You Can Solve Problems With “Design Thinking”


A new and different take on business planning, problem solving and innovation -- using "design thinking" techniques to design a solution.

design thinking

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Stories of all scales can stir people when facing a giant task.  Some Christians imagine the story of David and Goliath.  History buffs may think of the small band of Greeks that held off the Persian Army at the Battle of Thermopylae.  Kids, be it small or of the heart, imagine themselves as a favorite hero.

But when you consider the start up world, stirring inspiration is no small request. For entrepreneurs, many days can feel as if the metaphorical slingshot, sword and shield for business success is nowhere to be found.

To break that missing-slingshot feeling, businesses can examine what to do to improve the processes supporting its products and services.  One theory of approach is design thinking.  Yet misperceptions and poor applications of it exist.   Solving Problems With Design Thinking: 10 Stories of What Works offers the best success stories meant to inspire new approaches.

The authors Jeanne Liedtka, Andrew King and Kevin Bennett have conducted extensive research and bring even more extensive backgrounds. Liedtka served as an associate dean at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. King is a research associate at Darden, while Bennett serves as a manager for marketing and partnership development at Personal, a technology start-up in Washington, D.C.  All three bring extensive viewpoints on organizational strategy.

The authors assert from research that there are four stages of design thinking:

  • What Is – The current reality of the product.
  • What If – Envisioning multiple realities of how a product or service is used.
  • What Wows – Refinement of what is accessible with the resources available.
  • What Works –  Simply put, what can be done.

Think SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats analysis) combined with brainstorming, and you get the general idea behind the framework. On the same page that the stages are explained there is an image to reflect the “divergence” and “convergence” of design thinking-related options:

design thinking

Notice how much larger the “What If” is meant to be – the broadening of options, while the “What Wows and Works” filters the ideas to practical choices.

The authors go on to provide 10 examples of design thinking in practice. Most occur within large corporations – IBM’s trade show branding case is listed first – but an examined start up, MeYou Health, scales its lessons-learned for smaller firms among these presented findings.

All the examples are meant to be a blueprint for implementing design thinking in a variety of organizational activities, from internal communication to improving customer engagement.

The authors also note the politics that can arrive from applying Design Thinking principles.  One such idea is the Moses Myth – the idea managers hold that they are not creative or even have to be creative.  In fact, the authors shared management perceptions from a previous study, and dispelled some myths, such as this one on sharing training with managers:

“…those that defined it (design thinking) as something that trained designers do did not see it as a useful tool set for managers to acquire. They not only doubted whether it was possible for managers to acquire those skills, but also thought it was a bad idea to encourage them to even try. Managers trying to do design work were likely to lower the quality and credibility of design! We heard the opposite view from other experts: Mangers not only could become design thinkers, but should – so powerful was the process for finding innovation. ”

The authors show managers and designers working to best implement processes that will serve their organization well. The summary highlights a few key takeaways, such as how collaboration is possible with design thinking practices:

“Not a single store features a lone actor, a Steve Jobs driving innovation by dint of personal genius. Our stories are full of people who are different from one another co-creating with one another…”

There are other books that can take the topic of innovation planning further. From the ones I have reviewed here on Small Business Trends, The Other Side of Innovation would be a good bet.  Another selection, best for businesses with service offerings, is Service Innovation.  And for fitting design thinking into start up pitches, Venture Capital Investing can provide a framework for questions in context to your market as well as requesting for capital.

But on its own, Solving Problems With Design Thinking provides a refreshed view of problem solving and delivering innovation.  Place this book on your list for your next planning project for your business.

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Pierre DeBois Pierre Debois is Associate Book Editor for Small Business Trends. He is the Founder of Zimana, a consultancy providing strategic analysis to small and medium sized businesses that rely on web analytics data. A Gary, Indiana native, Pierre is currently based in Brooklyn. He blogs about marketing, finance, social media, and analytics at Zimana blog.