What is Design Thinking?

… and what does it have to do with strategy?

Design thinking is a term soon enough referred to as often as “innovation”. A term – or process – no longer restricted to product design but open to areas of business modelling and strategy. A fun, creative and effective process at that.

Having worked with, and studied, strategy for more than 15 years I came across design thinking when I turned to innovation in 2008. About the same time, Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO published his book “Change by design – How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation”. And Roger Martin published “The design of business – why design thinking is the next competitive advantage”. Since then, design thinking has made its way in to business strategy development and implementation, business modelling, process innovation and more – in private as well as public companies and organisations. But many more would benefit from (and enjoy!) applying it. So what is it?

The definition most often referred to is the one put forward by Brown (2009): “A discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity”. From a business perspective, and strategy theory, this does not sound very different from what we know and deal with already. But, there are three things which I find to be of particular interest for any business or organisation (irrespective of size and sector).

Firstly – the focus – finding a problem or opportunity that is worth solving. – While this may well be part of a strategy process, design thinking brings with it an approach and methods based on human centred needs, as opposed to the traditional industrial- or resource-based views of strategy.

Secondly – the balancing act – between technical, commercial and human considerations. An act of balancing and integrating what is desirable from a human point of view, with what is technologically or practically feasible and what is economically viable. Not seldom does the balancing act when it comes to strategy has to do with the choices between e.g. “cost” or “differentiation”. Or the implementation challenge between the “new” and the “old” in terms of e.g. organisational structure (adaptive vs. formal), values (efficiency and low risk vs. flexibility and high risk) and measurement systems (milestones and growth vs. margins and productivity).

Thirdly – the process – an iteration and non-linear progression between Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation. The first space being about finding the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions. The second about generating, developing and testing ideas/solutions based on the identified problem. And the third about developing the path that takes the idea from the project room, via the organisation to the market: the end-user.
Each space, and the iteration between them, is coupled with methods with, again, many similarities to a strategy process. The main differences I see are the human centred need-finding approaches and prototyping of ideas/solutions which are core in design thinking. Prototyping (physically) a new service, an organisation structure, or strategy implementation process is a very rewarding exercise.

Recently, Brown and Martin revisited their notions in an article in Harvard Business Review (September 2015). – The focus now is on: implementation; on how to get relevant stakeholders (internal and external) to engage with, and adopt, innovative new ideas. In my view this is not so different from a participative approach to strategy making – but – there are far more elements in design thinking which brings life to any strategy development and implementation process.Try it.

Design thinking process


On a final note it is interesting to consider the origins of design thinking versus that of strategy. Whereas the former is based on a human centred needs and design of physical products, the latter emanates from theories on war and how to win battles.