Cait Smith
Cait Smith
September 20, 2016

Design Thinking for Non-Designers: 3 Ways to Apply Design Thinking to Leadership

There’s still a lingering belief that design thinking is only applicable to designers or those in product development. This couldn’t be further from the truth! You can apply design thinking to any role, title or industry.

Let’s focus on how to apply attributes of design thinking to leadership, from the minutia of everyday decision making to the complexity of untangling big problems.

First, a refresher: What is design thinking?

Tim Brown, President of IDEO, explains, “Design thinking is 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.”

Let’s follow that up with what design thinking is not. It’s not:

  • A standardized process
  • A fad or magic bullet
  • Linear, with a clear starting and stopping point

Instead, it’s:

  • Adaptive to your organization
  • A way to create meaningful positive change for your customers and employees
  • Non-linear, with a focus on continuous, collaborative learning

Here are three practical ways that design thinking can strengthen the impact of leaders, no matter the industry.

1. Empty Your Cup

Maybe you’ve heard the tale of a professor seeking a teacher to learn Zen. The teacher invites the professor inside, pours him some tea and fills the cup to the brim. Then he keeps pouring. The professor says, “That’s enough! No more will go in!” The teacher responds with, “Your head is full of ideas and opinions. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Let’s reframe that question: How can leaders learn what’s going on with their customers, employees and culture unless they first empty their cup?

When conducting user research to inform product innovation, researchers try to adopt a “beginner’s mind” in order to observe, listen and learn new insights that could influence a future release. This is intentional learning, emptying their cups. A company is also a product and requires this same intentional learning.

Here are some examples of leaders emptying their cup:

  • Remaining open to an idea you’ve seen fail in the past
  • Getting out in the field with customers to observe their pain points
  • Asking, “Why have we always done it this way?”

2. Distribute Control

Distributing control is often confused with delegating. Anyone can delegate (although I’m not suggesting it’s easy). Delegating is activity based and consists of dolling out and managing the flow of tasks. Distributing control is much more difficult. It requires us to momentarily suspend our version of reality—which informs our mental model of “right”—in order to facilitate open, productive collaboration.

This is why cross-disciplinary collaboration is so important to the design process. One’s view of how to solve a problem looks different across roles, from designer to researcher to developer. No single perspective can ever have all the information, which is why no single person has complete control of the final product.

When leaders don’t distribute control in other contexts, they may find ourselves manipulating other opinions and insights to confirm their version of reality. The truest example of pervasive and damaging self-sealing logic.

Here are some examples of leaders distributing control:

  • Seeking and internalizing perspectives outside of one’s department, especially below the management tier, for more information before making a decision
  • Organizing a working session with a group of cross-disciplinary employees to brainstorm ways to improve an area of cultural friction
  • Asking, “How can other perspectives broaden my view of reality?”

3. Envision the Ecosystem

When building a digital product, teams often focus their efforts exclusively on what they’re making: the thing.

Not understanding other key points of interaction with the brand limits how well they can serve users through any singular product. It’s important to ask:

“How will users find what we’re building?”

“Where will they go from here?”

The answers can broaden our view of the other experiences that could be shaping users’ expectations or frustrations. The knee-jerk response of some product teams might be, “That’s [insert department name]’s job, not mine.” While this might be partially true, the message is that accepting a short-sighted view of the user experience is OK—that everyone just owns their piece of the pie. That’s how internal silos grow and manifest into fragmented customer experiences.

Here are some ways leaders can envision the ecosystem:

  • Appoint SMEs across marketing, IT, product and operations to build a holistic view of the customer journey
  • Align key cross-functional teams with a shared set of metrics focused on decreasing friction across digital touchpoints
  • Ask, “What organizational silos exist, and….why?”


These are just three ways leaders can apply design thinking. Design thinking is a catalyst for creating more effective leaders, stronger teams and a collaborative culture, all of which impact revenue.

I’d love to hear what you think. How else does design apply to everyday leadership?

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