Design Thinking: Solving Complex Problems Using Novel Approaches

"The sales department is not the entire company, but the entire company should be the sales department," Phillip Kotler — also known as the "father of modern marketing."

Although it may conjure images of creative types donning black turtlenecks and hip glasses, design thinking is far more than innovating new products to dazzle the masses. As Tim Brown, CEO of innovation and design firm IDEO, notes, “Design has become too important to be left to designers.”

Originating from the 1960s and evolving ever since, design thinking is a human-centered problem-solving methodology that can be applied at every level of the organization. It is especially useful to tackle complex or poorly defined problems, whether they relate to products, services, operations, protocols or processes.

So who can benefit from a design approach? In a word, everyone. In traditional methodologies, innovation is the exclusive domain of experts and top decision makers, who call upon the rest of the organization to execute their vision. Design thinking, in contrast, democratizes the innovation process by tapping the varied talents, perspectives and attitudes of multidisciplinary teams to help the firm gain competitive advantage.

Using this framework, cross-functional teams are able to translate problems into novel ideas that meet latent customer needs and develop them into technically feasible, economically viable solutions. It is especially valuable in today’s highly competitive and fast-changing markets since the most innovative solutions often emerge from dynamic and diverse teams. A case in point is IBM, which plans on hiring 1,000 formerly trained designers by 2021 to create a “culture of design” and breathe new life into the traditional technology firm.

As Prof. Joaquim Vilà of IESE’s Strategic Management Department explains, “Design thinking can boost organizational growth by helping organizations reframe their underlying challenges in a human-centric way and create user-centered solutions. It avoids the traps of conceptual silos and ‘our well-grounded experiences’ by bringing the voices of users to the foreground.”

The design-thinking process encompasses three main phases: inspiration, ideation and implementation:

1 – Inspiration
In traditional problem-solving methodologies, the “problem” is often automatically assumed. Not so with design thinking. This first stage integrates qualitative research techniques to critically examine the challenge at hand, with a sharp focus on the people for whom they are designing. It is here where “human-centric” first comes into play, as teams begin to reformulate the original problem based on these newly discovered user insights. 

2 – Ideation

The ideation phase utilizes new knowledge from observation and opens the door to possibility to reframe the challenge with new lenses. Next, the team flexes their creative muscles to brainstorm and generate novel ideas to address the latent needs they have identified. 

3 – Implementation

Innovative ideas often die on the vine, but design thinking increases the odds of success by including prototyping and experimenting to refine new concepts. This hands-on process allows teams to test and validate the effectiveness of their proposed solution, be it a business model or service redesign, or even a strategic problem that requires transforming a vision into action.

Design thinking will surely continue to gain traction in today’s VUCA environment, as organizations grapple with increasingly complex challenges, while at the same time recognize the benefits of diverse and multidisciplinary teams.

As IDEO partner Tom Kelly observed, “Creativity isn’t some rare gift to be enjoyed by the lucky few –  it’s a natural part of human thinking and behavior. In too many of us, it gets blocked. But it can be unblocked. And unblocking that creative spark can have far-reaching implications for yourself, your organization, and your community.”


IESE’s “Creative Problem Solving: Implementing Design Thinking” program is especially beneficial for managers responsible for business development, talent management, strategy implementation, customer service, strategic projects and innovation initiatives. IESE’s Barcelona campus will host the next edition on June 11-14, 2019.

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