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What is Design Thinking? Why all the Buzz About It?

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

What is all the buzz about design thinking?

If you have found this post because of all the buzz about design thinking but aren't sure what it is, then you are not alone. As I am out networking as a design thinking consultant, the minute I reply to the infamous question, "what do you do?" my response receives a puzzled stare. Usually followed by statements like "is that like furniture design?" or "is that like kitchen remodeling?" Even job alerts on LinkedIn fill my inbox with furniture sales or remodeling job opportunities. So be confident you are not behind on the times, but right on the cutting edge of organizational transformation. In today's post, I'll define it and unpack the three most significant benefits I see for the universal application of design thinking.

Let's begin with the definition and also a differentiation between two words closely related to design thinking - invention and innovation.


Design Thinking - a method of thinking about the important people* in your organization, understanding their needs, and designing innovative solutions for them. Creating win-win solutions for both the company and the customers. -Karen Zeigler

*People often referred to as users can be customers, employees, or any group of people associated with a mutual problem to be solved.

Invention (as defined by a new, useful process, machine, improvement, etc. that did not exist previously and that is recognized as the product of some unique initution or genius.

Innovation (as defined by - the act of innovating; introduction of new things or methods.

An example to clarify

Invention and innovation overlap in that they both include the 'introduction of something new". So let me provide an example to clarify the two and help us unpack the definition of design thinking and the relationship between the two. The lightbulb is a well-known invention. Invented by Thomas Edison in the town I call home (Fort Myers, FL). Since the invention of the light bulb, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of innovations involving light. A walk into a lighting store will show you several hundred for starters. However, there are booklights, mechanic lights, lights for knitting, and practically anything you can imagine. Every gadget, tool, or aid that contains a source of light is an innovation. The bottom line is

Invention = Lightbulb

Innovation = The multitude of uses of lightbulb

Design Thinking = An Effective, Efficient, & Ego Free Way to Achieve Innovation

Benefit #1: Efficient

As an illustration, imagine you gathered the most prominent and brightest brains in the world to study the lightbulb and to come up with innovations that would provide service and profit from the improvement of the invention. As noted above, you could come up with thousands of ideas. However, hundreds, thousands, etc. ideas only confound the question of which innovation will succeed. Do you go with your gut, start with the first idea, or perhaps use a list of questions designed to help align with your company mission? You could take a hundred shots and fail at them all. It's still a shot in the dark.

On the other hand, using the design thinking process, you eliminate all the second-guessing. In going straight to the customer (or other users), you quickly determine the problems they want to be solved. Surprisingly, they will not only tell you the issues they want answers to but provide invaluable input and insights into how you can solve them. And in light of the rapid pace of change that organizations face, this efficient use of resources is one of the top benefits.

Benefit #2: Effective

Even though customer desirability is a vital hurdle of innovation, it is not the only hurdle. Such changes are useless if they are not technically feasible or financially viable. It's this three-prong filter of the process that is helping company leaders succeed in innovating.

I like to call it the Win-Win-Win filter because it provides three simple questions to filter any innovation idea through before moving to execution.

  1. Do people want it?

  2. Is it functionally/technically feasible? Will it work?

  3. Is it viable for the company's business model? Is it profitable?

Besides, the filter making the process effective, it is also highly effective because of the diversity of its use. The design thinking process isn't just an effective method for innovations in products. Equally, it's effective with services, business structures, processes, and any problem a company faces.

Benefit #3: Ego Free (Well almost)

While the ego is a human condition necessary for survival, it often gets in the way of innovation. This dangerous pitfall rears its ugly head in the presence of fear. The ego is helpful when chased by a lion, but not the best when making decisions. This fight, flight, or freeze response delays, distracts, and stops progress dead in its tracks. Granted, C-suite leaders have many lions outside their doors to invoke fear. Namely, fear of failure is one generally impossible to avoid (among others) when it comes to innovation. But there are other fears imposed by the board, the shareholders, the disgruntled employee or customer, and let us not forget the competition. Even though fear is adequately justified, the ego makes a terrible leader. It also makes innovation more difficult, which is partly to blame for the estimated 90% failure rate of most company projects.

Ego's modus operandi
  • Focused on the past or stress/worried about the future

  • Ruled by Time

  • Takes oneself to seriously

  • Does things for the approval of others

  • Feels alone in the world

  • Complex and intellectual (superior)

When the ego is in charge, it recognizes the symptoms of the problems and the need to act but jumps rather quickly to a solution. It believes the signs of the problem (sales decreasing, customer complaints increasing) are the real problem and begins to take the lead in solving the problem. This approach leaves a lot of questions unanswered and so the project stalls out in the end. If not sooner. On the other hand, design thinking is a human-centered approach that when followed navigates around this tendency to jump at an obvious solution. It leaves no question unasked, no stone unturned, and it starts not with the leader but with the user (relevant person) closest to the problem. It is this focus of design thinking on the human, their needs, and simple prototype reiterations to the focused group that, in the end, creates a winning innovation.

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