Design Thinking is For Everyone, Not a Chosen Few

Everyone should be using design thinking.

I’m convinced that design thinking (DT) can greatly benefit everyone. From helping Airbnb avoid bankruptcy and develop a winning business model, to improving sanitation systems in Cambodia, DT is a proven framework, process, and mindset for delivering solutions against some of the world’s toughest challenges.

DT is an iterative method of deeply empathizing with people’s needs/wants/problems, and developing/testing solutions that meet those needs. And it’s not just for designers, tech companies, or design-centered organizations. I’ve found it particularly valuable for tackling problems (aka “design challenges”) that are abstract in nature, regardless of industry, function, or geography.

I have improved my own life through design thinking. It has made me a stronger innovator & marketing executive, as well as a physically and mentally healthier person. For the latter, I truly believe that DT has added quality years back to my life.

These success stories from design thinking in both my own life and in the lives of others, inspired me to create ‘The Accidental Design Thinker’ website, with the mission of “bringing design thinking to all”.

However, while design thinking is applicable to all, it’s only used by a few. 

DT is applicable to all, but only used by a few. This is highly unfortunate but represents a significant opportunity to better arm both individuals and organizations worldwide with the knowledge, tools, and confidence to apply design thinking to “wicked problems”.

If design thinking is so useful, why don’t more people use it?

Potential explanations range from a lack of access to information (even in today’s digital world), to a pure lack of interest. Based on my experience as a relatively new DT practitioner who has spent the past few years both applying and teaching it, I’ve consistently observed the following 4 reasons why it’s not utilized by more individuals:

1) Lack Of Awareness – Simply put, there are plenty of people who’ve never heard of design thinking. I know this is hard for some to believe. They contend that not only are people well-aware of DT, that it’s being overused as a corporate buzz word. Despite the recent hype around design thinking and the fact that it’s been around for decades, the majority of people I encounter (outside my company) have either never heard of it, or can’t explain what it is.

For example, I recently guest lectured at an innovation class for 300 intelligent college business students at a large well-known university. I polled the students and found that fewer than 20% of them had any awareness of design thinking, with fewer than 5% able to explain what it is. I wasn’t surprised. Over the past decade, I have worked in marketing & innovation for three Fortune 500 companies, partnering with multiple innovation and strategy consulting firms along the way, but have only recently (in the past 3 years) discovered DT.

2) DT Can Be Intimidating – Design thinking sounds cool but may be intimidating for those not familiar with it. The term itself, can lead one to believe that you need to be a designer, a consultant, or a designated design thinking expert to utilize it. Said differently, design thinking can seem like it’s for the few who’ve chosen to specialize in the field. As in any field, I believe this intimidation factor for the novice design thinker can be exacerbated by a few experts in the field who are overly aggressive/unyielding (justified or not) in trying to enforce narrowly defined views of DT.

3) DT Can Be Difficult To Understand Without Doing It – Let’s face it, it can be difficult to provide a crisp articulation of what design thinking is. What is it? Is it just for designers? Is it a strategy, a tool, a process? How can it be applied beyond the most cited examples? How does it apply to a non-profit exec, a school teacher, a chief learning officer, a parent, a kid with a lemonade stand?

For newer DT practitioners, a tight articulation can be particularly challenging because it can take time and practice to really gain an appreciation for what design thinking is and how to best apply it. They may have taken a training course on design thinking but without getting the “reps” of applying what they learned, they never get into a groove of using the framework & tools, and thus never truly grasp DT and the value it offers.

Additionally, the lack of awareness & the intimidation factor in the first 2 reasons, may hinder the general appetite to learn more about design thinking. If you don’t learn it, you can’t practice it, and thus can’t deeply understand it. It’s a spiral that creates a significant barrier to broader adoption of DT.

4) Lack Of Support – People may get a taste of DT through a training or a project, but might need continued support to progress in their journey.

One example I’ve witnessed a handful of times is the individual who just received his first exposure/training in DT. He loves the concept, he sees the value, but then he struggles to apply it when he’s back on the job. Without the support of his instructor or fellow design thinking classmates around him, he feels insecure and “too green” to apply what he’s learned.

A variation of this example is the newly trained design thinker who is able to confidently apply the tools, but encounters resistance from his organization or team. Perhaps design thinking sounds “too soft”, “too wishy-washy”, too loosely connected from tangible results. The newly trained design thinker feels discouraged and ends up not utilizing the training he just received.

How Might We Accelerate the Adoption of Design Thinking With the Masses? 

I believe the answer is a combination of continuing to train individuals with an interest in DT, while “accidentally” teaching everyone else.

