Why Design Thinking Is the Future

By Marc Boisclair, March 14, 2017

The key to meeting success in the future lies in design thinking. Case in point: When worldwide shipping firm Maersk met with Maritz Global Events about planning its 2015 North American sales meeting, the agreement came with a caveat. “We told them, ‘You can have our full meeting if you can do the design work around it,’” says Timothy Simpson, then head of marketing and communications with Maersk Line North America. “We’d had a pretty tough year in 2014 and needed to galvanize our people to underscore how important they were to the company’s success.”

Until then, Maersk, like the shipping industry in general, had been sliding down a recession-made slope, buffeted by layoffs, erratic revenues, cautious buyers and low employee morale. What they didn’t need, says Simpson, was another event that required a lot of work and went way over budget with mixed results. Instead, Maritz steered Simpson’s division through an entirely different channel to its annual event, crafting a program that came in $60,000 under budget, ranked highest in Maersk post-meeting evaluations and turned 2015 into one of the division’s most profitable years ever. 


More than ever, attendees are better educated and more aware of their purpose both within an association as well as the world around them. They are demanding better meeting results from their boards and management. Thus, the experiences of Maritz and other incentive houses that have embraced design thinking can serve any planner well, no matter what type of group or meeting they plan for.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, design thinking, or DT, isn’t necessarily a new or particularly novel idea (see “By the Book” sidebar). A brief Google search will uncover many websites defining and discussing DT, brimming with buzzwords like ideate, empathize and rapid prototyping. You’ll also easily find enthusiastic proponents and practitioners of design thinking, notably Stanford University’s Institute of Design and design thinking site IDEO, whose CEO Tim Brown has written and spoken extensively about the subject.

For planners, design thinking essentially boils down to personalizing a message. That means thoroughly understanding the “ends” of a meeting or incentive program (e.g., the employees, attendees, top performers) to develop the most effective “means” to achieve the clients’ (corporations, associations, faith groups) goals. Like Dorothy looking to leave Oz, design thinking has been with us all along. It simply needed someone to recognize its usefulness, brand it (Maritz calls it experience design; at USMotivation, it’s clarity research; for IDEO, human-centered design), and apply it in a meeting or incentive setting.

For example, a home appliance manufacturer is concerned about why revenues from its 400-person sales team have dropped for two successive years. A traditional response might find the C-suite requesting an incentive that rewards its top 20 yearly performers with five days at a luxurious resort, to be announced at the company’s annual meeting. While not necessarily writing off that option, design thinkers would remind the client that the award alone doesn’t determine why the overall sales team isn’t performing better. Questions are critical: What’s behind the falling revenues? How do the salespeople truly feel about their roles? How do they think things can improve at their company?

design thinking

“You need to think about what intrinsically motivates the employee, the attendee, the recipient, and put tangibles around why you need to change what you’re doing,” says Maggie Wenthe, marketing strategy leader at ITA Group, an event management firm. While not yet entrenched in the industry, she says, “motivology” (ITA’s term for DT) is where meetings and incentives are headed.

The good news is any planner, no matter the group, its size or its purpose, can apply design thinking principles and enhance a meeting for the better. “You learn by doing, and yes, that’s a little risky,” says Wenthe. But by getting deep into the mindset of your audience, she adds, you can better understand what truly makes them tick—job satisfaction, community service, earning power, quality of life—and thus design a meeting or program that delivers the most productive results.

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