The Importance of Innovation and Design Thinking for Brands

Innovation and design thinking are new hot topics in board rooms these days, but anyone who has tried to make a company more innovative through strategic design knows that it’s really challenging. Newer companies that are starting off with innovation as a foundational principle have a big advantage over older organizations with legacy systems, ingrained cultural dynamics, and leadership who might understand the benefit but not really know where to begin.

Today’s guest, Avi Raj, is a design strategist who understands how to connect the dots between design thinking, business, and digital experience.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda, and you’re listening to Think Retail.

Innovation and design thinking are new hot topics in board rooms these days, but anyone who has tried to make a company more innovative through strategic design knows that it’s really challenging. Newer companies that are starting off with innovation as a foundational principle have a big advantage over older organizations with legacy systems, ingrained cultural dynamics, and leadership who might understand the benefit but not really know where to begin.

Today’s guest, Avi Raj, is a design strategist who understands how to connect the dots between design thinking, business, and digital experience.

Avi, thank you so much for joining us. Can you start us off by just telling us a little bit about you and your career?

Avi: Sure, thanks for having me, Melinda.

I was fortunate to find design as my calling at a very young age. However, the software industry was booming in India, and to satisfy my parents’ wishes, I did my undergrad in computer science engineering. And then I went to school of my childhood dreams, the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. And when I moved to Canada I continued my education with an MBA from Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and since then, I have worked for three Fortune 500 companies and co-founded three start-ups.

Melinda: Wow.

Avi: Thus, I am learning to share, I guess. I describe myself as a recovering entrepreneur now, an intrapreneur in the public sector. I am a design educator and founder of a non-profit,

Melinda: Wow, I mean, you have such a wide range of experience and you’re so young, it’s amazing, congratulations. So, before we get to how, can you tell us why businesses are starting to get excited about design thinking as a business approach?

Avi: I think there are many reasons for that. We live in an increasingly complex world, whether we are working on a business or global issues such as poverty, disease, or the environment, the solution that had worked before may not work again. Today anonymous users say, “Give me what I want, the way I want it, where I want it, and cheaper than yesterday.” And these issues can’t be solved from the knowledge of just one domain. So design thinking brings different disciplines together to solve a problem and combines creativity and rigor.

Secondly, it’s easy to fall into the trap of solving a problem in the same way when the results are positive, and the time is limited. Design thinking suggests exploring different options before arriving to a solution.

Melinda: Right.

Avi: And that’s the only way you can deliver a leap change rather than a step change. And then the third aspect that I would like to talk about, design thinking is prototyping, which is an integral part, and enables organizations to go into the future with more certainty. So as Roger Martin puts it, “Prototyping turns future into past.”

Melinda: Interesting, that is great… I love that.

Avi: Yeah.

Melinda: Okay, so you say design is a belief system. This is a lot bigger than just having a workshop here or there, which is, you know, we see that all the time, where they bring somebody in, you do a workshop, it’s exciting, but then you go along business as usual. How have you seen organizations actually become more innovative?

Avi: Now organizations are coming more into the realization than they might cease to exist if they don’t innovate. And this realization is happening due to a couple of reasons. First is the competition, then watching organizations once considered too big to fail and there are many collapsed due to their arrogance, and then watching design-driven organizations succeed.

Melinda: Right.

Avi: And especially we see design coming into prominence when there is competition in the market. So those are the external factors that would force an organization to become more innovative.

And then there are internal factors. There could be culmination of the small changes that would lead to a bigger change. More and more organizations are moving from waterfall models to agile.

Melinda: Okay. Can you tell me a little bit about what that means?

Avi: In the waterfall model, you follow the entire process, and then you deliver it. It’s a very siloed approach where you go from requirements gathering to maybe doing some wireframing and doing some development, and then launching a product. But when you have an agile model, you do that entire project in smaller chunks. So you make sure that you are succeeding in every step before you go further.

Melinda: Okay, great.

Avi: You’re making small investment but also, you’re making sure that you’re succeeding, and it’s aligned…whatever you’re creating is aligned to the business and to the user needs.

Melinda: Right, okay. So, before I took you on that little sidetrack there, you were talking about the internal factors.

Avi: Yeah. So, one example of this small change in my experience is a design sprint. So it’s a design thinking approach, at the same time it helps businesses to move in a direction with more certainty. We know that in general business people tend to be risk adverse, whereas designers love challenges. So in that sense, design sprint is a win-win for both designers and business people. You go into a design sprint with unknowns and uncertainty, which designers love, and then you come out with a long term vision, which business people love.

Melinda: Right.

Avi: So we need to come up with these kinds of win-win situations for an organization to integrate design thinking as part of their approach.

Melinda: So some people might not know what a design sprint is, can you tell us what that approach is all about?

Avi: Yeah, sure. So design sprint is a way of tackling a difficult challenge, and the way it works is you start with framing a problem, whatever the opportunity that you have, that you want to work on. And then it’s a five-day process where you have a representative from design, business, and technology. They work towards a solution, you end up with a solution in the form of prototype, which also gets validated by five potential users.

Melinda: So, okay, let’s say you want to make your organization more innovative. What are some of the biggest hurdles that an organization that doesn’t have these types of processes already integrated, what are they going to have to overcome?

Avi: Yeah, I think that’s a difficult question, but in general you may have hurdles from people, processes, and legacy systems. I think people would be the biggest one, especially if what they are working on has always worked. So, they don’t see the need for innovation. And also, when people collaborate, hurdles for processes and systems can be overcome.

Melinda: Right. So if you were talking about individuals, I mean it is true, if you have been doing it one way, it’s always worked for you. How do you address that individual and say, you know, this may have worked for you for the past 15 years, but you still need to be more innovative. How do you win them over?

