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Design Thinking and your Team DNA

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Heard of "Design Thinking" yet? More corporate and military leaders are using “Design Thinking” as a tool for framing and solving complex problems in an increasingly complex world.

IBM recently commissioned an “IBM CEO Survey” and found that “le

ss than half of global CEOs believe their enterprises are adequately prepared to handle a highly volatile, increasingly complex business environment.

According to the survey of more than 1,500 Chief Executive Officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide “Eighty-four percent of CEOs interviewed said they expect the level of complexity to grow significantly over the next five years, but only 39 percent believe their organisations are equipped to deal with it successfully – the ability to innovate being one the largest leadership challenges identified in eight years of research.” (1)

Channelling raw creativity to quickly find practical solutions and innovate in a competitive environment (despite ongoing complexity and turbulence) is what it’s all about. It requires thinking “non linear” as a “designer” would to achieve real world objectives that “linear thinking” may not suit when high levels of complexity and uncertainty are present.

“Design Thinking” sets out to deal with complexity as a new way of “thinking about thinking” rather than being a simple set of functions or steps. It is a tool for quickly turning raw creativity into practical outcomes (often cleverly simple ones) that can solve complex problems.

Mastering this new paradigm for delivering innovation amidst the fog of complexity can give you a competitive edge. Effective teamwork and harnessing “Team DNA” is crucial to making “Design Thinking” useful.


Solid definitions for “Design” are difficult as it’s is one of those words (like “Art”) that can be a little slippery to define (and by its very nature non linear). In its organisational context perhaps the most succinct definition is the one below. “Team DNA” is a little simpler as it’s a term coined and used by Sabre to describe a specific set of approaches employed to define team strengths and weaknesses to enhance individual and team execution, understanding and capability.


“Design Thinking is a useful tool that applies creative and critical thinking to better understand, visualise and describe complex or ill structured problems and then develop practical approaches to solve them.” (2)

“Team DNA is a set of tools used by Sabre Corporate Development to identify individual and collective team role strengths and weaknesses. These are then applied in pragmatic ways to enhance team performance in processes like design.” (3)

People often talk about “innovation” but to “make it happen” requires the right mindset and importantly also the right “Team DNA”. To synthesise broad creativity at the “wide end of the funnel” and progressively channel it towards practical and detailed solutions at the “narrow end of the funnel” for implementation, a well balanced team is essential.


“Design” is non linear and a living process rather than just a set of functions or steps to be accomplished. The application of “Design” has three broad areas of activity or space that a team engaged in design should encompass.....

Framing the Environment - Framing the Problem - Considering Solutions.

These activities should seek to answer three very simple questions;

1. What is the broad context that our “Design” needs to apply to and within what environment?

2. What are the actual problems or challenges that need to be acted upon?

3. How will we solve or manage the challenge?

Throughout such processes all teams require differing team role inputs from members who cannot possess in equal measure on an individual basis the various intellectual and behavioural inputs required to make full spectrum “Design” work.

Therefore, people need to balance well with each other, tolerate differing operating styles and contribute at the right time in diverse but equally valuable areas. The broad aspects of “Team DNA” such as the following are included.......

Needs and Direction

To set directions, identify needs, allocate people to task and keep things on track as transitions between the conceptual and pragmatic elements occur in the process. At times hands-off or consultative in nature and at others more driving and dynamic. (Co Ordinator and Shaper).

Thinking Power

Creative thinking power is naturally central to design thinking in terms of generating original ideas or to synthesise unusual combinations of ideas, but then analytical and evaluative thinking styles are essential to critique and compare. (Plant, Monitor Evaluator)

External Liaison

A team will need to have some capability for being not only outward looking, but also for tapping information, ideas, expertise or resources external to the team. (Resource Investigator)


Awareness of how the team is operating at an emotional and relationship level is central to maintaining harmony, avoiding destructive competition and allowing the team to work cohesively through the process that can at times be frustrating and taxing. (Teamworker and Co Ordinator).

