Design Thinking: A New Leadership Capability


“Human-centered design is a philosophy, not a precise set of methods, but one that assumes that innovation should start by getting close to users and observing their activities.” – Donald A. Norman, Co – founder of Nielsen Norman Group.


Design Thinking is not so much about process or technical skills. It calls for the highest levels of leadership capabilities. If an enterprise has to transform itself, that transformation needs to be designed around a leadership and cultural transformation, for example:
  • New leadership styles, which de-emphasise command and control and introduce new styles like servant leadership; and
  • New cultures of collaboration and new structures and behaviours that are more team-oriented as opposed to individual-based. 
A design thinking process can be complex and messy. It might have up to seven iterative and interactive stages: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn. Within these seven steps, divergent thinking expands the theme. Unlike situational analysis, it does not deconstruct the problem, rather it considers its complexity and builds it so that the whole thing can be experienced and a more effective design created.
It can be VERY helpful to use ‘mind-mapping’ to capture and document the memory of your design thinking process. So, get out your coloured pens and paper (or software) and get to thinking!
  • Give the challenge opportunity a title.
  • Agree on who the audience is and isn’t.
  • Profile that end-user/customer
  • Prioritise the opportunity in terms of urgency.
  • Determine what success might look like in from a variety of perspectives. 
  • Brainstorm to explore what you see, hear, do, say, feel and the human needs pertaining to this challenge opportunity
  • Review its history and any existing obstacles.
  • Are there examples of other attempts to solve it?
  • Note the loyal supporters, investors, and critics and what they are saying/doing.
  • Talk to your end-users/customers, they have the most fruitful ideas for your design. 
  • Identify the needs and motivations of your end-users/customers.
  • Generate as many ideas as possible to serve these identified needs (more brainstorming).
  • Log your brainstorming session using mind-maps, post-its, video interviews, flip chart paper, surveys etc etc).
  • Appreciate the contributions without judgment or debate.
  • During brainstorming, have one conversation at a time. 
  • Combine, expand, and refine ideas.
  • Storyboard the end-user/customer journey
  • Storyboard or map the process. Will it work? Is it a good design?
  • Create multiple prototypes and multiple drafts.
  • Get feedback from a diverse group of people - include your end users/customers.
  • Present a selection of ideas to the audience.
  • Reserve judgment and maintain neutrality.
  • Create and present actual working design(s). 
  • Consider engaging in a ‘ritual dissent’ process for the preferred design(s).
  • Review the objective.
  • Set aside emotion and ownership of ideas.
  • Avoid consensus thinking.
  • Remember: the most practical solution isn't always the best.
  • Select the powerful ideas.
  • Implement
  • Make task descriptions.
  • Plan tasks.
  • Determine resources.
  • Assign tasks. 
  • Deliver to end-user/customer/client.
  • Learn
  • Gather feedback from the consumer.
  • Determine if the solution met its goals.
  • Discuss what could be improved.
  • Measure success; collect data.
  • Document. 
And a bit more to think about…
Team and individual preferences always influence design. The design thinking method shares a common set of traits, so it pays to be mindful of when these traits are present, and when they are not:
  • Creativity
  • Both Rational and Creative (Ambidextrous) thinking
  • Teamwork
  • Empathy
  • Curiosity
  • Optimism 
The path through these process steps is not strictly circular either. Plattner states: "While the stages are simple enough, the adaptive expertise required to choose the right inflection points, and appropriate next stage, is a high order intellectual activity that requires practice and is learnable."

AsiaAus Leaders has professional facilitators and coaches who can assist you and your leadership team with any or all of these steps. Contact


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