, Sarah McMullin and David Loop. The objective of the session was to get everyone, in one hour(!), to produce a list of Themes and ideal Behavioral Statements for how to run successfully at SAP.

Doing a slow pan of the room and sizing up the cross section of demographics, skills, roles, and experience, and then glimpsing the hour’s agenda displayed on the overhead, I began to think we likely wouldn’t get past the first one or two agenda items before the lunch hour was up.

And then something kind of unexpected happened.


First, there was 10 minutes of much scribbling of ideas (silent brainstorming) onto sticky notes; the ideas we scribbled corresponded to 10 or so pithy questions the facilitators had posted on the wall beforehand. The questions probed us about things like what key attributes we observed in successful SAP teams, how we could best satisfy our customers, and the types of things that hold us back.

Fast and furiously we populated colored stickies with our ideas, and just as fast the facilitators snagged our stickies and collated them under the respective pithy questions they answered.

When the ten minutes of sticky crafting was up, we sat back and admired our work – a wall plastered with keen observations and cool ideas!

But then, in an rather unsettling move, the facilitators removed the pithy questions, leaving our observations and ideas hanging there like phrases from many disjointed conversations. Our next assignment? Get up, go to the wall, and regroup our ideas by theme.


What themes?” I thought. “Can we please just have the pithy questions back?” 😯

But the team rose to the challenge (literally) and began moving stickies from one side of the wall to the other — and themes started to emerge. It became quite animated at the wall, actually, and those who weren’t comfortable jostling about in the fray (me) stood back and offered insights to the sticky movers.

When the flurry of sticky movements started to slow, we were asked to pen a theme above the groups that had formed — wording that  captured the essence of the stickies (the ideal of the group). This activity accelerated the rest of the sorting until all the stickies belonged to a new group.

We had achieved the first part of our assignment: come up with the cultural themes associated with successful running at SAP


We were then broken into groups of two, given two of the themes, and asked to note down ideal behaviors associated with the two themes. These statements summarized the stickies, but we were encouraged to use different, even creative, wording to summarize.

We had achieved the second part of our assignment: list ideal behaviors associated with the themes

Go figure. And it took less than an hour!  And since a sample size of a baker’s dozen can’t be considered sufficient for an organization this large, the same session is being run in many locations globally. From the results, SAP can distill the ideal themes and behaviors that define successful running at SAP – ideas which came from the employees themselves.

Read more about Design Thinking: Bootcamp Bootleg – Toolkit to support the design thinking practice

More info for non SAP Employees:

A good starting place for understanding Design Thinking: Design thinking – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

By now you probably want to work for a company that does this type of cool stuff, so see: Career Home | SAP

SAP Run Simple, see: Run Simple

More info for SAP Employees:
Want to learn more about the How We Run initiative? See:
Want to learn more about the Design Thinking approach at SAP? See:

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      Author's profile photo Jennifer Coleman
      Jennifer Coleman

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Laura.  I have run a number of these sessions and the reaction is generally the same:  WE did that in 1 hour?!  Its a great feeling to know that when we are focused and committed that we truly can achieve results... in a short period of time!  🙂