Real Leaders

Why is “Design Thinking” on the Lips of so Many Business Leaders?

design thinking

These days there’s a lot of talk – and a lot of executive education – revolving around “design thinking.” Companies like Apple, Netflix, Facebook and others are disrupting industries and business models left and right. And with these developments comes the realization that traditional approaches to problem-solving are no longer enough.

So, across industries around the world, attention is shifting to design thinking as an approach for unleashing creativity and innovation in organisations.

But what is design thinking?

Although the stereotypical image of “the designer” is often an egocentric, domineering aesthete, design thinking is actually highly collaborative process that has relatively little to do with visual appearance. 

As defined by the Stanford University Institute of Design, the design thinking process consists of five steps:

1. Empathize – working to fully understand your customer through observation and interviews
2. Define – synthesizing findings from the previous step to form a “user point of view”
3. Ideate – structured brainstorming of possible solutions
4. Prototype – giving a physical, digital, or diagram form to selected ideas
5. Test – putting prototypes into practice to see if they meet the user needs identified at the beginning

Unlike analytical thinking, which focuses on the problem at hand and considers how current resources and knowledge might fix the problem, design thinking focuses on the ultimate goal, apart from whatever the current situation might be.

According to Melissa Rancourt, academic director of the Global Executive Master’s in Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design, this focus on future goals rather than current constraints “challenges the status quo and forces you out of your comfort zone”. Using creative design processes, “you often end up completely discounting existing problems, instead uncovering an unexpected approach that could ultimately lead to an entirely new business model.”

Rancourt adds that a process like this needs must necessarily tolerate – and even embrace – ambiguity and failure. “The iterative nature of design thinking assumes that multiple possible solutions and prototypes will be explored and tested simultaneously, and ideas are bound to be modified and even discarded along the way.”

How is design thinking being implemented in the business world?

Sure, there are companies like Airbnb or Uber that are founded on design thinking. It’s natural in smaller companies. But Rancourt explains that large businesses operating within traditional industries are now training their staff on design thinking. “Even if they don’t immediately implement design thinking across the board, they are setting up design-thinking teams,” she explains. “These groups are given the freedom to think totally out-of-the-box and test out solutions that might be expanded across the organisation.”

When you think about it, the exec-ed classroom is an ideal place not only to learn about design thinking, but also to actually participate in it first-hand. In any exec-ed programme worth its mettle, you’re not going to find a lecture-style setting where a professor stands in front of the room and dictates the right answer. 

Instead, you’ll be working through a set of highly experiential exercises together with people from a diverse set of professional backgrounds. Each participant contributes different ideas, and immediate feedback and vetting leads to those ideas either getting discarded – refined into creative, innovative, design-led solutions.

Laura Montgomery is a higher-education expert who blogs for The Economist Careers Network.


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