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How to solve problems using the design thinking process

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The design thinking process is a problem-solving design methodology that helps you develop solutions in a human-focused way. Initially designed at Stanford’s d.school, the five stage design thinking method can help solve ambiguous questions, or more open-ended problems. Learn how these five steps can help your team create innovative solutions to complex problems.

As humans, we’re approached with problems every single day. But how often do we come up with solutions to everyday problems that put the needs of individual humans first?

This is how the design thinking process started.

What is the design thinking process?

The design thinking process is a problem-solving design methodology that helps you tackle complex problems by framing the issue in a human-centric way. The design thinking process works especially well for problems that are not clearly defined or have a more ambiguous goal.

One of the first individuals to write about design thinking was John E. Arnold, a mechanical engineering professor at Stanford. Arnold wrote about four major areas of design thinking in his book, “Creative Engineering” in 1959. His work was later taught at Stanford’s Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design (also known as d.school), a design institute that pioneered the design thinking process. 

This eventually led Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon to outline one of the first iterations of the design thinking process in his 1969 book, “The Sciences of the Artificial.” While there are many different variations of design thinking, “The Sciences of the Artificial” is often credited as the basis. 

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A non-linear design thinking approach

Design thinking is not a linear process. It’s important to understand that each stage of the process can (and should) inform the other steps. For example, when you’re going through user testing, you may learn about a new problem that didn’t come up during any of the previous stages. You may learn more about your target personas during the final testing phase, or discover that your initial problem statement can actually help solve even more problems, so you need to redefine the statement to include those as well. 

Why use the design thinking process

The design thinking process is not the most intuitive way to solve a problem, but the results that come from it are worth the effort. Here are a few other reasons why implementing the design thinking process for your team is worth it.

Focus on problem solving

As human beings, we often don’t go out of our way to find problems. Since there’s always an abundance of problems to solve, we’re used to solving problems as they occur. The design thinking process forces you to look at problems from many different points of view. 

The design thinking process requires focusing on human needs and behaviors, and how to create a solution to match those needs. This focus on problem solving can help your design team come up with creative solutions for complex problems. 

Encourages collaboration and teamwork

The design thinking process cannot happen in a silo. It requires many different viewpoints from designers, future customers, and other stakeholders . Brainstorming sessions and collaboration are the backbone of the design thinking process.

Foster innovation

The design thinking process focuses on finding creative solutions that cater to human needs. This means your team is looking to find creative solutions for hyper specific and complex problems. If they’re solving unique problems, then the solutions they’re creating must be equally unique.

The iterative process of the design thinking process means that the innovation doesn’t have to end—your team can continue to update the usability of your product to ensure that your target audience’s problems are effectively solved. 

The 5 stages of design thinking

Currently, one of the more popular models of design thinking is the model proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design (or d.school) at Stanford. The main reason for its popularity is because of the success this process had in successful companies like Google, Apple, Toyota, and Nike. Here are the five steps designated by the d.school model that have helped many companies succeed.

1. Empathize stage

The first stage of the design thinking process is to look at the problem you’re trying to solve in an empathetic manner. To get an accurate representation of how the problem affects people, actively look for people who encountered this problem previously. Asking them how they would have liked to have the issue resolved is a good place to start, especially because of the human-centric nature of the design thinking process. 

Empathy is an incredibly important aspect of the design thinking process.  The design thinking process requires the designers to put aside any assumptions and unconscious biases they may have about the situation and put themselves in someone else’s shoes. 

For example, if your team is looking to fix the employee onboarding process at your company, you may interview recent new hires to see how their onboarding experience went. Another option is to have a more tenured team member go through the onboarding process so they can experience exactly what a new hire experiences.

2. Define stage

Sometimes a designer will encounter a situation when there’s a general issue, but not a specific problem that needs to be solved. One way to help designers clearly define and outline a problem is to create human-centric problem statements. 

A problem statement helps frame a problem in a way that provides relevant context in an easy to comprehend way. The main goal of a problem statement is to guide designers working on possible solutions for this problem. A problem statement frames the problem in a way that easily highlights the gap between the current state of things and the end goal. 

Tip: Problem statements are best framed as a need for a specific individual. The more specific you are with your problem statement, the better designers can create a human-centric solution to the problem. 

Examples of good problem statements:

We need to decrease the number of clicks a potential customer takes to go through the sign-up process.

We need to decrease the new subscriber unsubscribe rate by 10%. 

We need to increase the Android app adoption rate by 20%.

3. Ideate stage

This is the stage where designers create potential solutions to solve the problem outlined in the problem statement. Use brainstorming techniques with your team to identify the human-centric solution to the problem defined in step two. 

Here are a few brainstorming strategies you can use with your team to come up with a solution:

Standard brainstorm session: Your team gathers together and verbally discusses different ideas out loud.

Brainwrite: Everyone writes their ideas down on a piece of paper or a sticky note and each team member puts their ideas up on the whiteboard. 

Worst possible idea: The inverse of your end goal. Your team produces the most goofy idea so nobody will look silly. This takes out the rigidity of other brainstorming techniques. This technique also helps you identify areas that you can improve upon in your actual solution by looking at the worst parts of an absurd solution. 

It’s important that you don’t discount any ideas during the ideation phase of brainstorming. You want to have as many potential solutions as possible, as new ideas can help trigger even better ideas. Sometimes the most creative solution to a problem is the combination of many different ideas put together.

4. Prototype stage

During the prototype phase, you and your team design a few different variations of inexpensive or scaled down versions of the potential solution to the problem. Having different versions of the prototype gives your team opportunities to test out the solution and make any refinements. 

Prototypes are often tested by other designers, team members outside of the initial design department, and trusted customers or members of the target audience. Having multiple versions of the product gives your team the opportunity to tweak and refine the design before testing with real users. During this process, it’s important to document the testers using the end product. This will give you valuable information as to what parts of the solution are good, and which require more changes.

After testing different prototypes out with teasers, your team should have different solutions for how your product can be improved. The testing and prototyping phase is an iterative process—so much so that it’s possible that some design projects never end.

After designers take the time to test, reiterate, and redesign new products, they may find new problems, different solutions, and gain an overall better understanding of the end-user. The design thinking framework is flexible and non-linear, so it’s totally normal for the process itself to influence the end design. 

Tips for incorporating the design thinking process into your team

If you want your team to start using the design thinking process, but you’re unsure of how to start, here are a few tips to help you out. 

Start small: Similar to how you would test a prototype on a small group of people, you want to test out the design thinking process with a smaller team to see how your team functions. Give this test team some small projects to work on so you can see how this team reacts. If it works out, you can slowly start rolling this process out to other teams.

Incorporate cross-functional team members : The design thinking process works best when your team members collaborate and brainstorm together. Identify who your designer’s key stakeholders are and ensure they’re included in the small test team. 

Organize work in a collaborative project management software : Keep important design project documents such as user research, wireframes, and brainstorms in a collaborative tool like Asana . This way, team members will have one central source of truth for anything relating to the project they’re working on.

