Designing Disruption: Reframing Design Thinking as an Innovation Framework Within the Canadian Energy Sector.


Design thinking is understood as a driver of innovation and change – a series of organizational resources, theoretical perspectives and creative protocols that can seed positive innovation and organizational transformation in established corporate cultures (Brown, 2009; Kelley, 2018). This study seeks to understand how design thinking can support organizational transformation, disruptive innovation and change management in one specific area of our larger economy: the Alberta energy sector.

To do this we will conduct a series of interviews with large scale oil and gas companies operating in the Alberta energy sector to better understand: the ways that design thinking can affect the innovation culture of an organization; the main individual and organizational barriers to adopting design thinking as an innovation process; and the specific organizational roles, functions and structures that support the use of design thinking practices. Data from this research study will be used to develop a series of case studies of “design thinkers” in the energy space, and to begin the work of re-framing design thinking as a theory of innovation.

Through this inquiry into the innovation and design thinking practices of energy sector corporations, this research will contribute to a better understanding of how design thinking can be used to complement other innovation frameworks. Findings from this research project will be disseminated in scholarly publications, at academic conferences and online in the form of open-access case studies and white paper resources, each of which will add theoretical and empirical contributions to the larger debates about nurturing and fostering innovation practices in Canada’s largest economic sector. This project is a pilot study of the use of design thinking in innovation work; the data collected and analyzed as part of this study will support future large scale and multi sector studies of the use of design thinking as a tool for innovation and change in the Canadian economy.

Design thinking is understood as a driver of positive and disruptive innovation (IDEOU, 2019; Kelley, 2013) – a series of organizational resources, theoretical perspectives and creative protocols that can seed positive innovation and organizational transformation in established corporate cultures (Brown & Wyatt, 2010). The use of design thinking as a driver of innovation and organizational transformation has been scrutinized for decades (Brown, 2009; Cross, 2011; Liedtka, 2015). However, most of these investigations have addressed design thinking as a form of process creativity, which has contributed to the blurring of boundaries between this impactful mindset and studies of individual practices within creative industries. What has driven recent growth of attention to design thinking (IDEO, 2019) in business sectors outside of the creative industries is a change of perspective: design thinking is increasingly characterized as a distinct innovation management practice (Hassi & Laasko, 2011), one which can support organizational transformation and change management and which can foster the development of an innovation culture within organizations and economic sectors facing changes in regulatory, environmental or social contexts (Plattner, Meinel & Leifer, 2012).

The Alberta energy sector presents unique evidence of this change of perspective: as participants in this sector become increasingly concerned with implementing disruptive, positive and creative change within established organizational cultures, they are innovating in new – and design thinking oriented – ways. As of September 2019, the majority of members of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) identify the need to disrupt or innovate within their current business model as critical or high (CAPP, 2019). Additionally, with decreasing investment in both the service and extraction industries (Natural Resources Canada, 2019) there is an appetite for “seeing things differently” in an industry ripe for disruption (Abbosh, Savic & Moore, 2018). The Alberta energy sector is a rich case study in the application of unique and deliberate innovation practices, many of which align with the framework presented by a design thinking approach (Ngo, 2018; Ransom, 2019).

By examining the use of design thinking practices within change and innovation-oriented initiatives in energy sector organizations, I hope to develop a clear picture of: how we can use design thinking to effect change and to complement other innovation frameworks; what is required to adopt design thinking practices in organizational cultures; and whether design thinking is an effective method of catalyzing innovation and change within the Canadian economy.

Specifically, I aim to answer the following key research questions:

1. How can design thinking affect the innovation culture of an organization?

2. What are the specific organizational roles, functions and structures that support the use of innovation-focused design thinking practices?

3. What is the empirical effectiveness and field of application of design thinking, and is design thinking positioned in relation to other innovation frameworks?

To examine the use of design thinking in this specific sector, I will use a qualitative approach to data collection and analysis. Together with undergraduate student research assistants, I will conduct 20 semi-structured interviews with change-leaders from large scale energy sector organizations. As Symon and Cassell have identified, semi-structured interviews are an ideal form of case development, as they can be structured to support the anonymized sharing of organizational and proprietary information or processes in a way that supports the use of the case by students and professionals (2004). We will analyze the data generated through these interviews by conducting a discourse analysis of interview responses generated by participants. Discourse analysis involves close reading and thematic analyses of various types of communication, under the assumption that the language employed in communication is an “irreducible part of social life” that is directly linked to many social-cognitive processes, including change-making (Fairclough, 2003, p. 2).  This approach will enable us to generate an in-depth description of the forms of change-making and the organizational roles, functions and structures that support the use of design thinking practices that are represented in participants’ interview responses. After analyzing and thematically coding the data (Braun & Clark, 2006), my student collaborators and I will develop five representative case studies – each placed on a continuum of “design thinker” intensity with the intent of representing the various uses of design thinking as an innovation framework. We will engage with participants during this final phase of the process by member checking case studies in development, and through a six-month post-engagement survey aimed at better understanding the durability and sustainability of any design thinking practices they did use in their work. The findings from this research work will be shared through the case studies (which can serve as teaching tools and as organizational resources for energy sector companies interested in adopting new practice forms), scholarly journal articles co-written with student participants, conference presentations and white papers connecting design thinking with the landscape of innovation theories, and with the innovation management discourse.

This research project is aligned with my larger program of scholarship here at MRU and represents a continuation of research that I have been conducting on the role of design thinking in the development of change making, social innovation and entrepreneurship practices. Additionally, this research project is a continuation of my commitment to student engagement in the research process – as indicated elsewhere in this application students will act as collaborators in the data collection, analysis and knowledge mobilization phases of this study. This research is framed as a pilot study of the use of design thinking in one specific sector: I plan to use knowledge generated here to support my future program of research which will include large scale and multi sector studies of the use of design thinking as a tool for innovation and change in the Canadian economy.

Through this study, I will advance a deeper understanding of how design thinking practices can be fully integrated into cultures and teams, how design thinking can support creative and critical change in organizations facing sector specific disruption, and how design thinking can foster a practice of change-making in a larger corporate community. This research project will contribute new knowledge to a critical gap in the field and will support the adoption of design thinking practices within energy sector organizations seeking positive and deliberate disruption.