Avi: I think, like I mentioned before, we need to come up with these win-win kind of situations between design and business, like those maybe perhaps the individuals we are talking about are in business. So, what would that win-win situation look like? And also look for opportunity that really needs design intervention. So, if there’s already a suction in certain departments or service, we don’t need to sell as much. And when you are given an opportunity, deliver the results.

Melinda: So, I mean, most companies don’t have the capacity to just hire a big team unless they’re a really big organization to start an innovation department. If you were going to advise a middle-sized company, a national company that says they want to have an innovation department, what would a step by step approach look like?

Avi: In my mind, it shouldn’t be a responsibility of one department to be innovative. Otherwise, you’re not utilizing the capacity of the entire organization. And so, by definition, design thinking is basically an approach that allows people to have more confidence in their creative ability.

Melinda: Okay.

Avi: And that definition is from David Kelley, who is one of the known gurus of design thinking. So every department can apply design thinking to be innovative. Design thinking doesn’t necessarily require you to do more things or add an extra step to existing process, but just to keep the customer at the heart of the process throughout. So as a starting step, every department should have a common understanding of their customer. And one approach to keeping the customer front and center, as we all know, is using personas. So perhaps display personas on every department wall, and talk about them as a real person.

Melinda: Okay, so let’s say, thinking about personas and putting the customer front and center is your first priority, but if you’re dealing with legacy processes, systems, and maybe people who maybe have some different opinions about design thinking or different opinions about being really brave and taking big steps, how do you take a step to get everybody on the same page in terms of putting the customer front and center?

Avi: Yeah, so if we want to put customers front and center, then we are thinking about the desirability of the end user, of the customer. So if we are truly a design-driven or, like, user-centric company, we are thinking about their needs, right, and then once we know what their motivations, their behavior, and the pain points are, we start to make our offering financially viable and technically feasible for the end user needs. So that would be the driving force for the organization to become more innovative.

Melinda: Right. And, I mean, of course, this is going to impact culture. So can you tell me a little bit about that?

Avi: Yeah, so design-focused approach does impact culture. For being design-focused, you have to be collaborative first. You will need to get…let go of the siloed approach, and itself is going to impact culture. So, for example, before we would have tedious business requirements documents, it would involve business architects working on it, and then individuals visualizing the solution in their heads. So now they start every project with step one of the design thinking process, which is reframing a problem into opportunity. And in order to reframe an opportunity, we have business, technology and design together in a workshop. Even some of the tools that we use now are extremely collaborative, but everyone works in the same space and has a common view of the project.

Melinda: Right.

Avi: And one such tool you might be aware of is Miro, which has become extremely valuable, especially during COVID where we have to collaborate remotely.

Melinda: Yeah, I don’t know how our team at SLD would have survived without Miro. It has enabled us to do brainstorming, envisioning sessions, and that kind of thing, virtually, which we were so used to doing that together in a space, but Miro in some ways has allowed, I think, even greater collaboration because the people who are sometimes quiet when you are there in person might be happy to just type away and add post-its to your board. So, yeah, absolutely, we love Miro.

Okay, so you’re currently working at Canada Post as a strategy and service design lead. Can you tell us about how your team is approaching service design?

Avi: Canada Post is a multichannel organization. We have an online presence, we have an offline presence, we have retail stores. Service design helps in aligning strategy, operations, and offerings. To me, service design is about having a common view of a project, and then you find possible intervention points in how we might try to improve the service. So in some ways, we were talking earlier about personas, it is like personas which help us gain a common understanding of our customers. In the same way, a service design blueprint gives common understanding of the project to various teams working in different stream lengths.

Melinda: Right.

Avi: Also, you’re not only thinking about the pain points, behavior, and motivation of your customer, but also thinking about the pain points, motivation, and behavior of your employees, who deliver the service.

Melinda: Yeah, I think that is something that businesses are only now really starting to wake up to. I think a lot of companies have been putting the customer more centered and building around the customer, but employees have really been left behind, and maybe one of the positives to come out of COVID is that, customers are interested in how you’re treating your employees, and that focus on how your employees are feeling, how they are doing, and whether or not you’re giving them the right tools to do their job has really sort of, I think, become more highlighted. And hopefully will become something that businesses start to tackle. So really, absolutely agree with you on that.

So if you were going to give me three ways that companies can easily start to integrate innovation and design thinking into their organization, what would those three simple steps be?

Avi: I would say learn from other organizations and tell their stories and analogies. And when you share those stories and analogies, focus on the why and how rather than just the what.

Melinda: Okay.

Avi: So that would be a small step just to bring the awareness. And then start with small wins to generate proof by making incremental changes and by prototyping, because then you’re not making huge investments, you’re making small investments and showing the positive effects. The small ones will have a ripple effect and gradually the whole organization will welcome the design intervention.

Melinda: Right, I love that, because I think a lot of the time when we think about innovation, it sometimes sounds really big, and it seems like we’re changing everything overnight, but it could be just one little, small thing that does have that domino effect. So I love that.

Avi: Yeah, exactly. And furthermore, as I mentioned before, have a common understanding of your customers.

Melinda: Yeah, great advice. Well, thank you so much for sharing your thinking with us today. Canada Post is really lucky to have you.

Avi: Yeah, Melinda, thank you so much for having me.

Melinda: If there ever was an opportune time to make a change it’s now. As businesses reopen, as the pandemic recedes, retailers have an opportunity to test new ideas and consumers are more open than ever to experiences that are outside of the ordinary. If you want a deeper dive into design thinking for your business, you can reach Avi at Thanks so much for listening to Think Retail.


Avinash Raj is a design leader and educator who is currently Canada Post’s Strategy and Service Design Lead and Coach. He is also the co-founder of

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email