By Scott Underwood and Leon Segal

  1. How many design thinkers does it take to change a light bulb?
  2. Does it have to be a light bulb?

All kidding aside, this joke captures the true essence of design thinking. It sees that the original question contains an assumption that the light bulb is the problem — but the real issue is that the room is dark! What if we instead ask:

How can we light this dark place?

By taking a step back to reframe the original question in a larger context, we give ourselves the opportunity to solve the problem in a new way, to find methods that don’t rely on light bulbs, fixtures, or even electricity. It may turn out in the end there is no other better option — but unless we keep asking questions, we risk seriously limiting our chance to discover innovative solutions.

The process of innovating is what physicists call “infinitely sensitive to initial conditions;” that is, it is shaped and defined by the definition of the problem at the onset. And just as the gentle breeze from a butterfly’s wings can develop into a hurricane, the definition of the challenge at the start of a design thinking journey has a huge impact on the outcome.

There are many factors that affect the outcome of the creative process, but asking questions is probably most critical to the success of any exploration and venture. That’s why practicing design thinking is so valuable.

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What is design thinking anyway?

Design thinking fuels innovation efforts in almost every industry around the world, but its definition can seem somewhat elusive.

Design thinking is a creative process that uses tools from the world of design — asking questions, observation, brainstorming, prototyping, and more — to gather inspiration, build empathy, find real needs, and create actionable solutions.

The light bulb joke we started with contains a fundamental truth about design thinking: it asks us to fall in love with the challenge before we start to answer it. It tries to ensure that we question the parameters, identify our assumptions, and pick the right problem to solve. And it continues to ask questions at every step we make towards a solution.

This can be uncomfortable for people used to the typical business method of spotting and solving problems rapidly — but it’s necessary. Innovation rarely happens from choosing the swiftest or most obvious solutions.

That said, design thinking complements but does not replace the valuable work done by marketers, business analysts, and trained design professionals. What it uniquely brings to the development process is a focus on — and sensitivity to — the personal experience of real people. How do they see my product or service? What images and mental models do my instructions conjure up? How might we design an experience for them that is useful, friendly, and delightful?

Inspiration for innovation comes by gaining understanding and empathy for people’s experiences, and we start by taking that mental step back to see the bigger picture.

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What kind of work is design thinking good for?

Despite its name, design thinking isn’t just for designers in a studio.

Design thinkers in all roles and industries have worked on an endless array of challenges: the new-employee experience, hospital procedures, restaurant flow, city district redevelopment, school systems, water in the developing world, health insurance application, and of course new products, services, and digital experiences of all kinds.

Content creators — whether in marketing, gaming, social media, music, or other endeavors — who practice it in the development of their work can better understand their audience’s perspective. This empathy allows them to create content that speaks directly to a reader’s needs or desires, which can result in a boost of engagement, adoption, purchases, downloads, and so on.

Enlightened organizations also use the process’s method of thinking and acting to transform the way they engage individuals and teams, and change the way they deliver value to the world around them. That’s because design thinking builds creative collaboration in users by teaching them how to think differently, develop teamwork skills, and express their unique point of view in a way that amplifies their potential to arrive at an unexpected, unique, solution.

This mindset can be available to everyone in an organization, not just those with certain backgrounds. Collaborators at every level can practice design thinking if they are given the support and resources necessary to apply it. It starts by continually asking questions, keeping an open mind, and truly listening to people’s answers.

Great ideas can come from anyone. So, the next time you are confronted with a problem that has an immediate, obvious answer, make sure to pause for a minute and ask yourself: does it have to be a light bulb?

The image at the top is from Liter of Light, a global project of the MyShelter Foundation that cleverly repurposes empty soda bottles to provide solar light to communities with limited or no access to electricity:

Related content: Learn more about design thinking, November 16, 2017 when the authors of this post present a free, one-hour webinar entiteld, Any Questions? How Listenting Sparks Innovation.