When Design Thinking becomes Improv Comedy

Anchit Som
5 min readSep 13, 2019


I recently attended a Design Thinking Summit aimed at corporates organised by Pensaar Design in IIM Bangalore. Before the summit I used to think of the Designer’s function to be similar to the Lead Guitarist of a band(healthy narcissism), however 3 days in that Bannerghatta campus made me realise that I’m much more like the comic who keeps an improv sketch together.

I woke up at 6:30 am on the morning of the summit, ready to learn Pensaar’s take on Design Thinking popularised by Stanford d.school and IDEO. It was a full-house with participants ranging from technology giants like Microsoft and McAfee to FMCG kings like ITC and Government bodies like NPCI. The session started with a revelation from Deepa the CEO and Founder that Design Thinking is a mindset that is industry agnostic and can be applied to any problem under the sun. Being a Designer this resonated strongly with me but the Managers and Engineers in the audience looked perplexed.

“Sales team sells, Engineers do Engineering and Designers design, what is this magical mindset that can be used by anybody to find solutions to anything.”

“It’s the mindset of being customer obsessed to the level that every action is taken in cognisance with the customer’s needs” Deepa answered. More words could have been exchanged but Pensaar decided to make people feel empathy rather than just talk about it. Thus we were given the challenge of Sustainable Living and Eco-friendly lifestyles for the 3 days to try out the process ourselves.

The process started with the basics of interviewing customers with a relentless focus on asking open-ended questions and listening without judgement. This laid down the foundation for the participants to go out and talk to students at IIM. They were hesitant to conduct interviews in the fear that they would come across as salesmen and get rejected. However they soon discovered that humans love to talk only if they are asked the right questions. By asking open ended questions and listening closely, all the participants developed empathy for the customer without realising it consciously. They discovered a love for the problem so strong that they started suggesting ways to recycle the paper used in the Summit.

With the first level of empathy established, we were introduced to a tool called the Empathy Map which allowed them to dig deeper into what the customer had said and find out their real motivations. This was the hardest part of the summit as most of us believe what people say on face value but never consider their unconscious biases. As my team went through the process I could see them look for insights but I became dismissive of their ideas quite quickly. While they liked my feedback, their confidence diminished and they turned from active thinking participants to simply agreeing with whatever I said. I didn’t notice this at first but when a coach came and pointed out issues with my Problem Statement I reckoned that I had been wrong the whole time. I sat down on my chair perturbed that I the “Designer” had gone astray and that’s when I heard my team members laugh at a joke from the customer interviews. I listened in closely and discovered that they were laughing at an important cultural insight. It was the Indian dichotomy of clean homes and littered surroundings- a discussion topic in tea stalls, living rooms and bars. It dawned on me that we all discuss insights without realising it, culture is a human construct and we love debates around it. Design Thinking is a methodology that uncovers these cultures to find out the human behaviour that drives them. Doing it right doesn’t need an apple to fall on our head but rather conversations and a ton of jokes that help us get to the root of why we do what we do. I joined the conversation helping them convert their laughter into deeper insights and we moved to the next day having become close buddies.

The next day started in the same jovial spirit and we were introduced to various ideation tools that helped us come up with radical solutions. Following Pensaar’s ideology of “think independently together”, each person wrote down their ideas on post-its which were later categorised into themes.

This method allowed for everybody’s voice to be heard and everybody’s idea to be seen preventing the loudest voice(me) from pushing its way.

Instead of dismissing the bad ideas, I made a conscious effort to build on them and we all started mixing and matching the post-its. It was unreal to see how a software engineer’s idea could be mixed with an NGO consulting veterans’ to create solutions. Once we had our solution set, everybody in the team jumped to create storyboards and prototypes. There were several assumptions in our solution and as part of the process we had to run experiments to test these assumptions. The team members took ownership of the solution treating it as their own creation and devised ingenious experiments to get feedback. We iterated on the fly, devising experiment after experiment until the customers gave us a resounding “Yes”. The summit ended with us sharing jokes on how we slyly approached the uninitiated college students in the IIM Campus and us leaving our full time jobs to make this a startup.

I left the conference hall with a smile having learnt so much from my diverse team-mates. However what struck me the most was the collaborative value of Design Thinking.

Akin to improv comedy, the process requires everybody to build on each other’s jokes such that the audience bursts out laughing.

While I can try and crack all the jokes myself, it would never have the same comedic timing or effect that a team effort does.