Foster collaborative design thinking with Asana

The design thinking process works best when your team works collaboratively. You don’t want something as simple as miscommunication to hinder your projects. Instead, compile all of the information your team needs about a design project in one place with Asana. 

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Ideas Made to Matter

Design thinking, explained

Rebecca Linke

Sep 14, 2017

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is an innovative problem-solving process rooted in a set of skills.The approach has been around for decades, but it only started gaining traction outside of the design community after the 2008 Harvard Business Review article [subscription required] titled “Design Thinking” by Tim Brown, CEO and president of design company IDEO.

Since then, the design thinking process has been applied to developing new products and services, and to a whole range of problems, from creating a business model for selling solar panels in Africa to the operation of Airbnb .

At a high level, the steps involved in the design thinking process are simple: first, fully understand the problem; second, explore a wide range of possible solutions; third, iterate extensively through prototyping and testing; and finally, implement through the customary deployment mechanisms. 

The skills associated with these steps help people apply creativity to effectively solve real-world problems better than they otherwise would. They can be readily learned, but take effort. For instance, when trying to understand a problem, setting aside your own preconceptions is vital, but it’s hard.

Creative brainstorming is necessary for developing possible solutions, but many people don’t do it particularly well. And throughout the process it is critical to engage in modeling, analysis, prototyping, and testing, and to really learn from these many iterations.

Once you master the skills central to the design thinking approach, they can be applied to solve problems in daily life and any industry.

Here’s what you need to know to get started.

Infographic of the design thinking process

Understand the problem 

The first step in design thinking is to understand the problem you are trying to solve before searching for solutions. Sometimes, the problem you need to address is not the one you originally set out to tackle.

“Most people don’t make much of an effort to explore the problem space before exploring the solution space,” said MIT Sloan professor Steve Eppinger. The mistake they make is to try and empathize, connecting the stated problem only to their own experiences. This falsely leads to the belief that you completely understand the situation. But the actual problem is always broader, more nuanced, or different than people originally assume.

Take the example of a meal delivery service in Holstebro, Denmark. When a team first began looking at the problem of poor nutrition and malnourishment among the elderly in the city, many of whom received meals from the service, it thought that simply updating the menu options would be a sufficient solution. But after closer observation, the team realized the scope of the problem was much larger , and that they would need to redesign the entire experience, not only for those receiving the meals, but for those preparing the meals as well. While the company changed almost everything about itself, including rebranding as The Good Kitchen, the most important change the company made when rethinking its business model was shifting how employees viewed themselves and their work. That, in turn, helped them create better meals (which were also drastically changed), yielding happier, better nourished customers.

Involve users

Imagine you are designing a new walker for rehabilitation patients and the elderly, but you have never used one. Could you fully understand what customers need? Certainly not, if you haven’t extensively observed and spoken with real customers. There is a reason that design thinking is often referred to as human-centered design.

“You have to immerse yourself in the problem,” Eppinger said.

How do you start to understand how to build a better walker? When a team from MIT’s Integrated Design and Management program together with the design firm Altitude took on that task, they met with walker users to interview them, observe them, and understand their experiences.  

“We center the design process on human beings by understanding their needs at the beginning, and then include them throughout the development and testing process,” Eppinger said.

Central to the design thinking process is prototyping and testing (more on that later) which allows designers to try, to fail, and to learn what works. Testing also involves customers, and that continued involvement provides essential user feedback on potential designs and use cases. If the MIT-Altitude team studying walkers had ended user involvement after its initial interviews, it would likely have ended up with a walker that didn’t work very well for customers. 

It is also important to interview and understand other stakeholders, like people selling the product, or those who are supporting the users throughout the product life cycle.

The second phase of design thinking is developing solutions to the problem (which you now fully understand). This begins with what most people know as brainstorming.

Hold nothing back during brainstorming sessions — except criticism. Infeasible ideas can generate useful solutions, but you’d never get there if you shoot down every impractical idea from the start.

“One of the key principles of brainstorming is to suspend judgment,” Eppinger said. “When we're exploring the solution space, we first broaden the search and generate lots of possibilities, including the wild and crazy ideas. Of course, the only way we're going to build on the wild and crazy ideas is if we consider them in the first place.”

That doesn’t mean you never judge the ideas, Eppinger said. That part comes later, in downselection. “But if we want 100 ideas to choose from, we can’t be very critical.”

In the case of The Good Kitchen, the kitchen employees were given new uniforms. Why? Uniforms don’t directly affect the competence of the cooks or the taste of the food.

But during interviews conducted with kitchen employees, designers realized that morale was low, in part because employees were bored preparing the same dishes over and over again, in part because they felt that others had a poor perception of them. The new, chef-style uniforms gave the cooks a greater sense of pride. It was only part of the solution, but if the idea had been rejected outright, or perhaps not even suggested, the company would have missed an important aspect of the solution.

Prototype and test. Repeat.

You’ve defined the problem. You’ve spoken to customers. You’ve brainstormed, come up with all sorts of ideas, and worked with your team to boil those ideas down to the ones you think may actually solve the problem you’ve defined.

“We don’t develop a good solution just by thinking about a list of ideas, bullet points and rough sketches,” Eppinger said. “We explore potential solutions through modeling and prototyping. We design, we build, we test, and repeat — this design iteration process is absolutely critical to effective design thinking.”

Repeating this loop of prototyping, testing, and gathering user feedback is crucial for making sure the design is right — that is, it works for customers, you can build it, and you can support it.

“After several iterations, we might get something that works, we validate it with real customers, and we often find that what we thought was a great solution is actually only just OK. But then we can make it a lot better through even just a few more iterations,” Eppinger said.


The goal of all the steps that come before this is to have the best possible solution before you move into implementing the design. Your team will spend most of its time, its money, and its energy on this stage.

“Implementation involves detailed design, training, tooling, and ramping up. It is a huge amount of effort, so get it right before you expend that effort,” said Eppinger.

Design thinking isn’t just for “things.” If you are only applying the approach to physical products, you aren’t getting the most out of it. Design thinking can be applied to any problem that needs a creative solution. When Eppinger ran into a primary school educator who told him design thinking was big in his school, Eppinger thought he meant that they were teaching students the tenets of design thinking.

“It turns out they meant they were using design thinking in running their operations and improving the school programs. It’s being applied everywhere these days,” Eppinger said.

In another example from the education field, Peruvian entrepreneur Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor hired design consulting firm IDEO to redesign every aspect of the learning experience in a network of schools in Peru. The ultimate goal? To elevate Peru’s middle class.

As you’d expect, many large corporations have also adopted design thinking. IBM has adopted it at a company-wide level, training many of its nearly 400,000 employees in design thinking principles .

What can design thinking do for your business?

The impact of all the buzz around design thinking today is that people are realizing that “anybody who has a challenge that needs creative problem solving could benefit from this approach,” Eppinger said. That means that managers can use it, not only to design a new product or service, “but anytime they’ve got a challenge, a problem to solve.”

