Design thinking offers a way to explore uncharted territory, uncover options, and solve complex business problems. But as much as leaders need new approaches to create competitive advantage, inspire innovation, and discover new paths for growth, they often don’t get the results they expect.1
Participants in design thinking exercises frequently neither understand the process nor have the skills needed to practice it successfully. In such cases, it’s no wonder that they become disenchanted or think they have failed.2
To get the benefits of design thinking, leaders need to know when to apply it, and they have to prepare both their employees and managers to do so. Our research has identified the characteristics that make an organization “design thinking-ready” as well as a strategic approach to adopting it.
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Why Use Design Thinking?
Design thinking is a discipline that emerged in the last half century or so from studies of innovation processes, problem-solving, and creativity. It takes an iterative, experimental approach to problem-solving that involves gaining a deep understanding of customer needs; defining a problem area; ideating new solutions; and then prototyping, testing, and refining them.
Many organizations that turn to design thinking have innovation in mind.3 Some look to it to devise new business models, products, or services. Others use it to identify pain points in the user experience and tweak their existing offerings. An organization might, for example, create digital experiences to improve access and ease of use for customers.
Among its many advantages, design thinking is well positioned to mitigate the sources of cognitive bias that prevent people from accurately describing what they want, and to help people visualize previously unimagined solutions to problems. It promotes empathy with customers, as well as reflection and learning.
1. R. Martin, “The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is the Next Competitive Advantage” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press, 2009); T. Brown and B. Katz, “Change by Design, Revised and Updated: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation” (New York: Harper Business, 2019); and J. Liedtka and T. Ogilvie, “Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers” (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
2. M. Kupp, J. Anderson, and J. Reckhenrich, “Why Design Thinking in Business Needs a Rethink,” MIT Sloan Management Review 59, no. 1 (fall 2017): 42; and B. Nussbaum, “Design Thinking Is a Failed Experiment. So What’s Next?” Fast Company, April 5, 2011, www.fastcompany.com.
3. D. Leonard and J.F. Rayport, “Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design,” Harvard Business Review 75, no. 6 (November-December 1997): 102-115.
4. J. Liedtka, “Perspective: Linking Design Thinking With Innovation Outcomes Through Cognitive Bias Reduction,” Journal of Product Innovation Management 32, no. 6 (November 2015): 925-938; Leonard and Rayport, “Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design,” 102-113; W. Visser, “Schön: Design as a Reflective Practice,” Collection 2 (2010): 21-25; and C. Bason and R.D. Austin, “The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking,” Harvard Business Review 97, no. 2 (March-April 2019): 82-91.
5. D. Dunne, “Implementing Design Thinking in Organizations: An Exploratory Study,” Journal of Organization Design 7, no. 1 (December 2018): 1-16.
6. Visser, “Schön: Design as a Reflective Practice,” 21-25.
7. F.E. Smulders, “Co-Operation in NPD: Coping With Different Learning Styles,” Creativity and Innovation Management 13, no. 4 (December 2004): 263-273.
8. K. Dorst, “Frame Innovation: Create New Thinking by Design” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2015).
9. J. Conklin, “Wicked Problems and Social Complexity,” chap. 1 in “Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems” (West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2006).
10. T.C. Nguyen, “Inventing the Perfect Umbrella,” Smithsonian Magazine, Dec. 9, 2013, www.smithsonianmag.com.
11. B.D. Rosso, “Creativity and Constraints: Exploring the Role of Constraints in the Creative Processes of Research and Development Teams,” Organization Studies 35, no. 4 (April 2014): 551-585.
12. M. Pillay and J. Davin, “Mining Innovation Puts People First: Designing for Users’ Needs,” PDF file (Deloitte and Norcat, 2017), www2.deloitte.com; H.T. Kristiansen, “Design Thinking for Innovation in Offshore Ship Bridge Development,” Journal of Maritime Research 11, no. 2 (April 2014): 53-60; and “NPS Design Thinking Community,” Naval Postgraduate School, accessed July 11, 2022, www.nps.edu.
13. K. Dorst, “Designer Nights Out: Good Urban Planning Can Reduce Drunken Violence,” The Conversation, Jan. 5, 2016, www.theconversation.com.
14. B. Murphy Jr., “Google Says It Still Uses the ‘20 Percent Rule,’ and You Should Totally Copy It,” Inc., Nov. 1, 2020, www.inc.com.
15. G. Muratovski, “Paradigm Shift: Report on the New Role of Design in Business and Society,” She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation 1, no. 2 (winter 2015): 118-139.