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Design Thinking Centered Leadership

design-thinkingMost leaders hope that innovation and creativity will flourish in their teams and across their organization. However, without a strategy for this to happen it is likely to be an aspiration rather than a reality. One strategy that helps to drive greater innovation and creativity, that has gained significant appeal in recent years, is “Design Thinking”. Steve Jobs at Apple is arguably the practical pioneer of this process in the business world but other major companies have adopted it too including Coca-Cola, Herman-Miller, IBM, Ideo, Nike and Proctor & Gambol. In addition it has been written about extensively and rendered to be highly accessible to all organizations by several academic staff at Stanford University. In this article we will therefore explore what design thinking means and how it can be adopted as an approach that leaders can draw upon.

What is Design Thinking?

As the diagram below illustrates graphically, Design Thinking is a methodology used to solve complex problems, and find desirable solutions for end-users or clients. A design mindset is solution focused and action oriented towards creating a better or improved future, often going beyond the minimal or immediate need.


Effective Design Thinking uses a balance of rational and creative structured thought processes to explore possibilities of what a future state could be—and to create desired outcomes that benefit the end user (or the ultimate customer). It is consequently not only a process of the imagination but must also be viable and possible to execute within the bounds of current knowledge and methods. In this way Design Thinking offers a framework for understanding and pursuing innovation in ways that add real value to customers. Creativity is central to the design process, especially in discovering the unmet needs of customers in a given situation, but also involves testing and refining possible solutions to ensure that they are attractive and actually work.

The diagram above illustrates a commonly used Design Thinking framework, suggesting that the process is best applied in four distinct phases: Discover, Define, Develop, and Deliver. Let’s look at each of these phases in a little more detail:

The Discover Phase (creative bias)

Design Thinking begins with developing a deep understanding of customers’ or users’ stated and unmet or unarticulated needs. This is often easier for entrepreneurs who may have individually experienced a common user frustration that they believe they can address, but even in larger companies, individuals can immerse themselves in the daily lives of people they are trying to serve and then pay close attention to people and what they say. Methods for thinking like a designer include close observation, interviewing, creating user personas, empathy mapping, storyboarding etc., but don’t forget there is no substitute for talking with people and really listening.

The Define Phase (rational bias)

During the Define phase, leaders should put together the information they have created and gathered during the Discover phase and ensure that “the problem we are solving” is clearly defined. This means analyzing all of the varied observations and synthesizing them in a priority of interest order to define the core issues that the leader and the team have identified up to this point. The Define phase is also where leaders establish possible product or service features, functions, and any other elements that will allow end users to potentially solve the problems they are experiencing-this is the rational prelude to the create next phase of creative development.

The Develop Phase (creative bias)

During the third phase of the Design Thinking process, as many tangible ideas as possible are generated-often called brainstorming ideas or “ideating”. Team members are encouraged to ‘think outside the box’ to identify new solutions to the problem statement created at the define stage. Although this phase naturally encourages broad and creative ideas, it also should challenge individuals to put themselves in the shoes of the end user and what would enthuse them about a possible solution. In general, this would mean considering not only what would minimally meet an expectation or make things incrementally better but go much further or provide multiple additional benefits, even if they were not demanded in the first place.

The Deliver Phase (rational bias)

In the Deliver phase the leader encourages the team to come up with one or more inexpensive, scaled down or limited versions of the product/service. Prototypes may be shared and tested within the team itself, in other departments, or introduced to a small group of people outside the team. One-by-one, each prototype (or version of it) is accepted or rejected on the basis of the users’ experiences and then improved upon as per the feedback gained. In short, in this phase the ideas generated are validated before coming up with the final product or service, which are then finally delivered.


Design thinking is a systematic process for leading product or service creation or change and to help drive the innovation processes in small or large organizations. Design Thinking can be applied not only to products and services but also to systems, procedures, protocols, and customer/user experiences. If leaders rigorously educate team members about what needs to be done in each of the four phases of the process described above, they will not only have a systematic way to create more innovation but sustain it as well.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. smithJanuary 30, 2017 at 8:24 am

    Great post.. about design thinking. An Easiest way to solve complex problems.

  2. Roz LunaFebruary 2, 2017 at 4:50 pm

    The detail process in this article is excellent. The design thinking can definitely help in complex situations. Especially from a leadership point of view this can help help in a innovating way.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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