Are You a Design Thinker? To Keep Innovating, You Should Be.

Applying thoughtful, cross-disciplinary practices to everyday business problems can yield powerful solutions.

design thinking, design

You may have heard your marketing team throw around “design thinking” and then gone about your day. But design thinking was never intended solely for creatives.


The need for high-quality, innovative experiences for both customers and employees is pushing executives from all areas of an enterprise to integrate classic design-thinking practices into company operations. Design thinking drives bottom-line results, and it can help solve thorny problems.


Understand the Basics of Design Thinking 

Design thinking is a method that helps you drill down to identify your customer, define a problem, come up with a multitude of possible solutions, narrow them down to the single best and, ultimately, drive innovation.


For instance, Airbnb incorporated design thinking when it reimagined its app in 2011. As the team filled sticky notes and mapped the customer journey, a common design-thinking exercise, an epiphany emerged. While Airbnb had thought of its product as the app itself, the team realized that customers viewed the product as the trip they were booking—a meaningful, exciting experience. The insight led Airbnb to create new business categories, such as Airbnb Experiences, which offers guided tours and activities in destinations all over the world.


Question What You Think You Know

You don’t have to be a product designer to engage in design thinking. “It’s about focusing on who you’re really trying to solve a problem for, and finding the best and most strategic way to do that,” says Jennifer Sukis, a design principal for AI and machine learning at IBM. “It’s a step-by-step way to think about a problem logically and come to a solution that you can back up with that thinking.”


Sukis says it’s easier than you might expect to get people engaged in the practice. At its core, design thinking requires people to slow down, ask questions, and break down complicated issues. You can start by simply bringing stakeholders together and using design thinking to guide the discussion. “Design thinking is really a way to make sure you’re structuring those conversations in a mindful way,” Sukis says. For instance, you could launch a productive brainstorming session simply by asking everyone in the room to describe your customer. “This is a quick way to uncover places where people aren’t on the same path,” she adds.


A critical reason to integrate design thinking into your business operations is that it often reveals an essential truth that’s easy to miss—just consider Airbnb’s results. That’s design thinking at its core, Sukis says: “It’s a tool that helps our mind process things and calm down that frenzy we feel as we approach a problem, so we can make the best use of what we know.”


Reap the Benefits

Erica Eden served as director for global design innovation at PepsiCo until spring 2019, when she launched her own design-research and strategy studio, Tribe & Citizen. Her projects at PepsiCo often included colleagues from different teams who rarely had reason to speak with each other. “For me, design thinking activities were a trojan horse to solve really basic human problems—to get people talking to each other,” she says.


Her partners in research and development felt like they were always saying no when other teams would ask them to do something. The real problem, however, was that other teams didn’t understand the limitations that prevented R&D from fulfilling their requests. Design-thinking exercises helped illuminate the roadblocks that existed and opened up communication among disparate teams.


“Instead of consumer-driven ideation, we were often working with factory insight: What can we make now by tweaking the system we have, with very little investment?” Eden says. “Design thinking was so much more effective. It made the R&D team feel like they owned part of the innovation process in a way they never had before. It wasn’t an assignment—it was a collaborative effort that they felt ownership in. And it ended up with products that actually went to market.”


So, where do you begin if you’re new to design thinking? Although it is a relatively new methodology, design thinking has existed in some form since at least the 1970s. And today major universities and top companies are teaching and researching design thinking. That means there’s a vast pool of resources available, Sukis says. You can find a wealth of free materials on design thinking that will help you jump in and lead a conversation right away.