Generating ideas, connections, and action

Unleashing Innovation with Design Thinking

A while ago, I wrote an article introducing the design thinking methodology and its core elements.  I have continued to explore this methodology since then and have found it to be extremely relevant to our work in leadership development.  For instance, at our latest Creating Space meeting, one of our Design Team participants – Kenny Bailey, who is an expert on design thinking for social innovation  – had an idea about the design for the 3rd day of the convening.  He suggested that we move the group to an action oriented exercise and invite them to collaborate with teams to design solutions for a particular leadership problem, such as getting those who have not traditionally been at the table to participate in discussions about leadership.  The group came up with some pretty innovative ideas and the room felt energized and ready to take action.   As I continue to explore design thinking I would like to share some of my learnings with the community.


Design thinking is a problem solving methodology that helps groups generate innovations across multiple sectors.  This methodology is particularly relevant to addressing “wicked problems” – problems that are really complex, such issues of equity in this country.  These problems usually require leadership strategies that focus on systems, collaboration and learning – which are all core elements of the design thinking process.


Focus on systemic solutions

According to an article on Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), “social challenges require systemic solutions that are grounded in the client’s or customer’s needs. This is where many approaches founder, but it is where design thinking— a new approach to creating solutions—excels.” The design thinking approach starts with an understanding of the primary constituents who are at the core of the problem, and then maps all the constituents and factors that are involved in generating a solution for the problem. 


Promote Cross-sectoral or Multidisciplinary Collaboration

At the core of design thinking is the perspective that collaboration among a diverse group of stakeholders is a critical starting point.  These diverse stakeholders bring ideas and challenges that contribute to the divergent thinking of the group as a whole – and as the SSIR article points out, “divergent thinking is the route, not the obstacle, to innovation.”  In many leadership programs, some participants are able to establish collaborations with other stakeholders in other sectors, but in most cases, it is not a primary focus on the program.  This is an opportunity for programs to promote collaboration in their curriculum.  Collaboration optimizes the groups’ potential for divergent thinking by bringing more voices into the process, and ultimately, boosting the innovation of the group.


Promote Experimentation

The SSIR article describes design thinking as a system of spaces, which include inspiration, which is the problem or opportunity, ideation, which is the process of developing and testing ideas, and implementation, which is the process of bringing those ideas into people’s lives.  The ideation space is key and within that space, experimentation and testing of ideas is critical.  Design thinking is all about thinking of ideas, rapidly testing them, and improving/challenging them based on ongoing learning of the problem or opportunity.  The point is not to spend a long time and use complex technology in testing the ideas, but to create a simple representation that moves the process and thinking one step further. This spirit of experimentation, testing and sharing is something that leadership programs should acknowledge and promote during and after the program.


Most leadership programs generate examples of innovations – but primarily by individual participants, which limits the impact of the innovation.  To get at higher impact innovations that can significantly make an impact on the “wicked problems” we are dealing with in the leadership field, programs should focus on group innovation – and design thinking is one of the avenues for getting there.   By adding design thinking to the program curriculum, participants can have a framework for understanding the value of experimentation, collaboration, and systems thinking early on in the program, so that they can apply those principles to their own projects/work during and after the program.  Some resources include:

  • Human Centered Design Toolkit:
  • Tim Brown, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation


  • Design Thinking for Social Innovation, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt, Winter 2010



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