What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions design thinking? For many, the term inspires thoughts of behemoths of Silicon Valley like Apple and Google or fast-moving upstarts like Uber and Airbnb. At Speechmark, we are convinced that design thinking also has its place in France. Far from Silicon Valley, several French companies are using design thinking to innovate and rapidly respond to the needs of their markets. Let’s take a look at some of the key lessons their experiences can teach us.
Fail fast…fail better…fail forward. All of these mantras have been associated with the turbulent world of Silicon Valley, where companies raise and lose millions of dollars at lightning speeds. When applied to design thinking, “fail fast” is much more than a catchy motto. Design thinkers tackle complex problems from the perspective of a scientist, experimenting with solutions and ready to adapt or iterate as needed. Failure is thus not an end in itself, but useful information in the search for the best solution to a problem.
But while failure is seen as a rite of passage for those in the startup space, the same cannot be said for the French business world, where failure has traditionally been a taboo. According to one statistic, a French professional needs nine years to recover from a professional failure, while it takes someone from Germany six years and a Norwegian needs just one year.
Integrating design thinking into their business processes has helped some French companies see failure in a new light. In one design thinking project, an Accorhotels team in Paris decided to allow local merchants to use a hotel lobby to sell their goods. While the project was not a success, the Accorhotels team remained positive about its benefits. Discussing the project, Accorhotel’s Marketing Innovation Lab director Mattieu Perrin explained that even though the project did not work out the first time around, it can still provide value for the company: “This is another reason why design thinking is interesting: we can take the best of each concept and mix the most interesting elements”.
As attitudes about failure are changing, design thinking is also helping to redefine the notion of the “expert.” A central tenet of design thinking is the importance of putting the user at the center of the process. Thus, necessary action steps are not dictated from above by an “expert,” but are drawn from user feedback. This is in stark contrast to the image of French project management depicted in a Harvard Business Review article entitled “The Making of a French Manager”:
“The design of French organizations reflects and reinforces the cerebral manager. France has a long tradition of centralization, of hierarchical rigidity, and of individual respect for authority. French company law resembles the country’s constitution in conferring power on a single person.”
In design thinking, there is no single expert or decider that directs the project. Perrin confirms: “It’s no longer the smartest person or the one who speaks the loudest who wins.”
Accorhotels is not the only French company to adapt this user-centric approach to solving problems. One of the key values of French rideshare company Blablacar is « the Member is the boss. » This motto reminds the team to always make the needs and experience of their users a priority when adding any new features to their service. In the early years, the company’s founder Fred Mazzella would contact users each week to learn about their experience using the platform. Today, the company’s « Member Voice » team is in charge of gathering user feedback and transmitting the information to the technical teams, which take the feedback into account when defining their priorities and roadmaps.
French furniture company LaPeyre offers another example of how empathy can lead to business results. The company worked with an international team of design thinking students to redesign the bathroom experience for the elderly. To do so, they interviewed individuals living in homes for the elderly and even took steps to immerse themselves in the physical space of the elderly. As a result of the project, LaPeyre developed a whole new product line and a new strategy for serving senior customers.
Successful design thinking teams benefit from the contributions of a variety of points of view and backgrounds. Today, many established French companies are seeing the benefits of this collaborative approach to problem solving. One such example is the Collaborative Innovation Laboratory (LCI) developed by Renault.
Established in 1899, the French automotive manufacturer may not be the first company that comes to mind when it comes to innovation. The Collaborative Innovation Laboratory provides the space for a startup mindset within the more traditional company by bringing together an interdisciplinary team of engineers, designers, ethnologists and other specialists. “Renault is filled with creative people who can’t use their creativity because they have very precise profitability and technical objectives,” explains Jean-François Lerooy. The LCI allows them to express their creativity without the limits typically associated with creating a new vehicle and outside the boundaries of a traditional silo structure.
As we have seen, far from being an American import that is irrelevant to the French context, design thinking has much to offer French companies. So what is design thinking à la française? According to Antoine Fenoglio, cofounder of the French design agency Sismo, it’s about improving everyday life through meaningful innovation and offering a method for solving the complex issues facing the world and businesses.
The design thinking approach is shaping a variety of industries in France, from up-and-coming startups to established brands. Are you ready to see what it can do for your team?
”Design thinking : cas pratique #2.” Site-web de l’Institut national de la propriété industrielle
“The Making of a French Manager. Harvard Business Review
“LCI, le laboratoire où Renault concocte ses innovations de rupture.” L’Usine Nouvelle
Pour un design thinking à la française #1. Site-web de l’Institut national de la propriété industrielle