Volume 12, 
November, 2014


Transcend the Design Thinking Box
Expand your ideas about how to collaborate, empathize, and innovate


Sheila Mello

As an advocate of—or perhaps evangelist for—paying attention to the front end of  product development, I’ve often had to temper my enthusiasm for design thinking. While many companies benefit from the approach of firms such as IDEO, I don’t believe it can be the complete innovation solution some companies try to make it.

Two Design Thinking Definitions

IDEO founder Tim Brown has defined design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

The D School at Stanford describes design thinking as “a methodology for innovation that combines creative and analytical approaches, and requires collaboration across disciplines. This process… draws on methods from engineering and design, and combines them with ideas from the arts, tools from the social sciences, and insights from the business world.”

Even the most innovative product design and development approaches must fit into a bigger context. Let’s take a look at three ways you might augment design thinking to get the most out of it and make sure it doesn’t become yet another in a long line of less-than-effective approaches.

1) Define the garden box

The core characteristics of a design thinking approach—creativity, collaboration, empathy—are fantastic qualities to imbue into a company, especially one that may have been stuck in rigid or unproductive approaches to addressing customer problems and developing solutions. However, without an appropriate strategic framework, a sudden embrace of these qualities can lead to chaos. You need to take a step—or several steps—back from the wild, exciting world of brainstorming and prototyping to do the difficult strategic work that allows you to focus those creative efforts.

We think of this as defining the sandbox in which you’re going to play, but for the purposes of the garden analogy in this article, you can call it a garden box. Whatever the name, it refers to the process of explicitly setting the boundaries that determine what kind of company you are going to be.

2) Prepare the soil

The most beautiful orchid won’t thrive in the loamy soil suitable for roses. If your corporate culture is not hospitable to risk-taking, the most brilliant approach to product design will wither. A compensation structure or social convention that penalizes people who take risks will inhibit staff from embracing design thinking (or any new approach).

Senior management is essential to making sure the “soil” is hospitable. You need to take a holistic view of the organization, including the rewards system. How do you define and acknowledge success? Is this system aligned with the behavior you want to encourage?

From the bottom up, one of the best ways to combat initial hesitation about adopting a new approach is to use “pull,” a concept borrowed from the marketing world that involves creating demand among employees to be involved with the new approach. Through pilot projects and the judicious use of project champions, you build a buzz about design thinking that reverberates through the organization. Pretty soon, those not already involved are asking to become part of the effort.

3) Fertilize with open-mindedness

It’s easy to become blind to your own preconceptions, especially about the market and customers. We see this all the time—marketing team members who are certain they have an intuitive feel for customer needs because they’ve been conducting research for a few years; the sales manager who believes she understands the market because she spends half her time traveling to visit prospects; the CEO feels sure of exactly what the next product should be because he was once a part of the company’s target market.

Design thinking can only be a benefit if participants in the process are willing to acknowledge their biases. They must base their understanding of the customer’s world not on entrenched ideas but on the ability to be completely humble and to ask seemingly naïve questions—or, better yet, to not ask questions at all but to simply listen to and observe customers.

This opens up the design thinking approach to go beyond simply solving a known problem in a new way. Because the big payoff in product design lies in discovering a completely new problem.

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Design thinking goes to school

Although design thinkers like IDEO CEO and President Tim Brown credit trace the genesis of design thinking all the way back to Thomas Edison (see Brown’s article in Harvard Business Review), there are still relatively few companies employing it systemically.

Those companies (and others) may want to prepare themselves for an influx of new hires with radically different ideas about how to innovate. In the last few years, design thinking has suffused not only some of the U.S.’s top universities, but a growing number of high schools and middle schools. (See the 2005 article in Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek: “Tomorrow's B-School? It Might Be A D-School.”) This means that the next decade may see a different kind of business-school graduate than the numbers-focused MBA of years past. And that means different kinds of employees. 

Design thinking is even filtering down to the pre-college level. A colleague of mine has a son who just entered an innovative high school centered around a design-thinking approach similar to that taught at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design ( It bodes well for the future to see new approaches to innovation becoming embedded in the education system long before graduate school or even college.



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