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Leadership Tip: Learning from (and having fun with) Design Thinking

Submitted by: Natalia Castaneda on Nov 30th, 2010 at 2PM PST

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Lately I have been interested in learning more about design thinking – a problem solving methodology that is helping generate innovations across multiple sectors, even social change innovations. One of the key things about design thinking is that it is user-centric and participatory, so solutions are designed not only with the audience in mind but also with their active participation and engagement in the process. For instance, Embrace, an organization dedicated to creating low-cost incubators for the developing world, uses a design thinking approach to help improve the product – “they visit their stakeholders to find out if their big idea actually works in the context of people’s day-to-day lives” (Roberts 2010). This allows them to modify the product to meet the needs of their audience; for instance, they interviewed women in a village in India and found out that they were not using the incubator’s digital temperature screen because it was too complex. In response, the team added a digital happy face to let the mothers know that the temperature was OK and a sad face to indicate that it needed reheating.

I recently took a brief workshop on this methodology at the University of Berkeley Extension and ever since I have been seeing references of design thinking across multiple levels of my work here at the Leadership Learning Community (LLC). Just a couple of days ago as I was scanning the Twitter hashtag for the American Evaluation Association I saw an article on design thinking and evaluation.  I started thinking about how this methodology can be used by leadership programs to help train their participants and strengthen their ability to work collectively towards innovation.  I am not an expert in this methodology but I want to share what I’ve learned about it with the LLC community and some insights I’ve had that may be helpful for others who are interested in this topic.

During the workshop we were asked to work with a team and come up with a solution for a given problem applying the design thinking structure. Our task was to envision a new way of recycling for fast food restaurants. It is not a unique or new problem – as someone pointed out in the class, many people have attempted to solve this issue before – but our challenge was to come up with an interesting idea in a matter of 9 hours (we met for 3 hours during 3 days). With this example in mind, I will explain each step of the process to give you an idea of how this works:


Image: Stanford University, Link: Design-Cultures Blogspot

  • Understand: We took some time to understand the challenges of the problem and gather some initial data. What are the dominant policies and practices around recycling? What has been tried before – and what can we learn from those experiences?
  • Observe: In order to truly get at the bottom of the problem, we had to become ‘ethnographers’ and get out to the field. We visited a couple of fast food restaurants and interviewed customers and employees. The results varied from place to place, but some themes started to emerge: some customers recycle at home but not at the restaurant, signage is not clear/prominent, and employees/restaurant are not actively involved in motivating customers to recycle. 
  • Point of View: We then got together to discuss our observations. What I found most interesting about this process was that it fully leveraged individual and teamwork. We began by writing our individual observations on sticky notes. Then we were asked to silently start grouping the observations into clusters. This could have been a very chaotic process if we had been speaking, but the silence allowed us to work in harmony. Then we used the clusters to start developing our point of view statements. This is a concise statement that describes the users, the need, and the insight that is at the core of the problem/need. The goal is not to come up with a solution but rather to describe the need. We each developed two points of view statements individually and then shared them with the team, and then we voted on which one we wanted to select. In our case, we were designing something for a young professional that needs an easy, fast, and most importantly, fun way of recycling at the restaurant. The professional currently recycles at home but not at restaurants.
  • The next step is to ideate. One of the underlying principles of this methodology is that the team should aim to strike a balance between divergent and convergent thinking. In the diverging phase, we brainstormed all kinds of ideas – without judgments, keeping in mind that an idea that we may not want to share, because it doesn’t sound very relevant, could actually inspire another team member. We shared the ideas on sticky notes again and then started to cluster them. This is a somewhat iterative process but eventually we came up with a clearer direction. We realized that we needed to offer some motivation for our user to recycle at the restaurant, and opted for a game idea. We wanted to create a setup where the recycling bins would resemble a gambling machine with levers on the side – Vegas style. Once the user throws the trash in the appropriate bin, he/she can pull the lever and get a reward (coupon for next time, etc.). We had all kinds of ideas related to that – could we replicate the same experience on a mobile environment to take advantage of the mobile peer network effect? But as we started moving into the next phase some of those ideas became more real and some became vaguer…
  • The next step is to create a prototype of the idea. One of our team members used plastic cups and other materials to simulate the idea – all in a couple of minutes. As we started creating our prototype more questions came up – what rewards could we offer? How could we enforce this idea? How could we get the restaurant and employees excited about it? Posing these questions really helped to shape the direction of the concept.
  • The final step is to test the idea with the end user. We did not have time to do this, but at the end of the day each team shared their ideas with the class and we each got some feedback. It was exciting to see the other innovative ideas and how each group took a different approach to the project.

It was a fun exercise that tested our ability to work collectively, fast and creatively. As I reflect upon this experience and some of what I have been reading about design thinking, a couple of things come up:

  • At the Leadership Learning Community, we focus a lot of our work on understanding and promoting collective leadership. Some of the questions that usually come up are around decision making and balancing individual versus group work during the process. What was amazing to me during this particular workshop was that we all came from different backgrounds (designers, business owners, engineers, etc.) and somehow we managed to find common ground in a couple of hours, and find an effective way of working together. In my group, we had four members all coming from different industries and bringing different experiences. Without establishing a leader or ‘project manager’, as the days went by we all found ways to step into different leadership roles and complete the tasks. Some of us had more energy around certain areas than others, some more around prototyping and some of us were better at clustering and structuring the data, so we each stepped into the areas and roles that were more interesting for us. We also reached all the decisions by consensus, but even when we were working independently coming up with a concept and then presenting it to the team, we did not advocate or pitch our own concept – we listened openly to other ideas and let the energy of the group decide the direction. I think having the opportunity to reflect individually for some time and then come together as a group with complete transparency really allowed us to break free from the fear of needing to be creative and actually work and think creatively.
  • Another interesting insight for me was realizing the connection between design thinking and evaluation. As Cameron Norman points out, design thinking is a means of problem solving, and “evaluation, at least Developmental Evaluation, is about problem solving by collecting the data used as a form of feedback to inform the next iteration of decision making. It also is a form of evaluation that is intimately connected to program planning. What design thinking offers is a way to extend that planning in new ways that optimizes opportunities for feedback, new information, participation, and creative interaction.” (Norman 2010) At the core of design thinking is a focus on the audience and their needs and experiences. This approach offers another set of tools and ideas for engaging the evaluation audience and getting more grounded and relevant insights. As Norman points out, “what this design-oriented approach does is greatly enhance the participant’s sense of the whole, what the needs and desires and fears both parties are dealing with, not just the executive or rational elements.” (Norman 2010)
  • Lastly, the biggest breakthrough for me was experiencing firsthand the power of prototyping or creating a tangible representation of an idea. Taking the extra step of visually representing an idea, either a product or a service, allows teams to raise critical questions – while there is still time to change it – and make the idea even more real. Prototyping promotes risk taking and innovation, the point is not to spend a long time and use sophisticated technology, but to create a simple representation that moves the process and thinking one step further. At the Leadership Learning Community, we often work with the principles of design thinking – experimentation, group work, ideation, even sketching sometimes – but I think it would be really exciting to experiment with prototyping for the next problem we encounter.

As I participated in the design thinking workshop I couldn’t help but think about the many implications, and the learnings we could apply to how we think about leadership and innovation in the social sector - such as the importance of placing a high value on risk-taking, collective work, learning, having fun, and active engagement. If you are interested in learning more about design thinking check out this article by IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown.


1. Jennifer Roberts, “Viral Good,” Center for Social Innovation, May 12, 2010,
2. Cameron Norman, “Design Thinking & Evaluation,” Censemaking, November 13, 2010,