Formal DT Training – One obvious answer is to continue putting more people through formalized design thinking training classes. But that presents a capacity challenge without aggressively addressing the massive lack of awareness & appreciation for design thinking. There are only so many design thinking professionals that deliver formalized training sessions. Additionally, a lack of awareness & appreciation for DT likely means most people aren’t actively seeking to take a design thinking class. Thus increasing adoption of design thinking through these means may be an unduly slow process.

“Accidental” DT Training –  An alternative complimentary solution may be to empower and encourage all design thinkers (from novice to professional) to build awareness and appreciation for DT by “accidentally” introducing it to others. By “accidentally introducing”, I don’t mean pushing “design thinking” upon everyone you encounter. Rather, I mean using design thinking to help others solve their own “design challenges” (everyone has challenges that they would value having solutions to), achieve results that will make them believers, and then explaining to them the design thinking mindset that was utilized.

Assume you meet 10 random people and you can only ask them 1 of the following 2 questions:

  1. Do you want to learn about design thinking?
  2. Do you want help solving XYZ compelling problem in your life (that you haven’t found a good solution to)?

For the people whom you believe will be more receptive to question #1, formal training may be best.  For those who prefer question #2, the “accidental” approach may be a great way of drawing them to design thinking.

I was fortunate enough to “accidentally” be introduced to DT. I didn’t seek it; it found me by chance as I happened to work on an innovation team with multiple leaders who received training at Stanford d.School. They trained me and that experience has changed all aspects of my life, from how I deliver breakthrough innovation at work, to how I be a better family member and friend, to inspiring me to create this website. I am forever grateful for that training. Now I constantly ask myself, how might we “accidentally” introduce people to DT and change their lives by improving their ability to deliver change/innovation, just as I was “accidentally” introduced to DT?

2 Recommendations For Bringing Design Thinking to Everyone, Starting Today:

1) Introduce New People to Design Thinking by “Accidentally Teaching Them”. Everyone has problems worth solving. Draw people together with a common shared challenge, and help them tackle that challenge via DT. For a new parent, raising a baby can take a toll on health (less sleep, poorer nutrition, physical strain of holding a baby in an unnatural position for long periods of time, etc.) and the design challenge could be around “how might we stay healthy while raising a newborn?”.  For a company, say a new Hawaiian shaved iced company, the challenge may be “how might we penetrate the Maui shaved iced market when strong competitors already exist in the market?”

These “accidental” teaching sessions can be handled in stages or done in the form of an hour long “sprint” that gives people a taste of DT, while helping to solve their problem.  I saw this type of sprint done very effectively at a recent meetup event I attended.

Nothing makes me more excited than accidentally teaching DT to someone by using it to tackle one of their biggest challenges. Have them focus on tackling a tough problem, then inform them after the fact that they applied design thinking. They’ll be pleasantly surprised, appreciative to learn something new, and hopefully newfound advocates of DT.

2) Empower People Aware of Design Thinking, to Do More to Draw Others in

I believe this is best achieved by fueling passion for DT, increasing know-how, and building community.

  • Be an Advocate for Design Thinking – Know, believe, share, and celebrate the success stories of design thinking. Here are 40 design thinking stories that will help make anyone a believer
  • Understand Design Thinking & Practice Applying the Tools – The strongest design thinking professionals I know are agile practitioners with a robust toolkit to handle a variety of scenarios. Here is my curated collection of design thinking tools, resources, and trainings.
  • Connect with the DT community – Don’t go it solo. Find others to learn from and partner with. The design thinking community is fantastic with plenty of experts to help you go deeper into the field. As I’ve immersed myself into DT, I continue to be amazed with the cool things people are doing with design thinking and the new ways it’s being applied. Even if you’re not passionate about DT, there’s incredible value in being part of a community that features intelligent, passionate, sharing do-gooders seeking to solve important problems throughout the world. Here are some quick pointers for quickly connecting with the design thinking community.
  • Teach Others & Spread The Word – I frequently hear that the best way to learn something is to teach it. With practice, comes mastery. Will you be perfect? No, but that’s okay, because all design thinkers need to start somewhere.
  • Have Fun! Adding components of applied improv for design thinking is a great way to add some extra spice to your sessions.

To me, design thinking is not just a process, a strategy, or a tool. It’s a movement that’s advanced across decades with the potential to deliver positive changes to anyone hungry to use it. I believe design thinking should be in the hands of everyone and I hope you join me on my journey as I continue to strive to bring design thinking to all!

-The Accidental Design Thinker


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