Failure of Design Thinking at Oticon


In 2007 a Danish company Oticon, a manufacturer of hearing aid for people with hearing impairment, made an innovative and courageous step. The top management decided to invest in a new group within the company that would invent things. This is how the Centre for Design Thinking was established. The role of the CDT manager was entrusted to a new employee holding a degree in mechanical engineering from one of the best universities in the US, a person with a lot of work experience who just had moved to Denmark. The nature of CDT’s role was given freedom and could work to different principles than the rest of the organization, based on interdisciplinary relations crossing the borders between the corporate divisions. A multifunctional team, consisting of people from business, audiology and engineering, worked together so that its members had free access to knowledge and other than their own expertise. The job of the CDT team was to create insights about both the users and the people who sell hearing aids. These insights were supposed to lead to new products and services that better serving the needs of the users of company products and services. External consultants were approached and for the first time in the history of the company feedback from the users of hearing aid was taken into account. Negative reactions and complaints about the company products were an unexpected and new situation for the company. One example was an uncomfortable speaker unit of a receiver-in-the-ear-canal (RITE) hearing device that goes inside in the ear canal. CDT measured ear canal geometry from a group of people and provided the rest of the organization with guidelines for more ergonomically shaped speaker units. These recommendations were taken into account and the hearing aid was then actually redesigned. Unfortunately, members of the CDT often felt that they were not taken seriously by other departments. But even when their ideas were understood, they were often rejected with an excuse that decisions have already been made. It happened almost all the time. Even the physical space became the source of trouble. As a Scandinavian company, Oticon did not accept lack of order and neatness at the workplace. But the design work assumes creative, lively, often chaotic work – desks are often covered with drawings, sketches and notes. The team bought whiteboards with wheels, which they could be moved and disassembled quickly. The financial crisis of 2008, accompanied by lack of understanding of the CDT role and its perception as a unit that only consumes resources and space without generating visible income (“just sitting around, talking to other people and hiring experts”) led to the closure of CDT in 2010. The CDT tasks were taken over by the Marketing Department that abandoned the concept of a direct contact to customers and the society, returning to old methods of sales and monitoring company competitors. The management of Oticon needed a few years to appreciate the value of the Design Thinking approach. A new “discovery team” was formed with a role similar to that of former CDT but is more deeply embedded into the corporate structure.


An unsuccessful project which was due to lack of understanding and failure to implement solutions proposed by CDT. This unit was evaluated as unnecessary and dismissed.