Applying design thinking techniques to business problems can help executives across industries rethink their product offerings, grow their markets, offer greater value to customers, or innovate and stay relevant. “I don’t know industries that can’t use design thinking,” said Eppinger.

Ready to go deeper?

Read “ The Designful Company ” by Marty Neumeier, a book that focuses on how businesses can benefit from design thinking, and “ Product Design and Development ,” co-authored by Eppinger, to better understand the detailed methods.

Register for an MIT Sloan Executive Education course:

Systematic Innovation of Products, Processes, and Services , a five-day course taught by Eppinger and other MIT professors.

  • Leadership by Design: Innovation Process and Culture , a two-day course taught by MIT Integrated Design and Management director Matthew Kressy.
  • Managing Complex Technical Projects , a two-day course taught by Eppinger.
  • Apply for M astering Design Thinking , a 3-month online certificate course taught by Eppinger and MIT Sloan senior lecturers Renée Richardson Gosline and David Robertson.

Steve Eppinger is a professor of management science and innovation at MIT Sloan. He holds the General Motors Leaders for Global Operations Chair and has a PhD from MIT in engineering. He is the faculty co-director of MIT's System Design and Management program and Integrated Design and Management program, both master’s degrees joint between the MIT Sloan and Engineering schools. His research focuses on product development and technical project management, and has been applied to improving complex engineering processes in many industries.

Read next: 10 agile ideas worth sharing

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The Design Thinking Process: Five Stages to Solving Business Problems

Aug 22, 2019 by Michael Pastore

The Design Thinking Process: Five Stages to Solving Business Problems

The design thinking process is a method of encouraging and improving creative problem-solving.

The design thinking process is by no means new.

John Edward Arnold, a professor of mechanical engineering and business administration, was one of the first to discuss the concept in as early as the 1950s.

But the wave of digital and data-driven business has created new opportunities for the design thinking process to be applied.

For example, your business is likely collecting, storing and analyzing more information than ever before .

And while the intense focus on analytics in recent years has been good for many businesses, it’s important to remember the human element of making decisions and solving problems.

So with that in mind, the design thinking process can be used to bridge the gap between the data and the people.

But what is the design thinking process, exactly? And how does it work?

Design Thinking Definition: The Five Stages of the Design Thinking Process

There are lots of ways to harness ideas and solve problems. Design thinking is one means to foster and refine creative problem-solving.

While it doesn’t suggest ignoring your data, design thinking is, at its core, human-centered . It encourages organizations to focus on the people they’re creating for in hopes of producing better products, services and internal processes.

There are five stages in the design thinking process:

1. Empathize – The first stage of the design thinking process is gaining a better understanding of what problems need solving. It puts the end user you are trying to help first and encourages you to work backwards. By consulting and subsequently empathizing with the end user, you ensure your eventual solution is goal-oriented, increasing the likelihood of its effectiveness.

2. Define the problem – Once you have a better understanding of potential issues, it’s time to get specific. At this point, it’s good practice to translate the problem into a “problem statement” – a concise description of the issue that identifies the current state you wish to address and the desired future state you intend to reach.

3. Ideate solutions – This is the time to get creative. Once you have a solid understanding of the problem you can brainstorm ideas to bridge the gap between the current and the desired future state to eliminate it.

4. Prototype – At stage four, it’s time to implement the ideas from stage three in the real world. Typically, the prototype will be a scaled-down example of the solution – or ideally, possible solutions . It goes without saying, but things are rarely perfect in their first iteration, as you’ll likely discover in the next stage.

5. Test – At this point, it’s time to test whether the proposed solution works. In the case of multiple potential solutions, this stage can identify which is most effective and/or efficient. It’s also an opportunity to assess what – if any – new problems the solution might cause.

With this in mind, it’s important to remember that progression through the five stages of the design thinking process isn’t necessarily linear.

Unsuccessful tests could lead your team back to the ideation stage. In some cases, you may want to circle back to stage one to test your new solution with end users. Then you’ll be able to better emphasize and understand how your solution might work in practice.

It’s also important to understand that the design thinking process is not, strictly speaking, the same as innovation. It’s an approach to problem-solving that may ultimately involve innovation or emerging technologies, but innovation is not inherently required.

Design thinking is an iterative process, and the best solutions that come out of it in many organizations will become part of their enterprise architectures .

Incorporating Design Thinking into Your Organization with Enterprise Architecture

The best way to put design thinking into use in your organization is by creating a strategic planning approach that takes ideas from assessment to analysis to delivery.

By employing an iterative approach with a thorough assessment and a feedback loop, everyone in your organization will feel more empowered and engaged.

The reality of business today is that nearly every business problem is going to have a technological solution.

It will fall to the IT organization to take the ideas that come out of your design thinking and figure out how to deliver them as solutions at scale and speed.

This is where enterprise architecture comes into play .

Evaluating, planning and deploying a business solution will require visibility. How will these solutions impact users? Can they be supported by the existing IT infrastructure? How do they fit into the business ecosystem?

When it comes to these important questions, the best place to get answers is from your enterprise architecture team . Be sure to make them a central part of your design thinking process.

In addition to enterprise architecture software, erwin also provides enterprise architecture consulting. You can learn more about those services here .

You also can try all the current features of erwin EA for free via our secure, cloud-based trial environment.

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Why Design Thinking Works

  • Jeanne Liedtka

design thinking to solve business problems

While we know a lot about practices that stimulate new ideas, innovation teams often struggle to apply them. Why? Because people’s biases and entrenched behaviors get in the way. In this article a Darden professor explains how design thinking helps people overcome this problem and unleash their creativity.

Though ostensibly geared to understanding and molding the experiences of customers, design thinking also profoundly reshapes the experiences of the innovators themselves. For example, immersive customer research helps them set aside their own views and recognize needs customers haven’t expressed. Carefully planned dialogues help teams build on their diverse ideas, not just negotiate compromises when differences arise. And experiments with new solutions reduce all stakeholders’ fear of change.

At every phase—customer discovery, idea generation, and testing—a clear structure makes people more comfortable trying new things, and processes increase collaboration. Because it combines practical tools and human insight, design thinking is a social technology —one that the author predicts will have an impact as large as an earlier social technology: total quality management.

It addresses the biases and behaviors that hamper innovation.

Idea in Brief

The problem.

While we know a lot about what practices stimulate new ideas and creative solutions, most innovation teams struggle to realize their benefits.

People’s intrinsic biases and behavioral habits inhibit the exercise of the imagination and protect unspoken assumptions about what will or will not work.

The Solution

Design thinking provides a structured process that helps innovators break free of counterproductive tendencies that thwart innovation. Like TQM, it is a social technology that blends practical tools with insights into human nature.

Occasionally, a new way of organizing work leads to extraordinary improvements. Total quality management did that in manufacturing in the 1980s by combining a set of tools—kanban cards, quality circles, and so on—with the insight that people on the shop floor could do much higher level work than they usually were asked to. That blend of tools and insight, applied to a work process, can be thought of as a social technology.

