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What is “Design Thinking” and Why Should I Care?

By John Coyle
October 26, 2022

Design Thinking – is it one of those catch-all new buzzwords floating about like “synergy” (a while back) and more recently “innovation”?

Perhaps not. The origins of Design Thinking (which is both a process and a mindset) have their origins at Stanford and were first coined by David Kelley – still the head of Stanford’s d.school and chair at IDEO – the innovation consultancy. The mindset and process of design thinking is embedded in many, if not most, of the Silicon Valley tech giants including Apple, Google and Cisco. For the record David Kelley (and IDEO) were key partners with Apple and Steve Jobs and together co-created many of Apple’s iconic products including the Lisa, the McIntosh, the mouse and the first iteration of the iPhone. It works.

But still, what is it? At its core, Design Thinking asks you to be two nearly opposite things: scientifically detached about the potential solutions to any given problem – AND humanly passionate about pursuing those solutions that might absolve pain or improve the plight of those you are solving for. The designer’s mindset is always, always asking “do we really understand the problem – from standing in the shoes of those we are solving for?”

Mindset, however, is not enough and naturally there is a process as well. Here are the basic steps:

1)   Accept: this sounds obvious but the analogy of the ostrich with his head in the sand reminds us that there is often failure to accept seemingly obvious issues all around us. “You can’t solve a problem you are unwilling to have.” Dave Stanley – Stanford

2)   Define: simple problems have simple solutions (Occam’s Razor) – but complex problems require lots of context and understanding. Design Thinkers gather context (often through observation) before solving. (Else you run into Maslow’s Hammer).

3)   Empathize: often missing in most problem-solving contexts. Do you really understand the problem from the shoes of those you are solving for? This is the core of Design Thinking often referred to as Human Centered Design.

4)   Ideate: generate ideas without judgment. Write them down. And only then, judge them. In boardrooms and hallways all around the world ideas are being spiked down like volleyballs being set, with “we’ve tried that before.” “We don’t have the budget” etc. etc. Ideas need time to germinate before being judged. I would argue that the separation of the generation of ideas from the judgment of them is the single greatest innovation kryptonite on the planet. (I’ll often ask when hearing the “we’ve tried it” phrase, “so when was that tried before?” and I’ll get, “well that was in ‘96” and I’ll exclaim “has nothing changed in 26 years?!”)

5)   Prototype and Test: the temptation with a new idea you are in love with is to go big. Resist. Test, prototype, get feedback. Do it quickly and “fail fast.” There’s a lot of nuances with launching something new. Prototype and do quick tests, get feedback and improve the idea until it is ready.

So that is the 5-step version of Design Thinking. How and why should it make a difference in your world? For now, we’ll start with a mosquito. (But in a future edition we will share how an aspiring Olympic athlete (me) used Design Thinking to “hack” his sport to break world records and win an Olympic medal.)

It was late at night and a mosquito had managed to find its way into my room and was in love with my right ear. I flipped on the lights to kill it but couldn’t find him. Lights out and 10 minutes later he was back. This went on for 2 hours. And then I thought, “I teach this, and I can’t even do it! This is a design thinking equation – I obviously have not framed the problem properly!” After a little thinking I realized that the problem was not “how do I kill this mosquito?” The real framing was “how do I keep this bug from keeping me awake?” Quickly I obtained a fan from another room, aimed it at the bed and voila – we both slept safe that night.

Design thinking is about re-framing challenges and finding new ways to solve old problems.

“In the infinite possibilities of the universe – there is always a way.”

John Coyle

John K. Coyle is one of the world’s leading experts in “Design Thinking” and Innovation. His presentations combine the exhilarating stories of a champion athlete with the data and intellect of a professor and best-selling author.

John is the founder of Speaking Design Thinking, with an engineering degree from Stanford University and Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School.  He served as head of innovation for a Fortune 500 wireless telecom and SVP of innovation for a leading strategy consultancy. John is a world class athlete in cycling and speedskating, an Olympic silver medalist, NBC Olympic Sports analyst, and a guest lecturer at Kellogg, Marquette and CEDIM universities. A four-time TEDx speaker, John is a thought leader in the field of “chronoception” – the neuroscience and psychology of how humans process time. 

Learn about John’s new online course, the Design Thinking Academy

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.

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