When Jeanne and her co-author, Tim Ogilvie, published Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers in 2011, few corporate and public leaders had heard about the qualitatively oriented problem-solving methodology called “design thinking.”

At that time, those who knew anything about design often regarded it as “the last decoration station on the way to market,” as Procter & Gamble’s design strategy head described it, and design, generally, was done by people in new product development, not by managers.[i]

An Innovation Methodology

As we present our forthcoming book, Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector, much has changed. Even large bureaucracies like the Veterans Administration and IBM use design thinking to explore the experiences of key stakeholders searching for insights into better client service. Design thinkers take this deep information about stakeholders’ experiences — which we refer to as addressing “What Is” — and develop insightful criteria for hypothesizing “What If” ideas that can then be tested to see “What Wows” against organizational constraints and launched as co-created prototypes to learn “What Works.”

Not every design thinking project is a success, of course, but as a risk management approach in today’s uncertain and behaviorally oriented age, few innovation methodologies compete with design thinking’s empathize, ideate, iterate strategy.

This raises an interesting historical parallel. Like Total Quality Management moved from being the playground of quality managers into everyone’s sandbox in the generation after World War II, design thinking seems poised today to become a core competency in corporate and bureaucratic endeavors.

And, of course, we’d like to help it along.

Collaborative Creativity

Although design thinking is sometimes fully integrated into day-to-day strategy, as it is at Intuit, for example, most large organizations are still on the up-slope to the tipping point where collaborative creativity is diffused throughout the organization.

In Designing for Growth, Claudia Kotchka told us of her time at P&G that getting people to try the methodology was crucial: “We would take 10 people from a business unit, all disciplines, and put them on a wicked problem. We never told them they were using design thinking methodology — ever. It wasn’t important for them to know what it was called. All they had to know were the basic steps and how to approach the problem with a different mindset.”

In another chapter, Jacqui Jordan from Australian giant Suncorp underlined a key tenet of design thinking: Scrutinize the problem space. “As managers, we are often solutions looking for a cause — we are so quick with answers,” she said. “Design unsettles people because we don’t pretend to know the answer, and so much of our (design thinkers’) interest is with the problem, rather than its solution.”

Five Keys to Innovation

If you’re nudging your organization toward a core capacity in innovation, you can’t do better than these takeaways from the half-dozen stories we presented in Designing for Growth.

  1. Tell human-centered stories. Stories are the soul of data, and they personalize realities and potential futures. This can help bosses, co-workers and employees reluctant to add something new to overburdened plates see abstract ideas as tangible, relevant and human.
  2. Supplement stories with data. We live in a quantitative, analytic world, and while past statistics can’t describe a new future — nor assure success in it — a list of successful projects helps co-workers consider the design thinking toolkit. Consider, Jacqui Jordan’s boss at Suncorp: “The Australian market for commercial insurance was shrinking at 8 percent per year. We got 1 percent growth in Year 1 and 8 percent in Year 2, post-merger. We’re getting 9 scores on customer satisfaction, versus 6 or 7 before.” Let the results do the talking.
  3. Provide transparency to design thinking. Since the design process can seem foreign to analytically trained managers, let people see it in action. Provide a room, if possible, where the learning underway can be displayed, where Post-it notes, white boards and posters are available for all to see.
  4. Invite analytically oriented co-workers into the idea testing process. They’ll be able to spot weaknesses in your argument and help you “fail fast and cheap,” and therefore succeed sooner.
  5. Share the learning and business results. Don’t shy away from bad news. In fact, consider shouting it because you’ve learned enough to pivot, or halt, before the organization writes big checks. The goal of design thinking is to learn, and learning what doesn’t work can be almost as valuable as learning what does. As successful venture capitalists (who expect less than two in 10 projects to succeed) illustrate, data that helps halt investing is worth seeking.

Jeanne M. Liedtka and Randy Salzman are authors of the upcoming book Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector (Columbia Business Press), a study of design-led innovation projects in government and social sectors.


[i] The “last decoration station” phrase was attributed to an unnamed P&G designer and repeated by Claudia Kotchka, P&G vice-president for design innovation and strategy, in a Fast Company interview by Jennifer Reingold “Masters of Design 2005 : The Interpreter” in 2005.