Implementation and Follow-Through

One of the aims of good design thinking is to channel raw creativity into practical solutions and so here the requirement is for disciplined and systematic approaches to the implementation of ideas and actual follow through into real steps of action and execution. (Implementer and Completer Finisher).

Technical Expertise

Essential to the completion of the total process are the contributions of subject matter experts and true specialists in fields related to the challenge, environment or proposed solutions. (Specialist).

Identifying and working with individual and collective “Team DNA” enables people and teams to understand, tolerate from others and best deploy the above elements in an increasingly complex world where “Design” (if well applied) can help to achieve your objectives.

The following steps are suggestive elements for a “Design” process that can help frame problems, ask the right questions and generate the right ideas.

They are non linear and can be undertaken concurrently and repeated when new inputs occur. Detailed planning can follow on or operate in tandem with “Design”, and the process can also exist during execution to modify approaches and deal with new challenges as they arise.

Define what the “Design” process is actually being applied to.

Decide what root issue you are actually seeking to resolve (solve the right problem!). Agree on who the audience / stakeholders are. Set timing / priority and urgency. Determine the actual desired end state / what will make this project a success.

Research the background.

Understand the real history of the issue as thoroughly as possible. Identify any existing obstacles and threats. Make sure you collect other examples of attempts / ideas that might have been used to try and solve this issue. Identify supporters, stakeholders, critics and opponents to be able to “get into their mindsets” during the process. Talk to the end users to get a clear idea of their actual intent and desired end state.

Generate as many creative ideas / approaches as possible within permitted time

With the actual needs of your end users in mind generate as many ideas and concepts as possible. Capture / log anything arising from brainstorming.

Do not judge, analyse or critique yet.

Prototype, build and develop upon ideas

Now expand upon, synthesise, build upon and refine raw ideas and concepts that may have been generated. If appropriate seek feedback from diverse people including end users to gauge whether broadly on the right track or not. Start to “war game” and refine raw ideas towards practical steps.

Select the best ways forward

Review the objective /mission once again and remove personality, ego and ownership of ideas as much as possible to avoid fruitless competition that can undermine quality decision-making. Avoid group think /consensus thinking. Select only the very best ideas with greatest chance of success.

Implement the best steps

Describe the practical steps for actual implementation and develop a detailed plan. Determine resources, assign tasking and move into actual execution.

Evaluate ongoing what’s working and what’s not

Monitor execution carefully seeking ongoing feedback to determine if the solution is meeting objectives or requires modification through further “Design”. Discuss what can be sustained, improved and fixed and document the lessons learned.

Changing and unfolding situations may also require contingencies and necessitate further “Design” as plans unfold into execution. No plan fully survives contact with reality.

For “Design” to actually succeed for teams at the “sharp end” effective leadership and teamwork are mission critical. To make sure any new tool is enhancing daily execution and not further convoluting or confounding it, leaders and teams must be able to apply it effectively together.

As “Design Thinking” transitions into detailed planning two separate but closely linked components exist; The Conceptual component, and the Detailed Component. The Conceptual component is the creative and non linear cognitive application of “Design”. The Detailed component is then being able to synthesise the broad concepts and ideas into a practical and detailed linear plans and execution.

These components may overlap, and there may be no clear delineation between them (which can challenge those used to linear approaches / thinking). Varying individual team role and behavioural traits will naturally manifest here as the process evolves, some not always comfortable in one component or other.

Innovation, adaptation and continuous learning are also central aspects of effective “Design”. Innovation is the ability to apply a new approach to a familiar challenge or situation.

Adaptation is modifying a known solution to suit a new challenge or situation and using it to respond to changes in your environment. Continuous Learning is building on lessons learned and maintaining the flexibility to absorb new inputs, ideas and approaches. Maintaining high situational awareness and ongoing team skills development are great enablers of organisational learning.