  • JL Jeanne Liedtka is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

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Design Thinking and Innovation

Key concepts, who will benefit, aspiring or current innovation managers, entrepreneurs, product managers, developers, and marketers.

design thinking to solve business problems

What You Earn

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Earn by: completing this course

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Prove your mastery of entrepreneurship and innovation

Earn by: completing any three courses within this subject area to earn a Certificate of Specialization

Content Week - Clarify: Empathy and Understanding

design thinking to solve business problems

  • An Introduction to Innovation
  • Clarify Through Observation
  • Insights and Problem Framing
  • The Right Enviroment for Creativity

Featured Exercises

Project week – clarify.

design thinking to solve business problems

  • Project Instructions

Content Week - Ideate, Part 1: Tools for Generating Ideas

design thinking to solve business problems

  • Establishing Focus with Design Principles
  • The Ideation Process: Getting Started with SIT
  • More SIT Tools for Ideation
  • Open-Ended Approaches to Generating Ideas
  • Review of Project Work

Content Week - Ideate, Part 2: User Values and Behaviors

design thinking to solve business problems

  • Design Heuristics for Generating and Refining Ideas
  • Designing for Behavior Change

Project Week - Ideate

design thinking to solve business problems

Content Week - Develop: An Experimentation Mindset

design thinking to solve business problems

  • Idea Selection and Evaluation
  • Defining and Refining Your Prototype Plan
  • Prototyping: From Exploration to Validation
  • Leading Concept Development

Content Week - Implement: Communication and Structure

design thinking to solve business problems

  • Overcoming Developer and User Bias
  • Strategies for Communicating Value
  • Managing an Innovation Culture

design thinking to solve business problems

So You Want to Be an Entrepreneur: How to Get Started

Our difference, about the professor.

design thinking to solve business problems

Srikant Datar Design Thinking and Innovation

Dates & eligibility.

No current course offerings for this selection.

All applicants must be at least 18 years of age, proficient in English, and committed to learning and engaging with fellow participants throughout the course.

Learn about bringing this course to your organization .

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Design Thinking and Innovation FAQs

What are the learning requirements in order to successfully complete the course, and how are grades assigned.

Participants in Design Thinking and Innovation are eligible for a Certificate of Completion from Harvard Business School Online.

Participants are expected to fully complete all coursework in a thoughtful and timely manner. This will mean meeting each week’s course module deadlines and fully answering questions posed therein. This helps ensure participants proceed through the course at a similar pace and can take full advantage of social learning opportunities. In addition to module and assignment completion, we expect you to offer feedback on others’ reflections and contribute to conversations on the platform. Participants who fail to complete the course requirements will not receive a certificate and will not be eligible to retake the course.

More detailed information on course requirements will be communicated at the start of the course. No grades are assigned for Design Thinking and Innovation. Participants will either be evaluated as complete or not complete.

What materials will I have access to after completing Design Thinking and Innovation?

You will have access to the materials in every prior module as you progress through the program. Access to course materials and the course platform ends 60 days after the final deadline in the program.

At the end of each course module, you will be able to download a PDF summary highlighting key concepts used throughout the course. At the end of the program, you will receive a PDF compilation of all of the module summary documents. We hope the module summary documents will serve as a helpful resource after you finish the course.

How should I list my certificate on my resume?

Once you've earned your Certificate of Completion, list it on your resume along with the date of completion:

Harvard Business School Online Certificate in Design Thinking and Innovation [Cohort Start Month and Year]

List your certificate on your LinkedIn profile under "Education" with the language from the Credential Verification page:

School: Harvard Business School Online Dates Attended: [The year you participated in the program] Degree: Other; Certificate in Design Thinking and Innovation Field of Study: Leave blank Grade: "Complete" Activities and Societies: Leave blank

Description: Design Thinking and Innovation is a 7-week, 40-hour online certificate program from Harvard Business School. Design Thinking and Innovation will teach you how to leverage fundamental design thinking principles and innovative problem-solving tools to address business challenges and build products, strategies, teams, and environments for optimal use and performance.

The program was developed by leading Harvard Business School faculty and is delivered in an active learning environment based on the HBS signature case-based learning model.

What is the project?

Beginning in Module 2 of Design Thinking and Innovation, you will apply the tools you learn in the course to an innovation problem that is important or interesting to you, or you can use a provided scenario. In subsequent modules, you will use your earlier responses to build on your innovation project and make each phase of design thinking relevant to your own work.

Do I need to collaborate with others to complete the project?

No, each individual submits their own work in Design Thinking and Innovation, and all project work can be submitted without sharing it with others in the course. You are encouraged to share with others and ask for feedback, but collaboration isn’t necessary to advance through the course.

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Design Thinking: New Innovative Thinking for New Problems

Einstein was certainly right — we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. In addition, with the rapid changes in society, the methods we have previously used to solve many of the problems we face are no longer effective. We need to develop new ways of thinking in order to design better solutions, services and experiences that solve our current problems. Design Thinking steps in with a bold newly systematised and non-linear human-centred approach. This will help us radically change how we go about exploring problems and creating solutions to those problems.

The problems designers, business owners, and engineers face today are in a whole new level of scale compared to the challenges we’ve faced in the past few decades. In a largely globalised world, where the changes in economic and natural resources can be felt halfway around the globe, our challenges are becoming more intertwined with the systems that connect us all. To solve the new wave of problems we face today and in the future, we need a new kind of thinking, a new approach towards innovation . Design Thinking is a large part of that new approach towards innovation, as it allows people, teams, and organisations to have a human-centred perspective, and yet a scientific approach, towards solving a problem. Tim Brown, CEO of the international design consultancy firm IDEO, makes this point in the introduction of his book, Change by Design :

“A purely technocentric view of innovation is less sustainable now than ever, and a management philosophy based only on selecting from existing strategies is likely to be overwhelmed by new developments at home or abroad. What we need are new choices—new products that balance the needs of individuals and of society as a whole; new ideas that tackle the global challenges of health, poverty, and education; new strategies that result in differences that matter and a sense of purpose that engages everyone affected by them. It is hard to imagine a time when the challenges we faced so vastly exceeded the creative resources we have brought to bear on them.” – Tim Brown

Which Problems Can Design Thinking Help us Solve?

One of the first questions people ask when hearing about Design Thinking is, "What is Design Thinking best used for?" Design Thinking is suited to addressing a wide range of challenges and is best used for bringing about innovation within the following contexts.

Redefining value

Human-centred innovation

Quality of life

Problems affecting diverse groups of people

Involves multiple systems

Shifting markets and behaviours

Coping with rapid social or market changes

Issues relating to corporate culture

Issues relating to new technology

Re-inventing business models

Addressing rapid changes in society

Complex unsolved societal challenges

Scenarios involving multidisciplinary teams

Entrepreneurial initiatives

Educational advances

Medical breakthroughs

Inspiration is needed

Problems that data can't solve

A Holistic approach to Challenges

Design Thinking is best suited to addressing problems where multiple spheres collide, at the intersection of business and society, logic and emotion , rational and creative, human needs and economic demands and between systems and individuals. We would most likely not require Design Thinking to tackle tame problems — that is, problems that are simple and that have fixed and known solutions — unless we were seeking a novel or innovative means to solving the problem with a different desired goal than the typical available solutions.

