The Role Of Design Thinking In Innovation

by Murray Cox Pancentric Digital

Innovation is everywhere at the moment – or, more accurately, there are countless blog posts about how important it is and how companies that fail to innovate can look forward to failure.

Much less prevalent is practical advice about how to innovate, especially in companies that don’t and never will have their own R&D labs, accelerator, incubator or other costly apparatus.

Let’s start by defining, at least for the purpose of this blog, what we mean by innovation.

Innovation is the development of new services or products, or the significant enhancement of existing services and products, to meet the needs of customers in a way that allows a business to protect, enhance or advantageously disrupt its market position.

The significant word in that definition is development – it’s a cliché, but it’s worth restating that ideas are easy and execution is hard. Having a fantastic, world-changing idea is not innovation – bringing it to market and building a customer base is.

So, How Do You Innovate?

Our preferred approach at Pancentric – and one that is gaining traction rapidly in all sorts of businesses – is design thinking. In fact, so rapidly is design thinking being adopted that it was a cover star of Harvard Business Review in 2015. We’ve quickly defined innovation, and it’s worth doing the same with design thinking.

Design thinking is a people-centred, collaborative and action orientated way to understand, reframe and solve problems. It’s less about the look of an item and more about the need that a product or service meets for customers.

Design thinking is exciting because it puts a toolset for creativity in the hands of people who wouldn’t normally identify themselves as creative.

The successful application of design thinking requires collaboration across multiple disciplines, and therefore offers companies the promise of a way to do things better, in spite of silos and organisational quirks.

And while we are focusing on innovation for this piece, there is of course opportunity to use design thinking for effective strategy development, organisational change and business transformation. In other words, it’s increasingly the go-to toolset of senior executives for anything that needs to be optimised for human interaction.

When it comes to innovation, the value of design thinking is the emphasis it puts on involving the customer and on prototyping. This means the right problems (hopefully) get solved and that solutions can be tested before huge quantities of money are sunk into something that people don’t need/want/value (Sinclair C5 anyone?)


We use design thinking workshops at Pancentric throughout the innovation process

One of the biggest obstacles to innovation is overcome by the prototyping phase of design thinking – namely the lack of data on which to make decisions. Businesses are inherently risk averse and managers have been trained to demand data at every point to inform their decision-making, and this means that innovative ideas may often fail to see the light of day because it is too much of a leap of faith.

But prototypes, including incredibly low-tech prototypes, allow an innovation to be put into people’s hands quickly and for data to be gathered on the likely effectiveness and desirability of the solution being tested. This collaborative, co-creative approach that depends upon customer involvement significantly de-risks innovation by making it less of a shot in the dark and giving executives meaningful data to work with.

It’s also worth pointing out that while the process is called design thinking it doesn’t depend on designers to run – far more important is an open mind and a dose of customer empathy.

Using Design Thinking To Innovate

At Pancentric, we’ve used our digital experience to craft a design thinking process that takes you from idea through business casing to full execution at lightning speed: LEARN, CREATE, MAKE.

The three phases are supported by smaller work packages that ensure everything goes smoothly and we remain focused on the true customer need or problem to solve.


Design thinking takes place in the learn, create and make stages, not just during workshops


The LEARN phase is where the project is initiated and we establish what the true challenge is and how long the process will take.

Immerse Scope the challenge to establish robust timelines and quickly focus on the most important levers to pull.

Understand Research the challenge to ensure we really do identify the right problem to solve, and that we understand its context and actors.



In the CREATE phase, the research of the LEARN phase is pulled apart, analysed and interrogated deeply. Here we start to form hypotheses, strategise, scamp and prototype.

Define Examine the research, analyse it and start to form some ideas of how the challenge can be tackled.

Architect Strategies are written, scamps are drawn and prototypes are made to bring possible solutions to life and gain further insight.



In the MAKE phase, the focus shifts to delivery of a new experience, service, website or other software application. The detail in the earlier phases means delivery is fast and smooth.

Realise The main development phase when code is written, experiences constructed or services documented.

Integrate This is when the magic happens and something new makes a dent in the world. Implementation is everything. Design thinking is a circular process rather than a linear one. Core to it is the belief that things can always be made better, so iterate, iterate, iterate.


The secret sauce of innovation is that there is no secret sauce. As my colleague James Downes has said before, it’s just a set of tools that when matched to the right mindset can move mountains. Empathy, openness, collaboration, experimentation and an appreciation of simplicity are the mindsets that will help you innovate.

Are you ready?