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Design Thinking – magical balance between strategy & execution

Design Thinking is lately being touted as many things – it’s the search for a magical balance between science & art, structure & chaos, intuition & logic, concept & execution, playfulness & formality, and control & empowerment. If that caught your attention, you may ask, what is it?

To define it at a fundamental level, design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that employs multidisciplinary teams, flexible environments and a creative process to generate user-focused products, services or experiences. Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, defined it as - “A human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of the people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

What is design?

Wikipedia defines design as - “the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object, system or measurable human interaction.” At a very basic level, design is problem-solving, it is art, it is communication, it is a verb, and it is for people. Design as defined by Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum is:

Design brings together two important elements – creativity and innovation. Creativity can be described as bringing a unique approach or thinking to the way you do things. Innovation can be thought of as a result of a creative process, ending up with a new and improved product or service.

Despite these (and other) early examples of human-centric products, design has historically been an afterthought in the business world, applied only to touch up a product’s aesthetics. This topical design application has resulted in corporations creating solutions which fail to meet their customers’ real needs. Consequently, some of these companies moved their designers from the end of the product-development process, where their contribution is limited, to the beginning. Their human-centric design approach proved to be a differentiator: those companies that used it have reaped the financial benefits of creating products shaped by human needs.

Design Thinking is being widely misunderstood as well. It is often associated exclusively with the design discipline or seen as a creativity tool that involves an enormous amount of post-its. Many mistake Design Thinking for design methodologies or the design process itself. Design methodologies are undoubtedly part of Design Thinking, but they are not one and the same thing. Design Thinking is broader and more holistic and is not limited to live within the design discipline alone. While the design discipline is a main driver for Design Thinking, it does not own it.

Design Thinking stretches across disciplines. The true potential of Design Thinking is its collaborative force of bringing the disciplines of design, technology, and business, together to create a holistic product or solution vision. The Design Thinker makes empathy for business needs part of a broader context, together with human needs and desires. In other words, while technology brings the feasibility aspects of the solution, design brings in the human desirability of the solution, and business brings in the viability of the solution. Essentially, it’s getting to the outcome of a product/solution, that works, that is of value to the human as a customer, and generates value for the business, that is the goal.

Fundamental principles of Design Thinking:

  • Design Thinking starts with empathy, a deep human focus, in order to gain insights which may reveal new and unexplored ways of seeing, and courses of action to follow in bringing about preferred situations for business and society.

  • It involves reframing the perceived problem or challenge at hand, and gaining perspectives, which allow a more holistic look at the path towards these preferred situations.

  • It encourages collaborative, multi-disciplinary teamwork to leverage the skills, personalities and thinking styles of many in order to solve multifaceted problems.

  • It initially employs divergent styles of thinking to explore as many possibilities, deferring judgment and creating an open ideations space to allow for the maximum number of ideas and points of view to surface.

  • It later employs convergent styles of thinking to isolate potential solution streams, combining and refining insights and more mature ideas, which pave a path forward.

  • It engages in early exploration of selected ideas, rapidly modeling potential solutions to encourage learning while doing, and allow for gaining additional insight into the viability of solutions before too much time or money has been spent

  • Tests the prototypes which survive the processes further to remove any potential issues.

  • Iterates through the various stages, revisiting empathetic frames of mind and then redefining the challenge as new knowledge and insight is gained along the way.

  • It starts off chaotic and cloudy steamrolling towards points of clarity until a desirable, feasible and viable solution emerges.

Design Thinking process

Design Thinking means many things to many people, and this theme persists into the practical implementation as well. There are a wide variety of process breakdowns and visualizations ranging typically between 3 and 7 steps. Each process step or phase embodies one or more of the core ingredients of design thinking that being, reframing, empathy, ideation, prototyping and testing. These different implementation frameworks or models might have different names and number of stages, but they embody the same principles. Here is one such comprehensive framework:

IDEO uses a different Design Thinking process now, and while it has only three stages, covers pretty much the same ground as the other processes. The three stages are

  • Inspire: The problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solution

  • Ideate: The process of generating ideas

  • Implement: The path that leads from the project room to the market

Design Thinking is a mindset

As much as Design Thinking is a process, it is also a mindset that can be adopted into many aspects of life, beyond design. It’s a high-touch, user-centered approach to innovation. For example, it can be used to create a thoughtful experience in every customer interaction that is before, during, and after, using your product or service. Adopting this mindset takes a holistic approach to problems and solutions while encouraging diverse and disparate viewpoints. It promotes bias for action towards taking small concrete steps to move your project forward, one step at time. It takes iterative steps in small palatable chunks, to build, assess, and learn, to find that optimum innovative solution.

This mindset has been successfully adopted by companies such as Apple and Google with outstanding results. While it keeps the customer at the center of everything, this mindset provides added benefits of better peer-to-peer communication and improved visibility to the internal decision-making process. It helps eliminate the complexity and clutter, so that we can get back to the basics of human need and human problems. It enables teams to build more intimate relationships with mutual accountability and commitment to a specific goal, common approach and meaningful purpose, resulting in high performance.


The current climate of rapid change and upheaval is even more difficult to forecast for the future. It is a ‘disrupt or be disrupted’ world out there. 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 behavior 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.

Design Thinking means to truly and consequently move away from a narrow technical and business only perspective to a truly interdisciplinary and collaborative culture of thinking and making. Design Thinking brings disciplines together to collaboratively find solutions within a highly complex and multi-layered system of business, technical, and human context to ultimately result in products that humans need and desire, and are happy to make part of their lives. To conclude, Design Thinking could very well be that magical balance needed to bring iterative strategy in small chunks and execution that is customer-centric & value focused with innovation & speed.

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