Why Design Thinking and Why Now?



Design Thinking (DT) has become a sought-after competency for modern businesses. Why? And what is DT good for?

Let's first take a step back. In prior decades, a company's success was closely tied to product or service optimization—making things better, faster and cheaper. The approach made sense; risk and investment in new products were often large, and time horizons to improve products were measured in years. In this business landscape, past knowledge and data portended the future. Multi-year roadmaps and investment in infrastructure and resourcing bets yielded predictable results. For many years it worked well, and business schools charged a premium to provide this knowledge to aspiring business leaders. 

Now fast-forward to today. Technology has simultaneously accelerated and converged to transform business norms. Any business can leverage real-time consumer data to iteratively shape products and services—or test out entirely new ones. Collaboration across disciplines and verticals is an essential norm. The cost and risk to experiment in the marketplace is not only at an historical low, but will continue to plummet. As a result, new entrants in marketplaces are common. And creating entirely new markets is also a reality.

Many of us are in HR-related fields, and as we look at our management and organizational structures, our ancestral business traditions are still hard-wired. Human resource practitioners are often held accountable for supporting outmoded business approaches. Human capital practices reinforce traditional models. Meanwhile, emergent companies are rewriting the rules about how we work, define talent, interface with customers and define 'a company' altogether.

This is where Design Thinking (DT) —an approach to generating new solutions to meet a customer's or stakeholder's needs—can help companies move quickly to rethink their business operating system. 

DT is a mindset and a process rooted in human-centered design. By stepping through a series of stages—from immersing oneself in a customer's problem, seeking insight from analogous industries, prototyping and iterating on concepts, and testing/measuring iterative solutions—teams can uncover new ways to address complex challenges.

DT is particularly useful at making sense of ambiguity, which is prolific in today's business landscape. It connects stakeholders to consumers, generates new ideas and approaches, raises talent engagement, spans discipline silos, saves money (that would otherwise go to high-paid consultancies), and gets everyone into the conversation about creating your business's future.

The authors of this article have used DT successfully to:

  • Improve the annual budgeting process across geographies.
  • Develop new ways for operational teams to do more with less.
  • Design and launch new consumer brands and mobile interfaces.
  • Infuse existing brands with key innovations to drive relevance.
  • Activate executive meetings and solve key business challenges.
  • Reset the vision and mission of a company and supporting organizations.
  • Engage cross-functional teams to solve nagging business challenges.

Getting Started

Starting up a DT culture in your organization is not hard, but it takes time and effort to help it take root. Fortunately for companies just trying out DT for the first time, there are several ways to get started.

Embrace the Process

DT is a process and a mindset. For some cultures that need concrete steps to make things happen, the process approach can be a good starting point. Bear in mind though, that the DT process is seldom a linear, start-to-finish sprint. Making sense of the customer needs, both stated and unstated, can require teams to revisit assumptions or directions set earlier in the process. For some tactically minded team members, this can be frustrating because forward progress seems to halt.

Embrace the Mindset

From some perspectives, the DT process comes second to the mindset that supports it. This is because a team must demonstrate some innate curiosity around the people and assumptions they are studying in DT. The mindset around other attributes of the DT must also be cultivated in traditional business cultures, such as words like risk, empathy and experimentation. Many people in their day-to-day business aim to avoid these words in favor of predictable and measurable outcomes of yesterday's well-understood models.

Ideally, Embrace Both

Yes, it seems obvious that doing both is an advantage, but it is a struggle for many because switching gears from an operational excellence mindset to a DT mindset requires practice. Many of our most capable leaders and individual contributors operate 90% of their day on highly predictable outcomes. DT requires putting those brain patterns on break for a while.

Pulling It Through

When starting a new practice, it's helpful to build early momentum. Here are a few ways to begin using DT without breaking the existing machinery that keeps your business running day-to-day. Use one approach or combine them to get started.

Master One DT Tool

You don't need to have your team jump in with both feet on day one. Pick up one tool, such as Stakeholder Mapping or Brainstorming, to see how any individual tool can offer you immediate value and engage teams in new ways.

Rapid Prototype an Idea

Your team does not need a lab or materials to create a new prototype of something. Are you looking for a way to dramatically enhance or shift how budgeting happens to save everyone time and effort? DT can be employed to rethink traditional business approaches as well as customer-facing products and services.

Power an Offsite

In our experience, a DT-powered offsite delivers 10 times the business value than a traditional presentation-style approach. Offsites that employ DT tools and processes engage cross-discipline teams to actively solve nagging challenges in real time, engage leaders in new ways, and provide the exposure and air-cover to think differently about how business is conducted.

Jump Start a Team

Bring in some outside help to get DT started. The Design Thinkers Academy is a global organization with open-sourced tools and trained facilitators to help stand up DT in all types of organizations. If you need a boost launching DT, this kind of organization (and there are many others, too) can help your teams get a foothold.

Create a Practice

For companies that are large enough, it could make sense to organize a cross-functional DT practice. Practice members become champions of both the process and tools. They can lead DT projects or work sessions individually or together and give the entire company a path forward in using DT in daily work life.

Employ Executive Stakeholders

Larger companies may find the need for coalitions of executives to provide air-cover and leadership in imbuing DT—especially in businesses that are highly operationally or tactically focused. To get started, consider forming a simple DT council and charter it to provide the growth opportunities for rising leaders and individual contributors to pitch-in, solve challenges and gain recognition.

Bonus: Now Tell the Story

Getting DT up and running takes inspiration and energy. Few approaches help culture to stick long-term like storytelling. Stories are how people make sense of the world—more so than reports, charts and slides alone. They package data, people and events into emotional (and thus memorable) vehicles that make them easy to understand, recall and share.

Storytelling happens to be a tool within the DT process itself. The collaborating, gathering data and artifacts, collecting testimonials, and experimenting all become the raw material for storytelling to appeal to stakeholders and make sense of consumer challenges.

Images and anecdotes from DT find their way into leaders' stories, executive presentations and content marketing, which are then shared by associates, consumers or PR teams. In addition, stories provide a platform for senior leaders to share higher ideals or for high-potential contributors to gain exposure. They amplify what we'd like to see more of in our people's mindset and behaviors (for example, they can signal that using DT for tough business challenges is encouraged—and not simply going to get you in trouble). We think that storytelling can help move the needle for sought-after employee engagement scores also.


Design Thinking: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_thinking

Rewriting the rules: http://content.inbound.com/content/adopting-agile-leadership-without-compromising-collaboration

Human-centered design: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human-centered_design

Stakeholder Mapping: http://www.stakeholdermap.com/

Brainstorming: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/technology/15-best-brainstorming-and-mind-mapping-tech-tools-for-every-creative-mind.html

The Design Thinkers Academy: http://www.designthinkersacademy.com/

Sought after employee engagement: https://www.druckerforum.org/blog/?p=1073

IDEO: http://www.ideou.com/products/storytelling-for-influence

Coursera: https://www.coursera.org/courses?languages=en&query=digital+storytelling


Originally published on SHRM Special Reports and Expert Views section. 



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