How Design Thinking Makes You a Better Leader

By BrainStation September 6, 2019

From the smartphone in our pockets to the ergonomic chairs at our office, we have all experienced the impact of design thinking – whether we realize it or not. And while this method of production has an established track record when it comes to creating beautiful, intuitive products and experiences, there is a reason to believe it can also help produce great leaders.

At its core, design thinking involves finding creative solutions to problems – an essential skill for anyone in a leadership position. 

What is Design Thinking?

“We spend a lot of time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it, ” Dr. Prabhjot Singh, Special Advisor for Strategy and Design at the Peterson Center on Healthcare, once said. He was talking about the need for design thinking.

Design thinking is a methodology that Designers use to solve complex problems in a way that benefits their users. It involves developing a deep understanding of the end-user, with an emphasis on asking questions (What really is the problem? How does this impact our users?), adopting a hands-on approach, and experimenting with potential solutions.


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For a real-world example, look no further than a UX Designer, who must take a hard look at a business need (redesigning a website to increase conversions) and then re-frame the problem in a human-centric way (the website is slow and tough to navigate). He or she must then work through several steps to address those needs, starting with ideation and design prototyping (including different aesthetic directions for that new website), and then testing which solution works best.

The Design Thinking Process

The design thinking process is a major principle of user experience design and typically follows five key steps, according to the Interaction Design Foundation:

  1. Empathize: The first step in the process involves getting in the mind of your target audience. Understanding their motivations and needs means you can design a solution that they’ll actually use and appreciate. 
  2. Define: What problem is your design meant to solve? This is where you clearly define the business need and the needs of those who will use your designs.
  3. Ideate: You now understand your users and their needs, and defined the problem. Now you need to generate as many creative ideas as possible to solve that problem. 
  4. Prototype: The experimental phase, where you get to act on your ideas by building potential solutions.
  5. Test: How do your designs work? Does one or more solve both the business need and the customers’ need?

The designs created during this process don’t always pan out — and that’s often the point. With this approach, you may need to lather, rinse, and repeat more than once to get the results you want.

How Design Thinking Creates Great Leaders

“The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for,” David Kelly, the Founder of IDEO, has said. “Leadership is exactly the same thing – building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.”

Empathy is the key.

If you’ve adopted the design thinking approach, you’re going to try to understand the needs of your colleagues, employees, and superiors. And when you’re in the habit of caring about their needs, they are more likely to care about yours, creating a reciprocal relationship that fosters loyalty and a winning company culture.

The Parsons School of Design found that 71 percent of organizations that practice design thinking noticed an improvement in their work culture on a team level. And according to the 2017 Businessolver Workplace Empathy Monitor:

  • 92 percent of employees would be more likely to stay with a company if the organization empathized with their needs.
  • 60 percent would be willing to take less pay if their employer showed empathy, and 78 percent would leave an employer for equal pay if the other company was empathetic.
  • 77 percent of employees would be willing to work longer hours for an empathetic employer.

This is slightly problematic, though, as:

  • 85 percent of employees believe that empathy is undervalued by their employer.
  • 51 percent feel that organizations and companies as a whole are not empathetic.

These numbers point to the impact that first step in the design thinking process can have on the management front, especially when that empathy is used to define and tackle problems facing your team and colleagues.

Put simply, it shows you care, which can go a long way when it comes to leadership.

“People want to know that their bosses truly care about them,” Executive Coach Mikael Meir once said. “It’s the most unexpected, and in fact, the most powerful trait of a great leader.”

Design Thinking Encourages Experimentation (and Creativity)

“There is one main rule in design thinking: less talking more doing,” Design Thinking Lead Analeen Vanhodt, told Board of Innovation. “Design thinking goes against the culture of big, long, static meetings, it is a very actionable process in which we team up with a few experts and start DOING!”

Process is the key word here. Not every idea will have legs, and that’s OK — experimentation is a necessary component. By adopting this approach, leaders can help foster an environment that treats creativity as an ongoing process; a continuous pursuit that promotes failure as an opportunity for learning.


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“Design thinking is always linked to an improved future,” political scientist Herbert Simon wrote in the Sciences of the Artificial. “Unlike critical thinking, which is a process of analysis and is associated with the ‘breaking down’ of ideas, design thinking is a creative process based around the ‘building up’ of ideas.”

You might not find the solution to your problem today, but by adopting the design thinking mindset, you and your team can build up to that solution with time (and continued effort). 

As that wise philosopher Dr. Seuss once wrote, “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try.” 

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