How can organizations unleash creative potential?

During the master class we felt ourselves and saw our fellow participants get ignited with a feeling of creativity and gaining a new appreciation of what is considered as creative. Many of us believed to not be creative, but when faced with the right questions and frameworks, most of us realized we indeed are.

We were left curious about how to use Design Thinking in an organization in practice. Why should organizations care about unleashing the creative potential of their members in the first place? What are the blockers in organizations?

Get rid of blockers on all levels

Most of us have lost our creative confidence while growing up. As children, we tended to think creatively, outside the box and without fear of judgment. Kelley and Kelley suggest for individuals to face their phobias around fear of judgment. Also a key element for creativity according to Kelley and Kelley is empathy with your clients or users of the end result. People should believe in themselves again, because they were born creative. (DTALE Design Studio. 2017.) It was evident in our masterclass that many of us had lost confidence in our creativity.

In our own experience, in organizations creativity is killed on a daily basis and the habit of doing so can go quite unnoticed. Often the difficult, disruptive questions are not appreciated, which effectively blocks any new thoughts on the raised subject. Also blunt answers like “we have tried that 10 years ago and it did not go that well” to any new ideas do not nurture a creative culture whatsoever. Which of these idea killers have you heard before?

According to Kelley and Kelley (2015) the key focus areas for organizations for getting rid of the blockers of creativity are: nurturing a creative culture, avoiding “the talking phase”, where management is on board and talking positively about creativity, but nothing actually happens in the organization. They suggest creating a team of design catalysts with members who are excited about design thinking from all over the organization to build creativity as a grassroot action with quick wins. Organizations should also lift their focus from short sight to a multi-year horizon. Innovation culture is made out of humor, getting infected with each other’s energy, minimizing hierarchy, increasing team trust and camaraderie and lessening judgment. (Kelley & Kelley 2015, 175-179, 184)

For us this recipe sounds like a place where people can truly thrive and give their all and more towards the goals of the organization. How could we get more organizations on board?

Getting the managers on board

Organizations are made of people with a certain training. Roger Martin, long time Dean of Rotman Business School in Toronto has recognized that business education and the management practice are quite conservative. He advocates for a change in management education: to start teaching students how designers think (design thinking) and design shops work (project based). Working in the design shop way, he argues, management would be more creative in solving problems and would embrace constraints as an exciting challenge instead of obstacles. (Dunne 2006)

(Tuuva Tiainen based on Dunne 2006)

What does it look like when an organization puts design thinking to use?

From reading research it becomes clear that both the definition of design thinking and its implementations can be remarkably varied. Carlgren (2016) shows examples of conceptualizing a fixed multi-step innovation process based on design thinking. At the other extreme the entire innovation work of a company can be given only three principles based on Design thinking and the rest is up to the project to define as it sees fit. With such a multitude of approaches it becomes hard to talk about the concept let alone research and compare organizations. To facilitate discussion and research Carlgren proposes a framework of five main themes: User focus, Problem framing, Visualization, Experimentation and Diversity. (Carlgren 2016)

Interestingly the word creativity is not included in the framework, even though creativity and ideation are foundational in the initial descriptions of Design thinking by Tim Brown and IDEO. Creativity is needed in many if not all the phases of the design process making it a pervasive attitude as a part of cycles of divergent and convergent thinking. As the researched companies are already using design thinking it might be less of an issue to foster a creative environment.

We are left hopeful since Katja Tschimmel’s Master class taught us that creative thinking is a skill you can learn and develop. We can therefore also learn how to ignite people around us. We now possess some knowledge about design thinking and can either help to implement it in our organizations or nudge them to improve in that area.


Written by Tuuva Tiainen and Janne Karjalainen

Carlgren, L., Rauth, I. & Elmquist., M. 2016. Framing Design Thinking: The Concept in Idea and Enactment. Creativity and Innovation Management, Vol. 25, Nr. 1. 38-57.

Dunne, D. & Martin, R. 2006. Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education: An Interview and Discussion. Academy of Management Learning & Education, Vol. 5, No. 4, 512–52.

