Design Thinking – The What, Why and How



Perspective delivered by Design Thinking can be a powerful tool


By John Filippis, Strategic Engagement Manager, Quorum

Unless you have been sleeping under the stars with the Bedouin tribes of the desert you will likely have heard of Design Thinking. Many leading corporations have raced to the task of trying to embrace and integrate this potentially powerful paradigm as part of their business process. But despite it being popularised for many years, different interpretations and their respective derivative executions exist; thereby creating different Design Thinking “mutations” within organisations.

Before you even try to construct any organisational Design Thinking framework it is important to first demystify what it is, why is it so important and how one might start doing it.


The What of Design Thinking ?

For some Design Thinking conjures up images of ultra hipster style employees sitting on bean bags with tablets discussing ideas in an Activity Based Working “creative room”. For others it may imply an Auguste Rodin inspired (The Thinker) figure engaging a mediative reposed state, whilst trawling their sub conscious for visions of clarity beyond their immediate realm.

The corporate world it seems has got Design Thinking well defined (or so it thinks) as a “process” that can be used as a “technique” or a “tool” in improving productivity. Whilst others without an inkling of comprehension may simply hit Bing for a definition of what Design Thinking is. They would find it’s definition courtesy of Wikipedia as….

“Design thinking is a formal method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions, with the intent of an improved future result”.

That definition might adhere for some, however all I get from the above definition is simply a reworded way of describing normal problem solving. Well at least that is how I read it..

Herein exists the conditions for robust dialectic discourse around what a true definition for Design Thinking might be. Some would suggest that any of the “accepted” definitions out there would be a fair description, but I personally would challenge this. The reason for this is that the definition that you choose to describe Design Thinking by will ultimately end up defining the “mutation” that you will deploy.

Most of the definitions that I have come across always refer to it as a “process” a “method” or a ‘technique”.

But I will step outside that insular perspective taken by so many and redefine it as thus:

” An attitude, culture or state of mind that allows the construct of infinite possibilities to challenge and change an existing state”

Some of you reading the above may deduce from my definition, that maybe it is indeed I who have been out in the desert with the Bedouin too long and taken a little too much sun.

But you see that is the whole point of Design Thinking, to look at the world and the challenges it presents through alternative lenses, gain new perspectives, to challenge everything, assume nothing and operate your intellect in a realm where there are no limits.

This “attitude, culture or state of mind” is the double helix of DNA (indeed the true genius) that essentially stokes the fires of any “process” or “technique” that tries to capture Design Thinking. Organisations try very hard (too hard for some) to rationalise this as a step by step process that its employees can follow to do great things. A process is indeed needed but it is by no means or stretch of the imagination “the thing” that makes Design Thinking tick.

In fact Design Thinking as far as I see it (and as I have lived it for a long time in my R&D engineering days) is so much more than a process; and if I may indulge a little creative license borrowed from the marketing genius of the watchmaker Longines, my view would reverberate as “Design Thinking is an attitude“. That is the onto the Why?

The Why of Design Thinking ?

So that is what it is (at least as I see it), so now let us explore Why is it so important to modern organisations. The modern landscape for competitiveness has become crowded, very crowded and as a result has become a playground that is full of abundance and affordability on almost every level. It is under this umbrella of hubbub that organisations now find themselves, scrambling for airplay as the gap of differentiation between competitors grows infinitesimally  smaller. Every opportunity that an organisation can take to climb above the noise, can make all the difference in the world.

Design Thinking promises to deliver this differentiation as it revisits problems anew, delivering alternative solutions and inducting flux into existing states. By offering the promise of solving these challenges of businesses at all levels in new and innovative ways, Design Thinking has become the poster child for many organisations looking for productivity improvements and its financially beneficial by products.

Design Thinking promises the new edge, the new product, the next bright idea to all that worship at its alter. That is the onto the How?

The How of Design Thinking?

So now you know What it is and Why it is so important for businesses to do it; so as to create competitive advantage at all echelons of their operations. But the $64,000 question is always omnipresent… How to do it?

The operational execution of Design Thinking within organisations is different depending on where you cast your spotlight. So I will try and outline what elements I believe are important to making it successful. Many organisations are currently doing what they think is Design Thinking (because they are following the process) but they may not be really gaining any tangible changes or benefits.

So let me begin with what I believe is the toolkit of success for Design Thinking:

  1. Sponsorship from corporate leadership to allow Design Thinking to thrive
  2. Having the right people within your organisation that have Design Thinking “attitude”
  3. A framework to provide guidance but not detailed prescription
1. Sponsorship from corporate leadership to allow Design Thinking to thrive

Now this nut can be a tough one for organisations to crack, as it means that there will likely need to be a shift in cultural bias on how Design Thinking type of behaviour is perceived. Some organisations and certain elements of their leadership at all levels see this type of “new age” behaviour as a fad or as a waste of time. I can almost hear it now, as mr 50-something middle manager with his workplace ideals, emotional intelligence and social skills forged in the 70’s and 80’s barking at the minions with “Why are you clowns doing this now ??? You should be at your desks calling customers and making sales!”.  This type of workplace persona has many guises and is a dispiriting barrier for those that want to look at the world through alternative lenses, embrace different perspectives and explore new possibilities.