It's NOT Just a Process or Set of Steps

However, Design thinking is not necessarily only to be understood as a process or method for solving a set-in-stone collection of problems. It is also a mindset that can be applied in almost any scenario where innovation or thinking differently is required. It can also be combined with other methodologies, business strategies, social innovation models, and management practices. It's something that changes depending on its context and can use tools and techniques from other disciplines.

It's About Human-Centred Innovation

Design Thinking works best where we need to make human sense of things, approaching challenges in ways that best suit human needs regardless of the scale or authority of the challenge. A conformist, controlled, technical or linear approach is no longer able to grapple with the newly complex and sensitive needs of modern society.

It starts with an intention, a desire, a need or yearning towards a better situation or state. We have no way of knowing whether this is a mere dream or a practical and viable path to take. Design Thinking gives us the tools to explore What Could Be .

As Bruce Mau, founder of the Massive Change Network, put it:

"It's not about the world of design, but the design of the world". – Bruce Mau

Cope with Disruptions in Society

Since the disruptions in human development caused by the Industrial Revolution, analysts have been strategizing ways of streamlining just about every business, production and economic process imaginable with the aim of extracting the maximum benefit from the least amount of time and resources. While this may have had some degree of success on the level of productivity and efficiency, the recipe to that much-needed innovation within all sectors has been somewhat of a conundrum. This is where Design Thinking steps in with a bold new human-centred approach at radically changing how we go about exploring problems and finding solutions to those problems, helping us break out of the old moulds we've become stuck in, so as to take a fresh look at the world around us.

Besides the ongoing struggles between the analytical and creative worlds, other factors have dramatically disrupted the way we see, understand, experience, and interpret the world around us. Technology is developing at such a rapid pace that job descriptions can barely keep up, let alone entire industries. Consumers demand much more now that they are constantly switched on, always informed, and obsessively sharing everything with their networks.

Focus on Humans, Not Users

In order to remain relevant, companies and organisations are also fighting a battle for attention on an unprecedented level. Besides the constant scrutiny and accountability, information overload is also reaching its peak. People are increasingly seeking out those products, services, and organisations that they personally connect with on a meaningful level. Many people are selecting the few options that speak directly to their human needs and experiences . This has driven Human-Centred Design and Design Thinking approaches of all types to mushroom in the last few years. Approaches to business and social innovation are increasingly looking for alternatives to the old models of adding value, by focusing on human needs and experience as primary motivating factors.

Innovative solutions need to be found that can keep up with massive disruptions affecting Human Resources, Energy, Sustainability, Education, Economic Constraints, Political Instability—these large, systemic and complex problems with capital letters—and a whole plethora of other challenges which existing strategic and management practices and processes are unable to pick apart.

Innovate or be Swept Away with the Tide

Idris Mootee, CEO of Idea Couture and a leading expert on applied Design Thinking in large-scale strategy innovation, wrote his book Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation about the implementation of Design Thinking methodology within business. The book outlines a number of disruptions in the business environment , including new consumer behaviour and expectations, forcing companies to rethink their every move.

“This disruption has not been so kind to businesses operating by the rules of the old model. We don't have to watch their ads anymore. We don't believe their marketing hype anymore. We don't want to eat their junk ingredients anymore. We don't have to buy from their stores anymore. And we don't want the best of them to just be profit machines anymore. We want more, when we want it, how we want it, and at the price we want it.” – Idris Mootee

Idris Mootee uses the analogy of the study of weather systems, where it was determined that even the slightest changes in atmospheric conditions may have dramatically varying results in the way weather patterns developed. The current climate of rapid change and upheaval is even more difficult to forecast for the future. We are unable to see what lies around the next corner, let alone months or years down the line. This means we need a completely new and dynamic approach to innovation and strategic planning: something less rigid that can quickly and easily adapt to the varying conditions we find ourselves in and those dramatic changes which lie around the next corner.

The abilities to understand and act on changes rapidly in our environments and changes in human behaviour are becoming crucial skills we are still developing and refining. Design Thinking offers a means for grappling with all this change in a more human-centric manner. In order to embrace Design Thinking and innovation, we need to ensure that we have the right mindsets, collaborative teams, and conducive environments.

Form the Right Mindsets, Teams, and Environments for Innovation

design thinking to solve business problems

Creating the right mindsets , selecting the appropriate team, and setting up environments which encourage innovation to take place are three of the essential aspects of fostering successful innovation within companies, organisations, and society at large.

1. Form The Right Mindsets for Innovation

One of the amazing things about Albert Einstein was the connection between his creative and analytical thinking. He was an extremely creative individual, deeply reflective of the human condition, weaknesses and failings while at the same time years ahead of most in terms of his analytical thinking capacity. His ability to join and synthesise worlds of influence, merging creative thinking with intense analytical abilities brought about the breakthroughs he achieved as a thinker and a scientist. Like Design Thinking, Albert Einstein relied on and celebrated both logic and imagination.

“Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” – Albert Einstein

The notion that creativity or "artistic" talent is only the domain of those gifted with these abilities is one of the most inhibiting factors in our lives today. However, it is becoming a more widely held belief that creativity and lateral thinking can be learnt, and with the implementation of the appropriate steps, process and mindset, can be unleashed to solve some of the "wickedest" problems (i.e., most complex and tricky problems) we find ourselves faced with. The challenge is that most modern corporations, organisations and institutional settings tend to kill creativity with an overly conformist notion of things.

The struggle between creative and logical thinking is an old one, which is yet to be understood fully, even with scientific breakthroughs in neuro- and cognitive science . It has been a common belief that those who tend to be more analytical, logical and rational in nature have always relied more heavily on the left side of their brains, while those who are more creative, expressive and emotional have relied more on the right side. This myth seems to have recently been busted, with studies indicating both sides of the brain are involved in both creative and logical processes of all kinds and work.

We need to develop more open, collaborative, and explorative cultures and mindsets, which combine both logic and imagination, in order to create new innovative solutions. And Design Thinking will help us do just that.

2. Create Cross-disciplinary and Innovative Teams

It is the norm in many organisations to encourage the development of skills and abilities relevant to a specific role. For instance, creativity is encouraged in graphic designers, while analytical skills are encouraged for marketing, business, and operations-related jobs. However, such a “boxed” organisation of talent, where different skills are developed and used in silos throughout different departments, will not be able to produce much of the innovation we need for the new wave of wicked problems .

