Leadership Library Review: Design Thinking

February 2018

Design Thinking

What are the big take-aways?

Design Thinking is a strategy for solving adaptive challenges by embracing the unknown through a structured five-step process. I have recently encountered Design Thinking in several contexts, including in the MiddCORE program sponsored by Middlebury College’s Center for Creativity, Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship – where I taught leadership development as an Alumni Mentor a couple of weeks ago – and by participating in a superb Vermont-ATD workshop that offered an introductory hands-on experience of the method’s five steps (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test). Also, Design Thinking was the centerpiece of Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, which I reviewed for this blog in December.

Why do I like it?

First of all, from what I can tell by experiencing a Design Thinking process from start to finish – even in a super-abbreviated form like the Vermont-ATD workshop I attended – it can be a lot of fun!

What I also like about Design Thinking, in my capacity as a leadership development specialist, are a couple of other things that deeply resonate with the way I do my work: (1) how the Design Thinking process leverages powerful questions, human instinct, the inherent creativity of play, and the benefits of judgment-free experimentation (an approach sometimes called “safe to fail” or “fail forward”); and (2) how applicable the method is to social change projects, because it so thoroughly subverts the dominant problem-solving paradigm by intentionally making the “user” (customer, community member, beneficiary, etc.) the designer. I am captivated by the connections; i.e. that both of these aspects of Design Thinking are what leaders – and leadership coaches – already do intuitively when they take constructive risks for the sake of transformational change.

I also like the emphasis on the (literal and/or imaginary) three-dimensional element of Design Thinking, especially in the steps of prototyping and testing. Even in the brief 90-minute workshop I took, we did a lot of drawing and building crude mock-ups of our ideas using the provided buckets of simple materials such as Legos, tape, construction paper, Play-doh, pipe-cleaners and stir-sticks. It was eye-opening that this worked as well for abstract human-behavior concepts as it did for tangible products.

In what situations would this be useful?

As I understand it, the purpose of undertaking a Design Thinking process is because you are in the situation of confronting a chronic and/or brand new and/or heretofore intractable problem and you need a completely fresh approach to resolving it.

According to the Design Kit website at IDEO.org, Design Thinking has been successfully used to create products, services, architecture, community development projects, social- sector and for-profit enterprises. I was particularly intrigued by the case study called Asili, a “sustainable community-owned health, agricultural, and water business in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

A terrific book to pair with Design Thinking would be A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library. It provides pragmatic guidance for discovering, (re)framing and experimenting with the kinds powerful questions that create transformative results.

Another interesting pairing might be the materials – such as the workbook – posted on the website of “Humor: Serious Business,” a course offered last spring by the Stanford Graduate School of Business “about the power (and importance) of humor to make and scale positive change in the world, and also – surprise! – to achieve business objectives, build more effective and innovative organizations, cultivate stronger bonds, and capture more lasting memories.” (I noticed that it was actually a couple of folks from IDEO who taught the curriculum segment on “How to Design for Levity.”)

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