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. In addition, it points the way to a model of leadership that encourages empathy for those affected by problems, and support for divergent thinking (that is, a broad search for possible solutions).4 As a result, organizations can have a range of goals for design thinking other than product, service, or business model innovation.5
Some organizations adopt design thinking to change their culture: to become nimbler or more responsive to customers. Design thinking helps because it involves active reflection, in which the nature of a problem is continually questioned.6 Thus, it encourages learning that in turn changes minds and behavior.7
Many organizations also see an opportunity to address so-called wicked problems through design thinking.8 Wicked problems are beyond ambiguous: They involve a tightly interwoven set of causes and effects, and defining the problem itself is central to the challenge. Even seemingly straightforward business challenges, like introducing a new vehicle model, can have wicked aspects: Think about balancing customer preferences with costs and technical considerations like fuel efficiency.9
Think Like a Designer
Designers’ methods are appealing in these situations precisely because they demand that people think outside the boundaries of business as usual. When we interviewed more than 50 design thinking experts in North America, Europe, and Australia, including business leaders who were skeptical of the approach, we found eight important differences between how designers and business managers think, work, and define their purpose. (See “Managerial Thinking Versus Design Thinking.”) The extent to which people in an organization — from top executives to employees — can learn to approach problems and define solutions along the following eight dimensions the way designers do will determine whether design thinking can succeed.
Purpose. Designers see their purpose as making life better for users — whether they are customers, patients, students, patrons, or employees. Many managers would argue that this is what business is about, too. However, for designers, improving users’ lives is the end in itself, not a means to making a profit for shareholders like it is for managers.
Approach to collaboration. Next, designers tend to take a holistic view of the user experience. They work best when they collaborate across functional silos and can see the organization the way the user sees it. Managers, on the other hand, tend to view their organization from where they sit, and they can be blind to the broader view. For example, when personnel at a Toronto hospital were asked to define the patient experience, they described only what happens in their department, rather than the totality of what happens to a patient from the onset of symptoms until they are (hopefully) cured.
Work style. Managers oversee hierarchies of people in predefined roles engaging in set processes and working toward established goals. Designers are more freewheeling: They will form ad hoc teams as needed to solve a problem. Contrast the typical business meeting with a design meeting. In the business meeting, participants work through a defined agenda methodically, and digressions are discouraged. When designers meet, they might be focused on a particular topic too, but going off script is often integral to the creative process, because it leads to ideas that might not have otherwise been considered. Managers who are used to tidy discussions with defined outcomes may find designers’ approach to be confusing or unproductive.
Thought process. Designers also make sense of problems differently. Managers thrive on deductive reasoning (applying a general rule to a specific situation) and inductive reasoning (inferring a general rule from observing specific situations). For example, using deductive reasoning, one can apply the established rule that umbrella sales go up when it rains and base sales forecasts on the weather outlook. Using inductive reasoning, one could observe that people are prepared to pay more for umbrellas when it is raining and infer that the best time to raise umbrella prices is during a rainstorm.
In both cases, decisions require concrete, reliable information, and managers might be discouraged from speculating when they don’t have it. In such situations, however, designers shine. They are skilled at abductive reasoning — considering the most likely explanation from incomplete information. By drawing inferences from limited information when that is all they have, they imagine what could be (such as a new type of umbrella that withstands windstorms).10
Knowledge generation. Managers tend to understand their customers through quantitative data, which tells them what people buy, when, and how. But numbers aren’t as good at revealing why people buy, what is missing from their lives, or what they might buy in a future they cannot envision. Designers get insight into how people think about their needs by gathering qualitative information from firsthand stories about how they live. However, because many organizations emphasize quantitative analysis, descriptive narratives can be dismissed as anecdotal and lacking in rigor and thus invalid.
View of constraints. Many managers view constraints — whether due to cost, technology, regulations, or time — as barriers that limit potential solutions to a problem. Designers, on the other hand, tend to welcome constraints as both a source of structure and a catalyst for creativity.11
Attitude toward failure. Designers experiment to figure out what works. Failure is an essential step toward uncovering the right answer. In many organizations, however, the prospect of failure provokes anxiety in managers, who might fear that a project is off the rails and resources are being wasted. Of course, any product or service has aspects that must be failure-proof. But failure-phobic managers make no distinction between critical and noncritical failure, thereby leaving no room for trial and error.
Adherence to established workflows. Finally, designers specialize in exploration, which leads them to question basic assumptions about how business is done and why. It is, in fact, their job. On the other hand, managers tend to favor exploitation: efficient, profitable results that may or may not solve customers’ problems. They have every incentive to continue applying what they know and taking for granted the way things have always worked, because doing so enables them to achieve their performance goals.
In summary, ways of thinking and working that make managers successful are often different from those that best serve designers. One way is not better than the other, and each has its place. In fact, it would be both unrealistic and undesirable for managers to think and act like designers, or vice versa, most of the time.
