From thinking to design thinking: a journey that starts with a cultural shift

David Nichols
Mike Kanazawa,
Partner/Principal, Advisory, PI

Gone are the days when design thinking was a concept that stayed within the four walls of start-ups. With disruption affecting all sectors and businesses at all levels of maturity, organizations have realized they cannot afford to rely on traditional approaches to problem solving. They are challenging the status quo and weaving design thinking into strategy and decision-making. So what does design thinking mean? Why do we need it? And what can we do to embed it into the DNA of our teams and organizations?


Design thinking is about putting the customer and people first and collaboration between diverse mindsets to arrive at innovative and often human-centric solutions to complex problems. Advances in technology — such as 3-D printing and prototyping, virtualized R&D processes and crowdfunding — is accelerating innovation, making the design thinking process easier to implement. Today’s definition and vision for design thinking includes:

  • Diverse mindsets versed in design, business and technology
  • Clear perspective of the art of the possible and an external stakeholder view
  • A focus on improving the potential interactions between all stakeholders
  • Integration of digital disruptors into planning
  • Elastic, customer-oriented, cross-functional teams
  • Agility innovation

While most organizations realize the importance of design thinking, they also acknowledge the lack of expert capabilities to incorporate it into their systems.

Seven steps to design thinking

To use design thinking to drive growth, you should consider changing the way your business is led and run. A design thinking culture cannot be created overnight. Here are seven steps that can help with successful design thinking integration:

  1. Begin with a purpose that is about serving others: Have a clear purpose to serve others. Take a future-back and outside-in approach. Having a clear purpose can help inspire the team with new ideas and develop a sense of urgency that leads to tangible results.
  2. Create a diverse team: Establish cross-functional and multidisciplinary teams to bring in a wide spectrum of perspectives and experiences to solve complex problems. Customer experiences can be enhanced when diverse mindsets work together.
  3. Take a customer-centric approach: It is important to understand not just how people experience your product or service, but also how they live their lives and how your product can serve them. Think about how you can enhance their experiences.
  4. Establish a practice of exploring the art of the possible: Have brainstorming sessions that give every team member a chance to ask relevant questions, provide input and get a fair hearing, regardless of seniority. These ideation sessions can help teams reframe strategic questions to form people-focused breakthrough solutions.
  5. Co-create solutions: To understand what customers need, host co-creation workshops to generate new concepts and solutions together. By working on a problem along with all the stakeholders involved, you are more likely to come up with results that are driven by real, on-the-ground insights on customer demands.
  6. Embrace agile innovation: Engage in rapid prototyping and focus resources on achievable experiments and concepts that will have the greatest impact.
  7. Establish leadership commitment: Design thinking can deliver long-term benefit only if the leadership is strongly committed. It can significantly improve an organization’s operating model, and a top-down executive commitment will be required to materialize success.

To get started, create a culture where inside-out business or technology development is blended with empathy, creativity and a holistic approach to solutions. Encourage employees to innovate to improve customer experiences, and the organization to reframe problems from a customer perspective.

Design thinking blends design, business and technology, and it can lead to more innovation and faster development of new products, services and experiences. Among the talent, it can create a culture driven by creative, empathetic and holistic thinking that opens up new levels of motivation, leadership and employee engagement.

Legal disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author only and do not represent the views of any of the member firms of Ernst & Young Global Limited.

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