Innovation  | 6 MIN. READ

Empowering Design Thinking Catalysts to Scale Your Transformation

Adam Billing, Founder of Treehouse Innovation, March 5, 2019

Empowering Catalysts to Scale Your Transformation EffortRead any case study about how the most consistently innovative and high-performing companies like Google, Intuit, Pixar and others have achieved their success, and one thing becomes immediately clear: innovation is at the heart of their culture, not just in their PR.

In a truly innovative culture, people live and breathe agile, human-centred values. Core mindsets of empathy, cross-functional collaboration, prototyping and experimentation are reflected in the way they instinctively approach problems, organize themselves, and interact with customers and each other.

But how do they get this way?

Here at Treehouse Innovation, we have spent the last decade or so helping some of the world’s largest and most successful companies transform their cultures. Along the way, we have learned a lot about what makes some cultural transformation efforts stick, and why others struggle to take root.

While every transformation journey is unique, there are a few characteristics that are shared across the most successful organizations we have worked with. One of which is knowing who their internal “innovation catalysts” are, and how best to support them.

What do we mean by “catalysts”?

These are the people in your organization that already understand the need for transformative change, and have the inherent drive and desire to play a leading role in making it happen. Catalysts can come from anywhere. They are passionate change-agents and can be found in marketing, HR, product teams, finance and operations, across seniority levels and geographies.

Smart companies are investing in actively identifying these people and then giving them the support they need to go forth into the organization and drive transformation where it really happens: in the real, day-to-day working of the business.

Here are a few of the things we’re seeing the most successful organizations doing to support their catalysts:

Set Them up For Success

Remember, catalysts have bravely held their hand up to take on the difficult job of evangelizing and implementing new ways of thinking and working in an environment that may not always be ready to embrace change. It is critical to give catalysts the knowledge, tools, methods and most vitally, the confidence and support they need to get results.

This usually starts with formal training to master essential human-centred design process, tools and mindsets followed by some early, low-risk opportunities to apply them. At Treehouse, we like ExperiencePoint's ExperienceInnovation suite to do this as quickly and effectively as possible.

These learning experiences are most powerful when they are tailored to support, not only the effective application of new practices, but also to develop skills and strategies for cascading them. For example, in our transformation work with one of the world’s largest consultancies, we run separate programs for people in the firm who need basic design thinking awareness, versus those who have been identified as the catalysts who will be driving the change.

In addition to the experiential learning and application of design thinking, the catalysts’ programs helps participants to diagnose the strengths and barriers within their teams in order to design practical interventions, workshops and projects that they will lead immediately after.

Build up to The Big Challenges

Because the people who tend to step up to be catalysts are often high-performing, motivated individuals, it is often tempting for leaders to task them with some of the organization’s most complex, intractable challenges right out of the gate.

This is a mistake.

Getting thrown into the deep end too soon can kill confidence, create bad internal press, and have a lasting negative impact on the transformation effort as a whole. Remember, even though these individuals may be up for the challenge, they are still honing a new skill set.

Enable catalysts to build confidence steadily with multiple real challenges that matter, as opposed to just one or two “make it or break it” projects. Providing the right tools, systems and coaching support can help a lot here. We developed the Sprintbase platform for this very purpose: to allow organizations to try more things, learn quickly and avoid the trap of having a small set of innovation projects that are “too expensive” to fail.

These early projects will provide catalysts with a wealth of learning and success stories, making them both better equipped to tackle the big challenges and more credible in the organization when it comes time to bring more teams onboard.

Allow Real Experimentation

Uncertainty is at the heart of innovation work. If you know what you are going to emerge with at the end of an innovation process, then it is not really innovation. To produce solutions that are genuinely new and novel, it is essential that teams venture into unexplored territory where the outcome is not yet known.

This requires experimentation. And experimentation requires a tolerance for failure.

Far too often, we see teams that are new to design thinking being tasked with projects that must produce outcomes that meet the same (or higher) success metrics as standard, non-innovation projects where the solution is to some extent already known. This is not only unrealistic, but creates a fear of failure among innovation teams. As a result, they are less likely to select truly new ideas and concepts and instead will opt for incremental ideas which are more likely to meet these measures.

For example, if one team is tasked with discovering a new way of creating value for a certain customer type, while another is working to build and release an update to an existing product, the way these teams are measured cannot be the same.

While metrics like short term ROI and Customer Satisfaction are fine for more incremental projects, teams that are being asked to explore new territory need to be measured not only on what they achieve, but also what they learn along the way, as this can be used to the benefit of the entire organization.

Leaders That Provide Great Air-Cover

In most cases, your catalysts will not be the most senior people in the organization. They will be looking at this opportunity as a way to do something that they are passionate about, makes a real impact, and will be a positive chapter in their professional career.

We mustn’t forget however, that many organizations have a very low tolerance of risk, and that by asking our catalysts to venture into unexplored territory (which is inherently risky), leaders can inadvertently create conditions where catalysts may feel vulnerable or exposed.

This is where providing great air-cover becomes incredibly important.

We work with the CIO of one of Europe’s largest broadcasters, who has a very clear policy for dealing with this: “As a leader, my job is to take the heat for the failures, and give our catalysts all the credit for successes”

After all, these individuals have volunteered to be the first to try out new tools and inhabit new mindsets where it matters the most — right on the front lines of your business where the risks are real and resistance most strongly felt. Only by ensuring that they know they are thoroughly supported and protected, will those catalysts succeed in driving the transformational change that is vital to the ongoing success and growth of the organization.


Learn how to enable innovation skill-building at scale here or download our free ebook Kickstart Innovation: A Guide for Organizations.

KickStart Innovation


Adam Billing is the founder of London-based innovation consultancy, Treehouse Innovation. He has spent most of his career working with companies to design new products, services and strategies; and to develop their own internal innovation capability. He is a frequent lecturer for innovation and design thinking executing education and leadership development programs at the Cambridge University and elsewhere. Adam is also the co-founder and CEO of Sprintbase, the design thinking platform developed to support remote innovation teams.

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