Large organisations now face environments where increasing complexity, turbulence and uncertainty mean that one person can barely understand and connect many of the challenges thrown up by this chaos let alone try and solve them.

Therefore genuine team based approaches to being able to frame and understand problems and then visualise and create effective solutions in real time is a winning formula for gaining a competitive advantage.

“Design Thinking” is certainly gathering momentum not just within commercial organisations but also within the military where design is now taught to Officers as a powerful tool for framing and solving ill structured and complex problems in dynamic and turbulent environments.

Recently the US Military devoted a large chapter to design in its latest Field Manual “The Operations Process” (a core piece of military doctrine for command decision making and planning).

Good design thinking helps you find the simplest and best ways to synchronise resources at your disposal to solve complex problems and achieve objectives with ongoing flexibility.

General Edward Cardon of the US army Command and Staff College states in his recent article in the Military review, “Unleashing Design – The Art of Battle Command”, that “design represents the most significant change to our planning methodology in more than a generation. It represents an intellectual paradigm shift that postures leaders for success in the 21st century.”(4)

Tim Brown in his article “Design Thinking” from the Harvard Business Review writes that design thinking “is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.” (5)

To “design” well enables a good team to better understand and solve existing problems (and to solve the right ones), identify threats and challenges before they impact you, identify and seize opportunities, shape future events rather than just reacting to them and achieve your objectives.

The very word “Design” may however frighten some more conventional linear thinkers. They may see the application of “Design” to their core business as a risky move but the reality is that increasing complexity and uncertainty in business means that “Design” can help if it is well utilised. “Design” enables a team to better understand their current state, truly visualise their desired future state and then pragmatically “Design” and implement solutions to move to desired end state amidst complexity. Any team that can do this well and quickly is at an advantage.

Good leaders help to apply “design” and guide a team through the process. They also help people who may be profoundly uncomfortable with some aspects of the “Design” process.

For example non linear thinking and those people naturally predisposed to it may actually end up driving the linear thinker nuts, and vica-versa. Design thus requires effective leadership that is able to not only operate within the ambiguities of “Design Thinking” but also take decisive steps to facilitate continuous dialogue and collaboration between team members of varying operating styles, avoid clashes, bring about tolerance and enhance their collective decision-making ability.

Design works best in an empowering “mission command” structure where teams are given clear intent from above as to what is expected of them so that they can properly analyse and define their own missions, then have great freedom of action to seize initiatives and act autonomously without higher authority being constantly needed to draw out decision making cycles.

This enables a faster tempo for teams to be able to identify and seize opportunities. It requires a great deal of trust, good doctrine, acceptance of risks and highly effective teamwork and leadership to succeed. If used haphazardly or without proper focus on common goals however, it can also be irrelevant, time consuming and ineffective.

When well deployed however it can help organisations deal with complexity, simplify their operations and change their business models where required to seize opportunities and thrive amidst increasing complexity.

So it seems that “Design” (or the process by other names) will be here to stay as large organisations seek to better harness team based approaches to creativity and innovation that enable them to overcome complexity and change.


1. The IBM “CEO Survey”, 2010

2. Brig. General Edward C Cardon, “Unleashing Design”. “Military Review”, April 2010

3. Tim Brown, “Design Thinking”. “Harvard Business Review”, June 2009

4. US Army Field Manual “FM 5-0, The Operations Process” - Chapter 3, March 2010

5. Sabre Corporate Development,” Team DNA”, Sabre Website 2009


Sabre Corporate Development has over 21 years of expertise and a successful track record with major clients in deploying pragmatic team based approaches at all levels.

Profiling individuals and teams with proven team role models like Belbin.

Designing specific events, programmes and approaches that ensure speedy and pragmatic application into the real world of insights and lessons learned.

Tailoring approaches to suit the client’s culture and to ensure that insights and learning are engaging, fun and relevant.

Sabre Corporate Development and our Team DNA based approaches can help real world teams use tools like Design Thinking in the optimal way based upon the genuine strengths and weaknesses of their own team.

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