Your business is lagging, what do you do? Put a bunch of people in a room for a day with five million Post-it notes, pizza, coffee and some bean bags for a solid day of Design Thinking. The next day hang the flipchart pictures of their cool new ideas around the office and pronounce yourself an innovative company. Unfortunately that’s where it usually stops and the only company that grows as a result is 3M, thanks to Post-it.

Because of scenarios like this Design Thinking gets a bad rap, but as with all things you shouldn’t blame the tool for poor workmanship. Like all things there are some great uses for Design Thinking, but on its own its not the cure-all that some claim it to be. 

Q: Design Thinking. The answer for all problems and the secret sauce for innovation?
A: Yeah, nah (as we would say in New Zealand).

Design Thinking is a tool, a good one, but just one tool. So asking if design thinking is the answer for all problems is like asking if a hammer is the answer for all DIY jobs.

What is Design Thinking Used For?

The question is “what is it used for”, not “what is it”. I could explain what Design Thinking is, but there are already a wealth of brilliant articles out there that do a far better job than I could, and that’s not the point, you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t already have some idea what Design Thinking was. What you want to know is why would you use it, when should you use it, and how to make it work.

When I started writing this I found dozens of well written articles explaining how Design Thinking works, and taking you through the Design Thinking process. After reading all of these I had a perfect understanding of how to do Design Thinking, I spent the next week looking at every problem and wondering if I should hit it with my shiny new Design Thinking hammer.

The Danger in Explaining How rather than When to Use

A hammer is a t-shaped tool normally made of metal, weighting about 20oz, with a claw at one end of the T, and a blunt round surface at the other end, when used in combination with a nail it joins two object together. The process of hammering has six steps:

  1. Place the two objects you want to join next to each other.
  2. Put a nail against one item.
  3. Hold the hammer in one hand.
  4. Lift the hammer up.
  5. Swing the hammer down fast to hit the nail.
  6. Repeat until the objects are securely joined.

Great, and if you read that you would think that hammers are the perfect solution to joining two objects together. Next thing you’ll be hammering your kid’s artwork to the fridge, and nailing that 40 page report together.  Much like the Design Thinking explanations it tells us how to hammer, but not when hammering is the right approach to use.

What I didn’t come across in my research was a clear view of when Design Thinking was the best approach, and what the key was to making it successful. So that will be the focus of this article:

When to use Design Thinking, and How to do it Successfully, in Plain English

Let’s start by asking when is Design Thinking a good tool to use. Simple, when you have a culture that supports it. If your corporate culture isn’t right then don’t even think about Design Thinking, all you’ll do is waste a lot of Post-It notes and disappoint the people you task with Design Thinking.

Culture is Key

Design Thinking relies on people coming up with quite radical new ideas, and more importantly being able to prototype those ideas, refining them as they go, sometimes failing, but always learning.

If your culture doesn’t support mistakes or failures then Design Thinking isn’t for you. You many claim to be an innovative business but ask yourself, what happened last time someone screwed up here?

One company I worked with had a CEO who in his address to all staff talked about what an innovative culture he was building. On his next slide he told a story of an engineer who made a human error mistake and took down a client’s systems for a day. At this point he very firmly told the entire organization that we can’t afford to make such mistakes and the next person that did would be fired on the spot. His next slide was about a Design Thinking workshop he was sponsoring and he was looking for some creative radical ideas from everyone, who wanted to volunteer? You can guess how many hands went up.

Design Thinking isn’t about cool workshops with lots of neat ideas, it’s really about prototyping a few great ideas, making mistakes, learning, improving the ideas, until you have a valid working concept. If your culture threatens to fire the next person that makes a mistake you don’t have a chance of Design Thinking working. Not to mention you don’t have a chance of retaining any of your best people.

Happiness drives Innovation

The human brain is an amazing thing, it functions on so many levels, some we are aware of, most we don’t even know our brain is doing. One of the things that it does without us noticing is narrow down our creativity and focus when we are threatened. In a stressful situation our brains focus on a problem in a very narrow but deep way, not looking for creative solutions, but looking for the safest and most likely solution.

However when we are relaxed, happy and comfortable our brains open up our creativity and let us come up with crazy new ideas that we would never have imagined possible.

So when considering Design Thinking, which typically wants some wide creative thinking, you need to understand the stressfulness of the problem you are looking to solve. Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario One: Its 2010, you work for Nokia, two years ago you couldn’t make phones fast enough, everyone carried a Nokia and you were on top of the world. Now your phones are dumb bricks, people are actively breaking them so they can buy an iPhone and you are months away from bankruptcy. You and ten others have been tasked with creating the phone that will save the company. You’re in a corporate meeting room and have two weeks to come up with a plan.

Scenario Two: Its 2006, you work for Apple. You don’t make phones, but you all use one and you think they could be better. You and ten others have been tasked with creating a better phone experience. You’ve been given a very sizeable budget, you’re sent offsite to a funky startup incubator, and there’s no real rush.

Which one of these do you think will come up with radical new ideas, and which one will come up with safe but pointless tweaks to existing processes and designs?

A Workshop is NOT Design Thinking

Another company I worked with had drunk the Design Thinking Kool-Aid, when approached by one of their clients that wanted to significantly change the way they did business together, they jumped to Design Thinking as the solution. Which was fine – in this case the culture and problem were both well suited to Design Thinking – but the company’s entire focus was on the workshop, who would they need there, where would the hold it, how many workshops would they need?

Not one thought was given to what came after the workshops, the focus was on creating some brilliant ideas on a flipchart and declaring the problem solved.

Design Thinking is a process, the workshops are just one part of it, to actually achieve an outcome you have to be prepared to invest in the entire process. This means funding for prototyping, funding for refining, funding for testing, and willingness to accept that all of that funding might amount to nothing.  Just funding some pizza, a day out of the office and some Post-its isn’t enough.