Design Thinking, if it is to succeed, needs to break the shackles of the above scene and get sponsorship from the upper layers of the organisation. It needs to be lived and breathed by all. If the upper echelons of the organisation don’t do it, expecting it from everyone else is not going to happen in any way that will invoke any positive contrast. The famed English navigator and cartographer captain James Cook, upon hearing that his sailors were not eating their food due its supposed poor quality, immediately ordered that it be served at the officers table as well. Needless to say the crew’s culinary revolt went quiet rather quickly, Cook’s clever ploy ensured that the crew fell in line with his demands. It is a strong reminder of leading by example with “what is good for the goose, is good for the gander”.


2. Having the right people within your organisation that have Design Thinking “attitude”

Combustion needs fuel, air and ignition to make fire. In the Design Thinking space the right people are essentially the “ignition” or catalyst that drives and creates the culture of possibility by which others are drawn into, to get Design Thinking to run and thrive. Having people that possess this essential spark is crucial to making it an engaging process that works. This gift is not limited to “designing types” but is really across a lot of people who are creative, lateral and divergent in their own way. The more diversity in its human resources that an organisation posseses in this regard, the better it will serve them for driving Design Thinking cells, because different people bring different filters to the same situation; thereby potentially increasing the available solution sets. The thing about getting the right attitude in place from the “sparky” people, is that it starts to become infectious, as more people participate and embrace it through simple osmosis, it will open up everyone’s creative energies to put in more.

3. A framework to provide guidance but not detailed prescription

It may seem somewhat hypocritical of me to talk about the open ended possibilities of Design Thinking and then give you a process that you need to follow. However in order to organise and focus people into this mode of operation a framework needs to be established so there is some soft boundary from which organisation can be had. Any search engine at your disposal can yield you a thousand results for a design thinking “process”, what I would suggest is to employ a basic structure of phasing that you need to work through around Design Thinking. Again I want to re emphasise that this is only a framework and you can modify it to suit. It is not meant to be a rigid paperwork train that you need to stop at all stations with. The most important thing is to get into it and have a shot at uncorking your intellect so it can get busy on reinventing the status quo for any given situation. This is how I like to do it..


Quorum’s Design Thinking Framework


Identify an issue or problem, uncover the motivation for trying to solve this problem and set a goal.


Use empathy to learn about the people for whom you are designing.

Analysing and Defining

Use the data collected in the Discovering phase to gain new insights and construct a problem statement.


Brainstorm to come up with as many new ideas as possible without constraints and judgements.


Build a representation of one or more of your selected ideas. Use sketch modelling, prototyping and role play. Build to think.


Test your ideas to get feedback. Return to previous phases to iterate your idea.


So that is the How..

So there you have the What, Why and the How…simple enough.

However there will likely arise differing constructs of contrast within one’s mind as to whether this type of approach really does make any difference, or if it is just another “fad” that temporarily comes to the corporate world’s consciousness?

Or will the Design Thinking experiment simply be toyed with and then disposed of in favour of comfortable and established atavistic methods of old?

I propose that many organisations would indeed fall under this umbrella of behaviour with workplace practices like Design Thinking, these organisations find it too hard to understand and fail to integrate it into the fabric of what they do. They don’t have the attitude that it takes to make such a tool effective, its like giving a Ferrari to your grandad who will only drive it at 50 km/h all the time in suburban streets, never realising the potential that lurks within.

Other more progressive organisations which possess behavioural malleability can make Design Thinking work for them in ways that truly do make a difference to their business. Many of the world’s most well known brands have engaged Design Thinking methodologies to help them get that essential breathing space or distance from their competitors through new ideas. The success and failure of such Design Thinking programs has been well documented, some of the outcomes that support both sides of the argument can be found here:

My own view, from my experience in both driving and observing the effects that Design Thinking can have, is that it works very well at being able to release potential creative energy within any corporate ecosystem. But that is not to say that it can solve every problem at any time with amazing results, it is not a silver bullet. Like anything, Design Thinking needs to be exercised like a muscle to get stronger and more effective, it will improve over time and with continued exertion.

Design Thinking allows people to believe that alternative and potentially better ways of doing things are possible and it encourages them to throw themselves into finding out what they might be. That for me (i.e. the “attitude”) is the what the true value of Design Thinking is, it builds the platform for alternative planes of understanding of known elements to exist. This culture of possibility is what increases the chances of success for any organisation, without it new options can dwindle, which means that business’s can (and do) fail as a result.

Just like sleeping under a Bedouin tent in the middle of the desert and staring at the stars, Design Thinking can show you a different way to see something familiar. Which for some people and the organisations they work in, is all the difference in the world.










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