Kelley, D. & Kelley, T. Creative Confidence. 2015. Unleashing the creative potential within us all. Edition 2015/25. London: William Collins.

DTALE Design Studio. 2017. How to build your creative confidence. Accessed 27 September 2022.

Tschimmel, K. 2021. Creativity, Design and Design Thinking – A Human-Centred ménage à trois for Innovation. In Perspectives on Design II. Ed. Springer “Serie in Design and Innovation”. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-79879-6.

7 thoughts on “How can organizations unleash creative potential?

  1. The blog is very easy to follow. I really like that the focus of the article is on integrating design thinking into an organization /discipline.

  2. I enjoyed how in your blog you explore the perspective of what blocks creativity in organizations. I am currently listening to the talks at Service Design Global conference 2022, and on one of the talks about bridging strategy and execution, they were bringing up a good point about how if we overdo Design Thinking it can also become a set back. If we take a user-centered approach to the process, while forgetting the organisation, it can become a blocker to opening up to creativity. If we understand the users needs perfectly but don’t align with the company’s strategy plan it becomes difficult to get them on-board.

    Mathias Holdsbjerg-Larsen from 1508 agency in Copenhagen presented a framework using a dynamic roadmap that gets the organization on-board with investing on developing the design maturity and avoids having them asking themselves “It all sounds good but, are we the ones to solve this problem?”

  3. Your blog post is very pleasant to read, and it also sums up my feelings about the masterclass. It was indeed inspiring to see how we could unleash our creative potential using different tools and frameworks. The idea killers you presented are all very familiar; unfortunately, I have heard all of them at work. Let’s hope that more and more organizations will put design thinking to use!

  4. I suppose that most of us have wondered why organizations don’t utilize all that creativity what their employees have. In a traditional organization hierarchy often blocks creativity because all decisions come from directors. There is no space or culture how to share ideas.

    I recognize the problem about disruptive questions, what you mentioned in your blog post. Managers and especially directors should be concerned when there are no disruptive questions anymore.

    As you mentioned, business education and the management practice are quite conservative, and managers don’t’ have understanding or knowledge about design thinking. Dunne’s idea, Design shop, could be one solution in the future to be more creative in solving problems. Extra points for your picture about design shop.

  5. a good step-by-step description of the context. I found the section on blocked creativity to be interesting and will use what I learned there in my current work. I once worked for a boss who believed that those in lower positions than he were incapable of providing sound advice! And he always advised people to only do as they were told. I initially protested, although there were occasions when I kept my thoughts to myself. Block creativity destroys your passion for your work.

  6. This was an interesting take on the topic. You can have the best, most creative and talented people in your company and still fail, if they are not in an environment that supports them and let’s them experiment and try out new things.

    Training managers is one solution, but making a change to the culture of an organization is tricky… but not impossible. It reminds me of Ikea and how it tried entering Japanese market the first time. Ikea went with its’ “already proven” concept from before, yet didn’t succeed the first time in Japan. They tried again years later, this time letting go of the mindset “we know what we are doing” and instead studied the market in detail. This time they succeeded, as they were ready to innovate and listen to their customers; they realized Japanese customers don’t often have access to cars (hence, they added delivery service option for the first time) and that a Japanese home is much smaller than a typical western home (hence, they adjusted the product sizes to Japanese market).

    I’m curious to learn more about this, how to enable our companies to be more creative and innovative

  7. Very interesting and probably familiar topic for many of us, how not to lose the interest and creativity when there is long list of daily tasks and obstacles to pass, deadlines, and budgets to follow. Feels like there is no time neither space for any creativity anymore, just how to get work done as soon as possible.

    I truly believe it should start from managers and company culture. You can be very creative, but if all of your thoughts and proposals are rejected, at some point you will lose your motivation. And another way around, if you are supported, encouraged, and have time to focus on new ideas, result would be different.

    It is fascinating to follow how it´s changing already now in big global companies like Google, where employees have rooms for relaxation or play, so they can set free their brains during the working day and how it will spread more for other companies in the future.

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