However, to succeed with design thinking, people at every level of the organization need to be ready and willing to adopt a designer’s mindset when called for — that is, when innovating, changing the corporate culture, or tackling wicked problems.
Is the Organization Ready?
Because the desired outcome of design thinking is to change something, adopting it requires a high degree of readiness among employees, managers, and executives alike. As noted, the goal is not to turn everyone into a designer or to apply design thinking to every problem. However, people need to understand — and become comfortable with — how designers operate.
Leaders can determine the extent to which the dimensions of design thinking are already understood and practiced within the organization using an assessment tool like the one we provide. (See “Design Thinking Readiness Assessment.”) By surveying both managers and employees, business leaders can uncover any disconnects between them that would threaten the success of a design thinking program.
In a large organization, whoever leads the design thinking initiative will want to survey the senior leadership team or, if they are starting with only a part of the company, the leaders of that segment. They would then survey the corresponding groups of employees: all employees or the employees of the relevant business units.
A high overall score indicates strong agreement among managers and employees that the dimensions of design thinking are prevalent in the organization: In that case, the organization is ready. A low score, indicating deep disagreement, suggests that design thinking isn’t right for the organization currently. In the middle, leaders will be able to identify areas of concern and see where they need to provide education and training, or use pilot projects, to shift the mindset of the organization. They can conduct a follow-up survey to evaluate the impact of such measures.
Next, we outline the steps to take in each scenario.
Not Ready: Stop and Reevaluate
If the dimensions of design thinking have no foothold in the organization, the approach is unlikely to succeed. Business leaders must decide whether to maintain their traditional approaches or begin a long process of changing the organization culture.
If they choose the latter, they can start by encouraging employees to explore how design thinking is applied by other companies in their own industry — even if it does not deliver products or experiences directly to consumers, like in mining, maritime engineering, and the military.12 Similarly, by participating in industry networks, employees can meet design thinking devotees and like-minded newcomers with whom they can share and explore how design thinking can be applied in their own environment. (For instance, the Design Management Institute and the global Service Design Network bring together participants from a variety of sectors and industries.)
If the company has no in-house expertise, it will have to develop it. Meanwhile, a small pilot project led by external design-thinking experts can help managers and employees alike gain hands-on experience.
Pockets of Readiness: Proceed With Caution
The assessment might reveal pockets of readiness. Managers might be ready to embrace a design thinking mindset while employees are not — or vice versa. By looking at how each group scores the different dimensions of design thinking, leaders can determine which area they need to work on.
For example, managers might give a high rating to cross-functional collaboration whereas employees rate it low. Such results would indicate that collaboration is more illusion than reality — promoted in principle, perhaps, but not necessarily practiced.
If employees are not on board, leaders should resist the temptation to impose design thinking from the top and instead identify champions within the company to educate their colleagues. These evangelists usually are not professional designers but businesspeople who have been trained in design methods and who excel at communication and collaboration. (One example is Judy Mellett, who held positions in retail marketing and pricing before pioneering service design at Telus, a Canadian telecommunications carrier.) Such champions can provide workshops for employees to learn about design principles and how they might be applied to problems they are facing.
A narrow problem that a team has tried to solve using traditional approaches can be a good starter project to show employees the benefits of design thinking. In 2012, students at the University of Technology Sydney used design thinking when revisiting the persistent problem of drunkenness and petty crime in one of the city’s entertainment neighborhoods. Past attempts at solutions had focused on enforcement; instead, the team looked at the problem from the perspective of “users” (young people out for a night of fun) and discovered that better signage, transportation, and lighting would help them to avoid danger.13
Stories that illuminate the user or customer perspective can help to build commitment and collaboration. At Royal Bank of Canada, such a story illustrated to senior leaders the value of design thinking in creating an attractive hybrid work environment for employees when some had returned to the office after the worst of the pandemic and others had not. A design team observed that when more people were working at home, the increased use of teleconferencing exacerbated noise levels for employees onsite in the open-plan offices. Design thinking provided a simple solution. “We [had] the world’s best technology when it comes to ergonomics, seats, webcams, docking stations — and then we realized the most important things were headphones,” said Peter Chow, director of innovation and future of work at the bank.
Employees might think like designers, especially when they are on the front lines, dealing with users directly and empathizing with their problems. And they might have innovative ideas. However, whether those ideas are ever implemented depends on support from managers.
Managers who aren’t open to fresh thinking might have good reasons, such as pressure to hit quarterly revenue numbers. In a situation like this, short-term success trumps long-term sustainability through innovation. Numbers beat stories.
When an organization encounters this mindset, attempting to push design thinking from the bottom up will be frustrating. Managers will be hesitant to give employees freedom to explore new solutions. Champions of design thinking will need to demonstrate its value. One way to do so is to pair employees who are predisposed to design thinking with an external design-thinking consultant. These cross-functional teams can explore user journeys and generate novel insights that show managers the value that design thinking can bring to the organization.