We now know that a healthy collaboration between the creative and logical ways of thinking is crucial in creating the kind of holistic thinking that is required to understand and solve new kinds of multi-dimensional problems. This is also true for people working in multidisciplinary teams, where teams possessing a range of thinking styles, expertise, and experiences come together to develop solutions more effectively than narrow-focused, specialist individuals are able to working alone. In Design Thinking, cross-disciplinary collaboration plays an important role — it is when designers, ethnographers, business analysts, and marketers work together that we create truly revolutionary ideas. To facilitate Design Thinking and innovation, thus, organisations need to start thinking about truly cross-departmental, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and abandon the silo model of skills.

3. Create Environments Conducive to Innovation

The environments we inhabit and the activities we most engage in influence our thinking patterns, our understanding of things, and our ability (or lack thereof) to innovate.

This is why innovative companies like Google spend money to create workspaces that are filled with toys and unconventional equipment, and areas for creative thinking throughout their offices. It’s also the reason that many companies clear space in their busy annual schedules to send their entire staff on team-building getaways where they build rafts together, jump around in circles and, in the best way possible, behave like kids. However, it’s not only to make the company a fun and interesting place to work. It's about allowing for and tapping into the type of thinking which results in breakthrough innovation as opposed to churning out more of the same cookie-cutter patches to problems. Playing is risky business. You put yourself out there. Likewise, it takes courage to question status quo and come up with innovative solutions.

That’s why we need to create dynamic spaces, both physically and metaphorically, where people are able to embrace change, explore the unknown, experiment with radically new ways of thinking, and work together collaboratively.

design thinking to solve business problems

Author/Copyright holder: Mathew Ingram. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY 2.0

Google is one of the major companies which prioritise to spend time and money creating playful workspaces filled with toys and unconventional equipment. The goal is to help employees feel safe and that it’s okay to come up with new and unconventional solutions in a playful manner.

IDEO Formed the Right Mindsets, Teams, and Environments for Innovation

How can you start forming the right mindsets, set up cross-disciplinary teams, and create playful environments to foster innovation? Let’s take an example. After the 2000 dot-com bubble burst, IDEO CEO Tim Brown decided that it was time to do a redesign of the organisation. In the redesign, IDEO transformed the way collaboration within the organisation, as well as with external partners, worked fundamentally. IDEO created the concept of “One IDEO”, which underscores the need to act not as independent design studios, but rather a single interconnected network of talents. The company also changed the way it organised its offices by abandoning the classic design studio model. Instead, they started adopting a “global practices” model, which helped teams organise according to global systems in areas like “Health Practice” and “Zero20” (which focuses on the needs of children up to the age of 20).

New organisational structures like that in IDEO — which are themselves subject to change as and when needed to better serve the needs of clients and the world — are needed to spur innovative collaboration between teams and create impactful solutions that make the world a better place. However, the changes do not have to be large-scale. While it’s nice to have adult-sized playgrounds like those in Google and Facebook campuses, it is more than enough to ensure that the organisational layout and philosophy is one that encourages and prioritises collaboration and innovation.

The Take Away

The challenges organisations and countries face today are much more complex and tricky than the ones we faced a few decades ago. Part of the reason is globalisation, which brought together different agents across the globe into an interconnected web of systems that affect one another. To solve these new, complex problems, Design Thinking steps in with a bold and newly systematised, non-linear human-centred approach. Design Thinking allows us to adopt a human-centred perspective in creating innovative solutions while also integrating logic and research. In order to embrace Design Thinking and innovation, we need to ensure that we have the right mindsets, collaborative teams, and conducive environments. When we align our mindsets, skills and environments, we are able to create innovations that allow us to survive the disruptions we might face in the near future. Keep in mind a deep desire to create a better situation for the world around us, and start creating a better world for yourself and the world.

References & Where to Learn More

Tim Brown, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation , 2009

Idris Mootee, Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation , 2013

See Bruce Mau here .

Don Norman . “Rethinking Design Thinking” , 2013.

Bill Moggridge, “Design Thinking: Dear Don” , 2010.

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The power of design thinking

Experience design is all about meeting customers where they want to be and creating products that improve the process of getting there. In this episode of the McKinsey Podcast , Hugo Sarrazin, a McKinsey director, and Jennifer Kilian, a digital vice president of McKinsey Digital Labs, talk with McKinsey’s Barr Seitz about what design means, how it can drive change in an organization, and what companies stand to gain from making it a priority. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

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Podcast transcript.

Barr Seitz: Hello, and welcome to the McKinsey Podcast . I’m Barr Seitz, global publishing head of McKinsey’s Marketing and Sales and Digital Practices, and I’m very happy to introduce our two guests today. First, Jennifer Kilian, a digital VP of McKinsey Digital Labs in our New York office.

Jennifer Kilian: Hi, Barr, thanks, it’s great to be here.

Barr Seitz: Thanks, Jennifer, for joining us. We also have Hugo Sarrazin, a director in our Silicon Valley office and global leader of McKinsey Digital Labs. Hey, Hugo.

Hugo Sarrazin: Hey, Barr, nice to be here.

Barr Seitz: You two were the authors of “ Building a design-driven culture ,” which was one of the top articles published in 2015 on McKinsey.com. We’re going to be addressing how to get beyond the hype around design, what design means to an organization trying to become more digital, and where design is going. So let’s kick off the conversation. Jennifer, the first question is for you.

In preparing for this podcast, I was struck by how broad the definition of design can be. You have product design, industrial design, design systems, and graphic design. When you talk to a CEO, how do you explain what design is  and what its value is in a business context?

Jennifer Kilian: Design thinking is a methodology that we use to solve complex problems, and it’s a way of using systemic reasoning and intuition to explore ideal future states. We do this with the end user or the customer in mind, first and foremost.

The reason that it matters for business is because it’s the single biggest competitive advantage that you can have, if your customers are loyal to you—because if you solve for their needs first, you’ll always win. As a former CEO of IBM stated, very insightfully, “Good design is good business.”

Hugo Sarrazin: Jennifer described it nicely. It is a broad term, it does mean a lot of things for different disciplines, from industrial design to experienced service design to digital design. The reason I think it’s becoming so important today is we’re seeing the limitation of traditional ways of approaching problems.

Historically, we were perhaps not fully thinking about the customer experience or thinking through the level of interactions. I’m generalizing a bit, as there have been some fantastic products and services that have been built and designed over many, many years. But I think right now it’s coming of age. We have a new generation of designers who were trained to understand how to blend technology and business, and they’re a lot more agile in moving from these different spheres. So instead of having siloed conversations, now we can have an integrated conversation. And that’s why design thinking and everything associated with it is now more central to even business strategy, marketing strategy, marketing execution, operations, and product design.

Barr Seitz: So, as you say, Hugo, design has made it to the big leagues now. But as with any topic that comes into the media glare, hype can quickly take over, and you can certainly see that when it comes to design these days. Can you help to explain where the hype stops and the reality kicks in when it comes to design?

Hugo Sarrazin: We’re certainly at a point where the hype is exceeding the capability, and in no way do I want to suggest that there’s not more to be done around design and bringing that to the forefront of a lot of business activities.

