Embracing the Power of Design Thinking

Posted on Thu, July 09, 2015 in Business Strategy, by Paul Weinert

Refining how GRAYBOX thinks about design, planning and meetings

I’m a practical guy. I believe that meetings should have order, that questions should have answers and that all problems are solvable with a good process in hand. This means that most projects at GRAYBOX have always walked a fairly linear path. We gather information, analyze that input, recommend a solution, then implement it. While most of our projects take about six months, the data gathering stage typically ends around the first month and then we build for the remaining time of the project.

We’ve always cared about the quality of our work above everything else, but almost all of the planning would happen at the beginning of the project. This made sense when we used to do mostly smaller work — but now some of our projects are years in duration and we’ve realized we need a way to incorporate both planning and execution into all stages of the project.

Moreover, our team is larger than ever before — we have 20 people with a wide variety of skills and expertise, and we needed a mechanism to help surface that knowledge. GRAYBOX provides the best value to our clients when we can speak into all aspects of their business; we have experts in four main areas, Marketing, Creative, Technology, and Business Operations. And all are inter-related. What we do from a tech standpoint can impact their marketing and thus impact their business reporting. The best work lies at the intersection of these points.

We need a new approach that accomplishes a few key things at once:

  1. Encourages collaboration among our team and with our clients
  2. Safely encourages others to share their experiences and teach from their past lessons
  3. Gather information from uncommon sources
  4. Document the thinking behind decisions and solutions for long-lasting projects / clients
  5. Constantly reevaluate our work in light of new information and refine our work over time
  6. Surface ideas from the entire team, regardless of size
  7. Collaboratively make decisions with total group buy-in

An answer for us has been starting to incorporate Design Thinking into our process. We feel like we’ve just dipped our toes into the water, but it’s already having an impact on our communication, collaboration and, most importantly, the quality of work we produce for our clients. Let’s look at the results and see how we’re getting us there.


The first thing we learned is that Design Thinking isn’t a specific moment in time or a box to check off a checklist – rather it’s a different way of working & thinking together. Like the design process, we’ve acknowledged that long projects can be messy and follow a nonlinear path. Good ideas can come from anywhere and we need to remain flexible.

As such, we’re establishing some new processes to encourage communication across our teams. Practically, this means more time spent physically together; more time in short check-in meetings; more time to build plans and validate solutions; and more time seeking out other people’s opinions. If we want input from all sources, we need to create time for that communication to happen.


Likewise, to increase communication, we’ve used Design Thinking to expand our team collaboration. To make the best quality work, we need our team to work together so we can all bring our individual perspectives to bear. Our team is separated into four groups — Marketing, Creative, Technical, and Business Consulting — and it’s imperative that each is heard so we can continue to create quality work. It’s unrealistic that one person can look out for all these facets alone.

So we needed to make sure our teams’ collaboration builds solutions together. To do this, we’ve formalized a review process so each team signs off on another team’s plan before the client sees it. More importantly, someone from each team actively participates in all planning or solution design meetings so we have their input from the start.

One powerful Design Thinking tool we’ve used a lot recently is posting up our answers to a shared wall instead of just discussing the subject openly. A discussion is great for depth, but by its nature, it’s a linear path for the entire group. If we post up our answers it forces everyone to share their perspective and we get ideas from all sides in the group.

Safe Spaces to Share Experiences

This one is key — to encourage collaboration and open up communication, we need to make sure that we have a safe place where the team can feel like they can share ideas without judgement. We have MANY bad ideas, but they are just as important as they help us find the good ones.

This means we acknowledge each others’ ideas and we are candid in discussing them instead of just ignoring them. Moreover, we are shifting our thinking from believing someone already has the answer, and instead, understanding that it’s a process for us to reach a resolution together.

One thing we’re trying to do is not TELL how something should be done as that’s definitive and prescriptive. Instead, we’re trying to tell stories — tangible stories of our successes or failures that help illuminate similar situations and help provide guidance to the team.

Assimilating New Information

Since we are trying to get all these new inputs, it’s critical that we know how to consume this information and help us adjust our plans as we go along. This means that after our major “discovery” phase the planning phase isn’t done. Rather, as each feature or step goes into the building phase, we circle back to reconfirm the plan before that individual thing is built.

Group Buy-In

One nice side effect of our new collaboration and communication paradigm has been increased buy-in of the solution and work by our entire team and our clients — everyone has a seat at the table, so everyone has felt more valued and apart of the process. Moreover, with our clients positioned more as equal participants in the process (instead of stakeholders or observers) they also feel more engaged in the process; resulting in greater ownership of the outcome.

Since we are all “designers” of the solution, we all own it together.

Documentation of Thinking

Finally, an unexpected effect of using these design thinking frameworks has been that we now have a more thorough documentation of our decision making process. When we have these collaborative meetings, we end up whiteboarding quite a bit — and we capture these “artifacts” by just taking a quick picture of the board. If we have time, we then scribe these notes into a cleaner format and can post them into our Project Management utility. It’s been amazing how much we reference past drawings or ideas now that we capture them all.

At times, the abstraction of bringing Design Thinking systems into GRAYBOX has been painful for me — sometimes I just want to declare a solution and have it built. But, as we’ve started to embrace the ambiguity as a necessary part of the refinement process, it’s been a powerful agent for change in the organization. We’re communicating better, we collaborate better and we all bring more care than we did before – we’re a better team and we produce better work as a result. I challenge you to try it yourself.

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