When Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers was published in 2011, few corporate and public leaders understood the qualitatively-oriented problem-solving methodology called “design thinking” or “human-centered design.”

At that time, those who knew about design usually regarded it as “the last decoration station on the way to the market” as a Fast Company interview put it, and design, generally, emitted from people in new product development, not from managers.

Design Thinking: 5 Keys to Innovation

As our new book, Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector, is on shelves today, the change is overwhelming. Even huge bureaucracies like the Veterans Administration and Health and Human Services use design thinking to explore the experiences of key stakeholders searching for insights into better client service. Design thinkers in many industries and sectors utilize deep, qualitative information about stakeholders’ experiences — which we refer to as addressing “What Is” — and develop insightful criteria for hypothesizing “What If” ideas that can then be tested to see “What Wows” against organizational constraints and launched as co-created prototypes to learn “What Works.” As a risk management approach in today’s uncertain and behaviorally-oriented age, few innovation methodologies compete with design thinking’s empathize, ideate, iterate strategy.

Like “Total Quality Management” moved from being the playground of “quality managers” into everyone’s sand box in the generation after World War II, “design thinking” seems poised today to become a core competency across corporate and bureaucratic endeavors.

And, of course, we’d like to help it along.

The 10 stories we present in Design Thinking for the Greater Good should assist other organizations considering putting design thinking in their problem-solving toolkits. But today, although design thinking is often fully integrated into day-to-day strategy, as it is at Intuit, for example, many large organizations still seek to diffuse collaborative creativity throughout the organization.

In Designing for Growth, P&G’s Claudia Kotchka explained that nudging employees to try DT methodology was critical: “We never told them they were using design thinking methodology – ever. It wasn’t important for them to know what it was called. All they had to know were the basic steps and how to approach the problem with a different mind-set.”

Design Thinking for the Greater Good

In Design Thinking for the Greater Good, the Coastal Bend country of Texas dwelled so deeply in the problem space – a key tenant of design thinking — that it saw a creative concept outside its original challenge and used that as a spring board to address multiple issues, and eventually, provide a powerful answer to the original challenge.

If you’re nudging your organization towards a core capacity in innovation, these takeaways from both Designing for Growth and Design Thinking for the Greater Good should help.

  1. Tell human-centered stories. Stories are the soul of data. They personalize realities and potential futures in ways that help bosses, co-workers and employees reluctant to add to overburdened plates see abstract ideas as tangible, relevant and human.

  2. Supplement stories with data. We live in a quantitative, analytic world and while past statistics can’t describe a new future, nor assure success in it, a list of successful projects helps co-workers consider the design thinking toolkit. Monash Medical Center’s first design thinking project was helping visitors navigate the hospital’s hallways and today, a dozen DT project’s later, the hospital has launched a project which might pilot changing medical payment from service to payment for wellness.

  3. Provide transparency to design thinking. Since design process can seem foreign to analytically-trained managers, let people see it in action. Provide a room, if possible, where the learning underway can be displayed, where Post-It notes, white boards, and posters are available for all to see; where everyone can be involved.

  4. Invite analytically-oriented co-workers into the idea testing process. They’ll be able to spot weaknesses in your argument and help you “fail fast and cheap,” and therefore succeed sooner.

  5. Share the learning and business results. Don’t shy away from bad news. In fact, consider shouting it because you’ve learned enough to pivot, or halt, before the organization writes big checks. The goal of design thinking is to learn, and learning what doesn’t work can be almost as valuable as learning what does. As successful venture capitalists (who expect less than two in 10 projects to succeed) illustrate, data that helps halt investing is worth seeking.


Jeanne Liedtka is a professor at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia. Her books include Design Thinking for the Greater Good (2017), Solving Problems with Design Thinking (2013), Designing for Growth (2011), and The Designing for Growth Field Book (2013).

Randy Salzman is a journalist and former communications professor. Co-author of Design Thinking for the Greater Good, his work has been published in over 100 magazines, journals, and newspapers, from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times to Mother Jones, Bicycling, and Style.