For design, where the boundary can be set is not very clear. It will vary by industry, and it will vary by function. But I can make a few suggestions. The first one is, historically, strategy was all about where to compete and how to compete, and there were traditional ways of defining where to compete. You could define the customer segment, you could define the geography, you could define the channel, and you could define the products. All of it was trying to beg some sustainable, competitive advantage.

With the advent of some really different technologies, we are now able to engage the customer in a very, very, very different way, on an ongoing basis, with relevant information, in real time. Experience design is now a source of competitive advantage. If you think about some of the iconic products—and not to be too cliché with Apple or Uber or even Airbnb—some of the different ways of bringing the user experience into the forefront, it is a way to fundamentally compete.

That’s the reality today. If you’re a strategist, if you’re a CEO, and you’re thinking about how to differentiate your company, your services, and you’re not thinking about that experience, you’re probably missing out on a very, very important lever. That’s one.

The second piece, as I hinted at earlier, is we have a new generation of business schools who are training all the students on design thinking. That brings many new capabilities into the market. We’re seeing more technologists, who have a greater appreciation of design and use design earlier in the process in an integrated way.

We’re also seeing designers who go to design school being trained to be both technologists and business leaders. We are at a point where the talent model has changed, and you have more talented individuals who can work across all three places, which were historically siloed.

Barr Seitz: Let’s get to the Holy Grail question, Jennifer. What is design really worth? We’ve all had that experience where you first saw an iPod or had a great experience on an airline, and thought, “Wow.” So, it’s important, but how much is design actually worth?

Jennifer Kilian: There are several layers to peel back with that question. The first one we react to as consumers ourselves. We fall in love with objects or service experiences because of the care that designers took to bring us the best possible design that met our needs or delighted us. That’s a visceral attachment to good design. Likewise, we notice when things are poorly crafted or when we’ve had disappointing experiences that could’ve been made better—a real missed design opportunity.

In this first layer, design is about adding value to our lives as people, as individuals. At a second layer, we can look to design as a much more strategic business lever. We see in the design management index that design-oriented companies have outperformed others for the past ten years.

But how do you achieve that? We’ve been working in a new area that we’re calling quantified experience design to do just that. We try to understand the end-to-end customer journey we want to design for and the signature moments of delight that we could present to the user at any given point in time as they interact with us. Thinking about those moments—and sketching them out as concepts and bringing them back to users to understand and validate them before we bring them to market—allows us to figure out what the impact will be.

We can measure impact based on revenue increase or on customer-satisfaction measures like Net Promoter Score—the things that allow us to smartly prioritize which concepts we’re going to put most of our design attention and effort into before we bring things to market. It’s a much more mature way of experiencing design in the market today and of thinking about the value of design in terms of its worthiness to a company’s bottom line as well.

Hugo Sarrazin: I think we’re at a very, very exciting time historically. If you go back to the roots of industrial design, you build the product, you try to make it the best you can, you release it in the market, and you wait—you wait for those experiences that the consumer has, these interactions—you hope that you get market share, and then the product is a booming success.

With technology the way it is today, you can instrument your design like you’ve never been able to do in the past. That’s an exciting way to measure the impact of good design. You can do experiments, and you can get a lot of information and all the capabilities associated with A/B testing, to help you refine what you’re creating in terms of an experience with technology.

It’s an interesting time. I’m not suggesting that everything is going to become A/B testing, but you can now instrument your design in a way that you could not previously. Good design will be very smart about putting in place those measurement tools to provide the feedback to the designers.

Jennifer Kilian: Right, and it’s moving even beyond A/B testing, in the sense that we have multichannels to collect data about our users—to be really smart about one-to-one experiences. And even thinking about measuring those experiences and those design moments before they even become part of that A/B model. It’s a nice, predictive way of attaching value to design. Then as you say, Hugo, to measure and iterate that impact in an ongoing manner. It becomes this continuous conversation about design with our customers.

Barr Seitz: It’s interesting, you’re talking about design almost, technically speaking, in terms of measurement. But there’s also an interesting element of empathy in this. In your article, Hugo, you mention empathy as the core element of good design, and clearly understanding what motivates your customer is important for the business. And when you get it right, the experience builds value for the customer and the business. But where’s the trade-off between empathy and business?

Hugo Sarrazin: I don’t think there’s a trade-off. When you get to the core of customer needs, and you strike a chord, and you’re delighting them at these moments of truth, as Jennifer mentioned, you’re going to create a delightful, engaging experience where you’re going to create successful products, and that’s good business. At the end of the day, it’s at the heart of designing perfect experiences or terrific products.

What’s interesting is—and the word empathy is sometimes overused, but I still think it’s one of the better ones we have at this point to describe this quest which is central to what designers love to do—is to understand the why. Why are people doing this? What’s the problem they have? What are their expectations?

If you dig deep, and try to understand that, there are insightful things you can discover about the product you’re trying to design, or the service you’re trying to create. As we move forward, I think we’re going to see more and more of that empathy thinking being embedded in the design process of products, service, and employee onboarding—just to make sure that we really, truly understand what makes a difference. Then we double down on those things that make a difference, and we skip the things that make less of a difference. This is just good business sense, and it’s exciting that we’re bringing an extra layer of thinking around what the customer is experiencing, or what the customer is expecting.

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Barr Seitz: But is it possible to go too far? Is it possible to overinvest in design, so that it doesn’t make business sense?

Hugo Sarrazin: It is possible. There are plenty of ways to design goofy experiments that can last for years on end. By no means are we suggesting that we should set these things up. But it’s often a good investment of time and resources when you are trying to build a new business model, where you are trying to build a new product, or a new service, to go down to the root cause. Where it becomes really, really dangerous is when you’re not sure what you’re hunting for at all, and you go and explore in a too open-ended way problem statements that are poorly defined.

Barr Seitz: It’s becoming clear that what you’re really talking about is this idea of a culture around design. Jennifer, you write about this in your article when discussing digital transformations in general. The conversation quickly focuses on culture because that’s such a core element of the organization. What does a design-driven culture look like, and how can a company get there?

Jennifer Kilian: Culture is extremely important to the success of a design-thinking-led organization. There are four elements there. The first one is to understand the customer, and to make that everyone’s job in the organization—not just the design team or the user-experience or research-team’s job.

Some examples of that are organizations like Amazon, where the executive team is required to call in and visit the call centers, and listen to customer needs firsthand. That’s a great example where everybody is in charge of understanding what the customers’ needs, motivations, pain points, and behaviors are, and for making them paramount in solving business problems. That’s really important. Understanding the customer is not just the job of the designer.

The second is thinking about how we bring that empathy that Hugo was speaking to into the organization, making sure that people are thinking about things from the lens of the people that they’re designing for. That could mean creating personas that people rally around, or archetypes, or ways of communicating the target audience that speaks beyond the demographics. It’s focusing more on what’s in the heart and the mind of the people that we’re designing for.

