In Berlin, a 'Dark Horse' in innovation

BERLIN -- An unusual collective is helping German big business to innovate by teaching it how to "play".
Written by Shannon Smith, Correspondent (Berlin)

BERLIN -- When Greta Konrad played the "Clean-Up Song" during a workshop for a major software corporation, the suit-and-tie crowd was decidedly skeptical.

"It was a part of a game to make tidying up the workplace fun, but predictably, no one was willing to get silly in front of anyone else," Konrad, co-founder of creative agency Dark Horse, remembers.

After steady encouragement though, not only was the group dancing gleefully around the room while paring down desk clutter -- but they demanded the song again later.

The workshop was part of an introduction to the concept of "design thinking", a problem-solving method employing empathy via inquiry, creativity through cross-disciplinary collaboration and practicality of application, that aims to grow innovative potential.

Since Konrad and 32 of her fellow graduates from the HPI School of Design Thinking founded Dark Horse three years ago, the agency has employed "structured fun" in the form of Legos®, Playmobil® figures and unusual exercises in workshops and project development to dissolve blocks standing in the way of innovation -- and support the practical realization of ideas.

The Berlin-based group of design thinking specialists has already garnered the attention of major corporations, universities and governmental organizations looking to increase their innovation quotient. Audi, Volkswagen, DHL and the German government have all turned to fledgling Dark Horse to help them tap into the creative energy field Germany's startups have been cultivating lately. The trend may indicate a new advent for design thinking in Germany, as well as a remedy to the frequent accusation that Europe -- with particular respect to its business establishment -- is too failure-averse.

"All we'd ever heard was 'don't found a company with your friends' and 'don't do it with more than three people'," Konrad said. "I'm pretty sure it was the right decision not to heed that advice."

Dark Horse is, by definition, a mold-breaking agency: its 32 partners hold equal decision-making power, and members are not allowed to work more than three days a week. With some 25 different professional and degree-based competencies among them, each project workgroup requires at least one member to have no knowledge in the subject at hand.

"The fact that we're specializing in so many different fields as well as working on projects [outside of the Dark Horse], means we're always in a position to pose the 'dumb' questions," Konrad said.

From visual art and political science to mechanical engineering and web design, Dark Horse has a broad range of skills at its disposal, also in the development of its own independent projects in addition to members' external undertakings. But co-founder Lisa Zoth says it's the principles of design thinking, learning to fail in order to innovate, and "lean" problem solving that have to permeate an organization in order for it to succeed.

"We've learned that the biggest block to real innovation is the last phase -- realization," Zoth said.

"Everyone gets excited about the preliminary creative phases, the development and testing of a prototype. But when it's time to come back to the boss and make it happen, often they want to see their qualitative studies or other traditional confirmations that the prototype is a good idea."

"Now we know we have to focus on changing the entire company culture in order for creativity to break through, from problem to innovative solution."

Many design experts have become critical of the design thinking movement for just this reason, even citing it as a failure.

"From the beginning, the process of design thinking was a scaffolding for the real deliverable: creativity,"BusinessWeek's Bruce Nussbaum wrote for FastCompany in 2011.

"But in order to appeal to the business culture of process, it was denuded of the mess, the conflict, failure, emotions, and looping circularity that is part and parcel of the creative process."

"In a few companies, CEOs and managers accepted that mess along with the process and real innovation took place. In most others, it did not. As practitioners of design thinking in consultancies now acknowledge, the success rate for the process was low, very low."

As Nussbaum explained his refocus on the term "creative intelligence", he nonetheless acknowledged design thinking's fundamental contributions to the field of design:

"Design thinking broke design out of its specialized, narrow, and limited base and connected it to more important issues and a wider universe of profit and non-profit organizations."

Members of the Dark Horse collective say this very shift is why they believe they're on the right track with German big business:

"Traditional German businesses are built around avoiding surprises," Konrad said.

"But we're here to accelerate the ability of organizations to absorb the ‘fail early, fail often' principle: humans work in cycles, meaning this is the fastest way to achieve results."

"If businesses can come to understand failure and surprise as a catalyst for innovation, they can start to embrace it."

PHOTOS: Kay Herschelmann / Shannon Smith

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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