Start with the Customer, then involve the Customer, then test with the Customer, then finish with the Customer

Yes, Design Thinking is about designing a solution/service/product/think for a customer, so unless you engage them right throughout the process you are missing the single most important opinion. Its not enough to just get a problem statement from your customer(s) then hide away in a Design Thinking ivory tower to emerge weeks or months later with the answer. You have to prototype your ideas with the customer, and constantly test and refine with the customer.

No opinion matters more than your customer’s.

So if your culture, situation and funding are all lined up and suited to Design Thinking you are ready to continue. If not, you can still try Design Thinking, but if it doesn’t work, don’t blame the tool.

Design Thinking and innovation

Design Thinking is great for driving innovation, here are some tips to make sure your innovation is focused in the right direction.

Thinking really wide

If you are going to use Design Thinking to create innovation then make sure you start with a clear view of the real problem. This requires a clear view of your mission. A mission too narrow or specific will limit your innovation to simply improving an existing product. A mission focused more on the wider problem will lead to a wide range of new solutions. Have a think about these three mission statements:

“To make the best car in the world”

Bad. What is the problem you are trying to solve? Why does the world need a better car? Why do we need cars at all, what problem do they solve? When someone invents a better mode of transport, say a teleporter, what use are your cars? How do you define ‘best’, is it fastest, safest, cheapest, most luxurious?

“To get people places quickly and safely”

Good. But again what happens if I don’t actually need to go somewhere to achieve what I want? What if I can do it all by VR? I don’t need to travel so your product becomes irrelevant. You still haven’t identified the problem, you haven’t created a need in the customer’s mind.

“To remove the barrier of distance”

Great. It creates an awareness of the problem, distance, but doesn’t specify how it is solved. In your customers’ eyes you are helping them solve the problem, not selling them a car or a VR headset or a teleporter.

Now you are ready to do some innovative design thinking about how to remove the barrier of distance.

Defining the Problem

It doesn’t have to be such a wide problem, in fact it rarely will be, but it should still tie back to your mission. For example, your sales of new cars are falling and people are switching to public transport. An initial reaction might have been to slash the prices of cars to make them more cost effective than public transport, this might work for a year but then sales fall even further. So you decide to do some Design Thinking to come up with an innovative new approach. But first what is the problem?

It isn’t “car sales are falling” nor is it “people prefer public transport over cars”. These are your problems, not your customers’. You have to solve your customers’ problems, do that and your problems should disappear.

Go ask your customers. Why are they using public transport and not buying new cars?

Design Thinking doesn’t start at the workshop, it starts well before that, it starts by engaging with your customers/staff/stakeholders to understand the current situation.

The real problem might be that you make great cars but are selling less because traffic is so congested people are taking public transport. Problem “it takes too long to drive to work”.

Now you can see that no matter how good your cars are, or how cheap you make them, people won’t buy them because of traffic congestion, the problem is about time not price or quality.

Your previous strategy of slashing car prices made the problem worse, it put more cars on the road and increased congestion, what looked like a solution actually made the real problem worse.

Solving the real problem.

Get a team together to solve the problem of “due to congestion it takes too long to drive to work” and you will get a completely different set of ideas than if you focused on “people prefer public transport over cars”. For example here are some possible solutions to the real problem:

  • Better in-car entertainment to make a long commute more enjoyable
  • Self-driving cars so you can use the commute time to be productive
  • Working with employers to stagger working hours, spreading out traffic peaks
  • Working with cities to improve traffic flows by putting sensors in cars

Some of these are simple, some are in your control, some are system wide and require collaboration, but they all focus on the customers’ real problem, not your problem.

Systems Thinking and Design Thinking

Design Thinking does run the risk of people getting overly passionate about an idea, without considering the wider implications.  For example, if you took the simple idea of putting an amazing in-car entertainment system into your cars to make being stuck in traffic more enjoyable what would the wider implications be? Firstly you can’t or shouldn’t, watch videos while driving, so there’s no point putting in an in-dash wide screen TV with Netflix. You can listen to music, but we’ve been doing that in cars for years and it hasn’t solved the problem so a better stereo isn’t likely to be the solution.

What if you could provide tailored, engaging audio content that people wanted to listen to? You could branch out into the audio content production business, but a better approach would be to partner with a content producer to get exclusive audio content for your cars. Imagine an audio version of Netflix available exclusively in your cars, or TED talks, or sports commentary, or news.  What if Hollywood could produce blockbuster scale audio shows or mini-series? People would want to spend an hour in their car each day just to tune in to the next episode. We don’t get to sit around at home for an hour with headphones on listening to a show, we are all too busy. But we can sit in our cars on the way to work and do it.

Not the best example, as putting more people in cars isn’t good for the wider ‘system’, it will warm the planet and kill us all, but it will do as an illustration of my point that you need to look beyond the immediate idea and at the wider system.


Design Thinking can be the secret sauce to innovation, and it could be the answer to all your corporate problems, but only if:

  1. Your Culture supports Mistakes and Learning
  2. Your Situation enables wide thinking, not narrow focus
  3. You invest in the entire process
  4. You have a mission that is clear, and wide enough to enable creativity
  5. You consider the wider system in your thinking
  6. You understand the actual problem you are trying to solve

Often so much focus is put into the workshops, they become the holy grail of Design Thinking, and this happens at the expense of all other parts of the process. Design Thinking is far more than just the workshops. A great idea, even one drawn in cool marker pen on a flipchart is useless until it is executed. An untested idea executed is bound to fail, and a workshop held without any user input is highly unlikely to deliver what your customers want.

An idea without a problem is a business case waiting to be rejected.

Posted by Mike Bullock

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