Then, thinking about that empathy in a way that becomes endemic, as a part of the culture. Teaching not only the new hires and new talent that we bring in, this way of design thinking and empathizing, but also the incumbents, and making sure that everybody feels that empathetic drive and ability to refer, first person, to who they’re designing for. Not just think about it from a technology-stack lens, or a business-process lens, but to also keep that human hat on all of the time.

The third is to design in real time. Hugo alluded to some of this: thinking about design, technology, and business all coming together, and iterating together. In our article, we call this the braided approach. We’ve moved from an era of culture using agile in a development environment to thinking about being agile or nimble across our business-design thinking and technology planning all together, and having those teams work as hybrid teams, sitting together, working together, checking in, and keeping each other abreast of any issues that come up. That’s a great way to embody design, in becoming a design-driven culture, and becoming a team that is high performing and works together in an agile way.

Which leads to the fourth point, which is to act quickly. We have the means now to be able to hypothesize, design, and test quickly, both at a broad scale and at a very focused, one-on-one scale, whether that’s digitally or bringing things to market in prototype fashion.

That’s another way to shape the culture, because the culture that makes things together can experiment and succeed, and fail, quickly—and learn. It becomes a much more learning-driven culture, that learn-test-learn thinking that brings things to market that are more successful and refines faster over time.

So, understanding the customer being everyone’s job, keeping empathy as central to the organization, designing in real time, and being able to act quickly are the main pieces of the design-driven culture. Of course, there are the trappings that make those things easier to embody. Things like flexible work spaces that have great areas for collaboration, making it easy to come together quickly. Rooms that can be set up so that there are hybrid teams sitting together that are cross-functional. Thinking about breaking down any traditional barriers and walls to make it easier to collaborate, easier to keep humans first, and easier to think about how we learn, and test, and fail, and get things to market quickly. That’s how design thinking and design-driven cultures allow businesses to be more successful and have greater impact.

Hugo Sarrazin: Design is about learning, and what could be a greater gift than to have an organization that’s constantly learning? That every interaction is an opportunity to learn something, that you withhold judging, and you try to find ways to take an incremental opportunity to learn something new about yourself, about the customer, about another person on the team. It raises the game for everybody inside a company, if everybody’s equipped with a minimum language of design thinking. They approach the problem differently, they reframe the problem differently, and you can create more win-wins rather than being constantly in negotiation, where there’s obviously somebody that’s going to lose.

Barr Seitz: And your point, Hugo, about design being about learning, it emphasizes this point around design as an active thing that companies do, and the bias for action, which I think is one of its clear attractions. Then certainly the conversations about design are about execution, creating a great experience or creating a great product, testing, and learning. But what about design’s role in business strategy? How should companies and executives think about design informing strategy?

Hugo Sarrazin: It’s a big opportunity, and somebody should rewrite all the business-school books. Traditional views of strategy, of where and how to compete, need to be updated to include that there’s a new dimension. You can compete on customer experience, and that is a fundamental dimension of competition and a source of sustainable, competitive advantage.

If you’re able to understand the needs of the customer, and you have an organization that’s good at doing this on an ongoing basis, you can create engagement and loyalty—and something truly special that is the bond between a company and its customers; it’s a bond between a company and its employees. By the way, you can apply a lot of the same tools and methodology in making sure that the internal processes are properly designed.

So, it is a strategic weapon that some of these disruptors, who are attacking established companies, are finding as a way to exploit. Therefore, as a strategist, you need to include that in your arsenal. Be open-minded to the discovery process that’s embedded in design thinking, be open to creating a learning environment, and be clear that no matter how clever one is we don’t always know the future.

It would be much better to create a strategy that is adaptable and flexible, that can take input and insight from a customer, and apply design thinking to help you refine your strategy as you execute it.

Barr Seitz: This has been a great conversation. Thank you, Jennifer and Hugo, for joining me. If you want to read Jennifer and Hugo’s article, “ Building a design-driven culture ,” you can find it on McKinsey.com. You can also follow them on Twitter. Jennifer is @PicassoJK2, and Hugo is @HugoSarrazin. You can keep up with the latest from McKinsey on digital topics by following us @McKinseyDigital. Thank you for joining us today.

Hugo Sarrazin: Thank you.

Jennifer Kilian: Thank you.

Jennifer Kilian is a digital vice president in McKinsey’s New York office, and Hugo Sarrazin is a director in the Silicon Valley office. This interview was conducted by McKinsey Digital and Marketing and Sales Practices’ Barr Seitz .

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The Handbook of Creativity & Innovation in Business pp 223–242 Cite as

Design Thinking as a Problem Solving Tool

  • Rouxelle de Villiers 2  
  • First Online: 05 August 2022

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In chapter 10 we covered thirteen ideation tools. We dedicate this chapter to Design Thinking (DT), as a procedure to generate and test ideas, and even more importantly as a creative problem-solving methodology. DT is a human-centred process that will help designers, innovators, entrepreneurs and business executives to systematically solve complex problems, not only in product design and businesses processes, systems and other sticky organizational problems, but also in our communities and our everyday lives. Some leading global brands, such as Apple™, Google™ and Samsung™ have adopted the DT approach to complex problem-solving.

As DT is a shift in our way of thinking and a collection of hands-on methods and tools, we devote this chapter to this highly useful, well-honed 5-stage process. The chapter first covers the history of and thinking modalities involved in DT, then examines how various design thinking schools and leading universities (e.g., Stanford, Harvard and MIT) apply the DT principles using models with three to eight stages. Finally this chapter covers the 5-stage DT iterative process we propose for business executives – those who lead multi-disciplinary teams of innovators, ideators, intrapreneurs and others in business problem-solving roles.

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Editors and affiliations, creativity laboratory, 1.1 activity i: cognitive biases.

Explain how the DT process will overcome any four of the nine cognitive biases listed below. (Answers can be found in the paper by Jeanne Liedka ( [ 28 ], p. 930-931) (Table 11.4 )

1.2 Activity II: Empathy Map

Use the empathy map provided in Fig. 11.5 to consider a project or idea you need to “sell” to an antagonist. Try to “wear their/his/her shoes” for a day. Consider their pain points and the gains they might desire. Place yourself entirely in their shoes as you complete this map below. (You might like to copy a bigger version and consider a few rival positions or “enemies of the idea”). How does understanding their motivational drivers and their goals change the way you think about the way you might persuade them to buy into your idea?

An illustrated chart of the empathy map. A human figure announces in a megaphone the following questionnaire: Goal or goals, who are we empathizing with, what do they need to do, what do they hear, what do they do, what do they see, what do they say, and what motivates or drives them.

Empathy map to facilitate persuasive idea sharing

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de Villiers, R. (2022). Design Thinking as a Problem Solving Tool. In: de Villiers, R. (eds) The Handbook of Creativity & Innovation in Business. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-19-2180-3_11

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Using Design Thinking to Solve Business Problems

Welcome to the third entry in our Product Team Blog series, written by members of the Inkling Product team! This entry focuses on the Design Thinking process.

BlogHeader_Using Design Thinking to Solve Business Problems

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