TinkerLabs is demystifying innovation for companies, institutions


The bootstrapped Mumbai-based startup conducts workshops for students and professionals to arrive at solutions for the unpredictable business environment.

Organisations today are keen on innovation, and that involves dealing with people, technology and situations that cannot be predicted.

One way to stay relevant in the ever-changing and unpredictable environment is Design Thinking.

Design Thinking is an approach to problem-solving which involves five steps - empathise to understand end user; define to spell out the problem; ideate to brainstorm solutions; prototype to create mock-ups and test to solicit feedback.

In India, many companies are either seeking approaches to problem-solving, or have identified design thinking as an approach, but don’t know how to implement it. Here’s where TinkerLabs, a startup based out of Mumbai, steps in.

A Design Thinking consultancy, the startup’s training and consulting modules focus on creative problem solving with user-centered design.

Skill gap - from graduates to business leaders

Founded by Kunal Gupta and Ankur Grover in 2013, TinkerLabs offers experiential learning programmes on design thinking for students and professionals. In addition, it helps companies and organisations apply design thinking for specific problem-solving.

“When we talk about the gap in the training scenario, despite engineering and MBA degrees, young employees find it difficult to solve problems in ambiguous situations,” says Kunal, an alumnus of IIM-A.

“Engineers and MBA graduates can be great at analysis, and thrive if they have clear data or organised information. But real-world problems are rarely as clear and linear.”

So, what is the way out? “We need to teach people how to get comfortable with ambiguity and a bias towards experimenting with ideas. And that is what design thinking offers as a methodology,” he adds.

The company conducts Design Thinking workshops at academic institutes such as IIMs, IITs, SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, IMT, and MICA, and start-up incubators such as CIIE- IIMA, IIM C, and Startup Oasis, to name a few.

Kunal says a similar gap exists in corporate leadership, where CEOs, CFOs and managers realise the value of innovation, but are either unsure how to handle and manage innovation and hence are sceptical, or cannot prioritise innovation with respect to execution of existing strategy.

TinkerLabs addresses this learning challenge through its training workshops by:

  1. Contextualisation: TinkerLabs trainers believe design thinking has to be unique for every organisation. For instance, an IT manager finds value in being user-centric and hence would find maximum incremental value from design thinking from that perspective. For social managers on the other hand, they are strong on empathy with their beneficiaries and for them maximum value comes from experimental and co-creative approach to building solutions.
  2. Diverse backgrounds: Workshops are conducted by a set of two to three facilitators, from mixed backgrounds like design strategy, business and engineering, and human psychology
  3. Focus on designing learning experiences: The company maintains design thinking cannot be instructionally ‘taught’, so it crafts hands-on learning experiences based on the 3H model- Head (intellectual or conceptual understanding), Heart (excitement or emotional connect with the subject), Hands (tools and techniques to build hands-on confidence)

TinkerLabs’ process of consulting

“Our process of consulting involves a) developing deep empathy for the users, b) multi-disciplinary co-creation of potential ideas, followed by c) experimentation and iteration on these ideas to build innovative solutions that deliver both impact and user delight,” adds Kunal.

“The idea is to give people a real experience of working like a designer and building creative solutions. I remember for our first corporate programme, we invited professionals from Indian Railway, Cognizant, Unilever, P&G, market research firms, policy think tanks, as well as technology research labs,” he says.

A use-case of Design Thinking application with TinkerLabs

In a two-day workshop for improvement of Mumbai local trains, seven senior members from Central and Western Railway participated with people from various walks of life. The workshop identified problems such as difficulty in boarding trains at rush hour, under-utilisation of Automatic Ticket Vending Machines (ATVMs); overcrowding on staircases; unclean platforms; maintenance of platform toilets among others.

The workshop came up with –

  • a technology solution using heat maps for even distribution of commuters across trains and coaches
  • entry and exit markers for on-boarding and de-boarding
  • simplification of User Interface of ATVMs
  • new model for platform hoardings for increase in advertising revenue

Blending creativity and analysis to build experiential solutions

In a business organisation, human behaviour and interpersonal dynamics often derail the most meaningful solutions, whether in strategy, marketing, operations, or customer service. This is especially true in the context of new product development, launch of new operations, strategies, marketing campaigns, and introduction of new technologies. Companies end up making investments of money and time in products or service development that somehow, just does not add up.

By focusing on cheap prototyping early in the process of new product/service development, design thinking helps companies save precious time and money (which they would inevitably have to if directly finished solutions are tested with end customers),” says Ankur.

“We believe these situations are in fact interesting opportunities for creative and far reaching solutions. Design Thinking, with its focus on user empathy and prototyping, tackles these problems in a systematic yet creative way,” he says.

TinkerLabs has delivered creative solutions for companies such as Microsoft, Mahindra Retail, BabyOye, Oberoi Hotels, Future Group, L&T, SOTC, and Colgate India apart from NGOs like Save The Children India, Ashoka Foundation, and Tata Trusts.

“Our consulting model blends creativity and analysis - we like to simultaneously leverage the power of hypothesis-driven reductionist problem solving, and exploratory design-driven creative solutioning,” shares Kunal.

Growth and way forward

TinkerLabs is bootstrapped, and already profitable, that charges clients for training and consulting. It has a core team of eight, coupled with a network of consultants from design, technology, and management backgrounds catering to 60 (40 corporate, 20 academic institutes) clients. “Since we deliver great value to our clients, our repeat business from these 60 clients is significant, and hence, our total number of engagements is much higher,” Ankur says. The company posted a year-on-year growth of 380% in the first two years, and now stands as 298% Y-o-Y growth.

How does a design lab and consulting company scale up?

“We understand there are challenges in scaling up - both from a demand and supply perspective. Neither is the Indian market entirely mature in terms of demand for design innovation services, nor will it be simple to grow appropriate delivery capabilities as we still have limited intersection of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and humanities in India. But just as Infosys and NIIT revolutionised the technology landscape in India, we aim to build a global design thinking powerhouse, right here from India,” adds Kunal.





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