Ready to Go: Move Ahead, and Provide Support
When managers and employees alike are ready for design thinking, adopting and maintaining the practice still takes effort. At this stage, business leaders might be most concerned with how they balance running the business with exploring innovations.
To foster design thinking — and to balance running the organization with creating its future — leaders need to provide appropriate support. Specifically, they need a senior leader as a champion. They also need to provide mental and physical space to work on design projects. They must integrate the practice into the organization so that everyone feels part of it, and choose appropriate projects. And they need a way to measure the results that allows design thinking to thrive.
Find a champion. Leaders will need to stress the value of exploring disruptive ideas when making a public and sustained commitment to design thinking. In our research, we found that successful design-thinking programs have an executive sponsor to advocate for funding and to protect them when the ideas they generate create controversy. Leadership turnover makes such programs vulnerable, however. For example, the Danish government’s MindLab, established in 2002, grew to world renown under the wing of a farsighted deputy minister, but commitment to the lab faded over time as new leaders came into office. The lab shut its doors in 2018.
Create space. Given that design thinking projects can take weeks to years to implement, employees need dedicated space to work on them. Many organizations set up design labs that offer a consistent space for cross-functional teams to work. Typically, these labs look and feel different from other offices and meeting places in the organization, with flexible space, egalitarian furniture arrangements, areas for focused discussions, and facilities for prototyping. (Consumer products company Procter & Gamble, for instance, converted a former brewery several blocks from its Cincinnati headquarters into a dedicated innovation space.)
Participants also need mental space: opportunities to think freely, speak openly, and focus. In one lab, the carpet in the center of the room was dubbed the “green carpet of safety,” where contributors from across the company could speak without worrying about political repercussions. In its early days, Google had its “20% rule,” which encouraged employees to spend one-fifth of their time working on anything they thought would most benefit the company. Three of its enduring products — Gmail, AdSense, and Google News — emerged from this program.14 Some companies engage in design sprints during which user-centered teams tackle design problems over several days. Some use a participatory, or codesign process, in which users are invited to join the design team for a series of workshops where they cocreate a new product or service.
Build connections. Starting a design lab will not by itself bring about broad change. In fact, managers should take care that setting up a separate space for design thinking doesn’t inadvertently send the message that innovation is only for an isolated elite. Departments charged with implementing what the design lab devises might not feel that they own the ideas or might find that these proposals fail to take technical or organizational realities into account.
Design thinking has to belong to everyone, especially if cultural change is the goal, and design labs need to build connections and support across the organization. To aid this effort, one lab recruited designers with strong social skills that people in other departments would want to work with. Other labs have asked that staff members be assigned from the departments that stand to benefit from the design thinking initiatives.
Choose the right projects. As noted earlier, design thinking has advanced from its roots to support many aspects of change — even business strategy.15 Yet it is important that leaders do not push design thinking when traditional problem-solving methods will do. If a decision will not benefit from a deep understanding of users, or if it is a well-defined problem (such as a manufacturing process for an extension of an existing product line), design thinking is unlikely to produce a solution that could not have been arrived at in other ways. In such cases, over-application of design thinking can invite cynicism.
Define the right metrics. Organizations might also require metrics that are specific to employees’ work on disruptive initiatives. Typical efficiency, productivity, or financial metrics that judge performance based on numbers are antithetical to the design process. For example, stage-gate innovation processes, in which prospective innovations have to jump ROI hurdles, can kill early-stage ideas before they are fully formed.
For design thinking to thrive, organizations need to emphasize qualitative metrics. These can be derived from observations of consumers using a product, or ethnographic interviews with them. These research techniques can reveal shifts in their experiences when using a product, uncover emerging patterns in behavior, or detect latent opportunities that haven’t been captured by quantitative surveys. Such data can show that an initiative is on the right track even if the initial evidence is mixed.
A Powerful Way to Innovate
Under the right conditions, design thinking can be a powerful way to innovate and solve challenging problems, especially ones that are characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty. It offers a way for managers and employees to see their operations from the outside in — as stakeholders experience them — and make discoveries that are unlikely to occur when they are focused on productivity, efficiency, and other business-as-usual goals. But it can easily fail if people don’t understand the process or the principles behind it, and if leaders don’t provide support.
With any change initiative, the likelihood of success is far greater when it is built on a strategic approach, and design thinking is no exception: It should be based on a clear-eyed assessment of the company’s capabilities and culture. Leaders cannot implement it by fiat, nor can they leave employees and managers to puzzle through it on their own without courting rejection or disillusionment. Employees will need education and training commensurate with their commitment and knowledge, as well as support and incentives.
Because creating the future demands a different way of thinking than running a business in the present does, it takes sustained effort to instill the design mindset in most organizations. But the payoffs — new ways to see problems, greater empathy with customers, and better-targeted solutions — are worth the investment. In a world of wicked problems, every business needs to consider design thinking for the opportunities it offers.
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.