The toolkit of the decision maker #4 DESIGN THINKING



Probing around, in the chambers of the decision-makers toolkit, one curious hand might graze against the blurred contours of concepts such as empathy, iteration, collaboration. Left unassembled, they ring empty. Interlock them, and assemble one of the most popular methodologies of the 21st century. 

In 2008, Tim Brown published Design Thinking in the Harvard Business Review, formalizing a discipline that has long been used in the United States. The perspective of the designer - a praised capacity to conceive a product through the eyes of its intended user, has gradually been incorporated into the decision-making process. Design Thinking (DT), the latest installment of PRISMA’s series on leadership and decision making, stands at the end of the road. 

California, the 1950s, DT emerges from Palo Alto School’s shadows, soon, it is favored by north-American change makers. Such rise into legitimacy is supported by design companies ‘ successes. In 1980, Steve Jobs commissions one of them, IDEO, to invent a tool enabling the swift navigation of a brand new computer. The company designs Lisa, the first usable mouse in history.

DT’s elusive formula is now endorsed and taught: in 2004, Stanford founded, design thinkers ‘ alma matter. With the information revolution at full steam, the methodology entered the phase of its dissemination, branching disciplines beyond traditional design, such as project or business management. 

The Discipline

DT echoes the ambition to institute a new methodology shouldering scientific rationality and philosophic thinking. Action-orientated, design carefully creates context-relevant products to better the user’s experience. As a theory, it is not focused on appearances but affirms that a product’s characteristics must be justified, evidenced, by the behavior of the beneficiary. Design is purposeful: it must solve complex issues. DT is a methodology modeled for impact. Hence, in the early 2000s, the mission-driven social and philanthropic world started integrating DT into the processes where results were the intended outcome.

Abundant literature set out to define DT, yet, its methodology is more explicit than its theoretical mapping. Abductive, rather than deductive or incremental, DT extracts the product from a single situation. The design stems from structured observations and comprises the possibility of the uppermost quality. As a maximalist discipline, ideates unrestrictedly. Tim Brown decides on a simple definition: DT is the discipline that aims to suit the needs of a user with technological capabilities, to create max-value. 

In the curious hand, empathy, iteration, and collaboration are convening into the tenets of DT. Suiting the needs of users calls for the ability to relate to their experience, to be empathetic. Creating maximal value requires extensive prototyping. A problem-solving procedure for real-world issues, DT sneaks in between the scientific and philosophical methodologies. In an economy where experiences are advertised, in lieu of products, the success of DT is coherent. 


The Formula of DT

MIT Sloan Professor Steve Eppinger alerts: DT’s formula is not sequential. Instead of steps, the thinkers evolve in spaces. They must be able to accommodate changing conjectures.
DT’s itinerary fits in one sentence: having understood a problem, the thinker explores a wide range of possibilities with a team that then selects the most feasible one, perfected through modeling and prototyping to be implemented as a sustainable user-centered strategy

The Problem

“Most people don’t make much of an effort to explore the problem space before exploring the solution space”, Steve Eppinger, MIT Sloan Professor. 

Immersing oneself with the problem to solve is the opening space of DT. There is a degree of confrontation required in the apprehension of the problem. Insisting on this process’s necessity is not redundant. Steve Eppinger points out that many assume their unilateral experience to equal universal properties. The distilled solution risks standing on the shaky supports of assumptions, misconceptions; a limited perspective of the challenge to tackle. 

DT insists: the solution first benefits end-users, therefore thinkers must understand the beneficiary, their explicit, and implicit needs. The comprehension toolbox includes ethnographic methods such as shadowing, which cross the boundaries between implementer and user. Addressing the implicit is crucial to DT, evidenced by the rejection of tools such as surveys. Beneficiaries are neither underestimated nor overestimated. Rather, their acknowledged behavior allows the design of a comprehensive solution. Empathy - the ability to relate, is the skill needed for the completion of the initial space. Reaching its periphery, the problem identified after observation might not be the one first cornered as the challenge to tackle. The pre-conceived issue may well become a link in the chain of a deeper-rooted, systemic social predicament. 

The Idea 

The hand reaches for the second tenet of DT: collaborative work. The ideation space is to be collective and inter-disciplinary. DT transcends organizational boundaries: departments should not work in isolation, but in a cross-departmental system, where experts complete themselves and widen the reach of the brainstorming process. Ideation is not solely focused on creation. First, the team must be sure to share an equal understanding of the problem space. They confront their observations, synthesizing them into insights. Judgment must be left at the door of the ideation interval. Downselection will operate once inspiration and collective discussions dry out. Hold nothing back when it comes to ideas, infeasible propositions might suggest a more impactful outcome or an upcoming project. Moreover, innovative ideas are, in essence, disruptive. Conflict is not problematic. 

Before stepping out of the stage, the team should prioritize ideas to isolate feasible solutions, conscious of available resources as well as contingencies and features of the strategic environment. A PESTEL Model or SWOT analysis offers an effective framework. 

The Iteration 

Modeling the identified idea, the team will build it into a unique strategy: the prototype. It must be tested extensively. An iteration process can be accomplished by implementing a project in a sample population and collecting continuous feedback. Beneficiaries included in the creation process. Such co-construction promotes the sustainability of the strategy. Unforeseen implementation challenges might be underpinned at this stage, as well as externalities - positive and negative. 

Suspend iterations once the design works for everyone: the team, the organization, the beneficiary. 

The Implementation

As the least mapped-out space of the methodology (an oddity for an action-orientated discipline), it constitutes DT’s weak spot, with little elements on the post-implementation space. Drawing closer to the end of the design itinerary, the thinkers find themselves guide-less, if they wish to set up systemic solutions. 


The Critics of Design Thinking 

In a system striving for innovations, DT critics prove hard to find. Still, in early 2010, collective intelligence’s pope, Martha Nussbaum, disavowed her own creation. She argued: DT accomplished its task in the 1990s and 2000s by birthing the information revolution. Furthering its use would turn DT into a sclerose.

There are also inquiries on DT’s relevance when challenging systemic issues. Can methodologies be applied to all realms and disciplines with an equal, unwavering efficiency? Max-value is the desired outcome of DT. Is it an objective compatible with that of policy-making?

Moreover, the result of DT is invariably something new. What, then, of the situations where the solution must be the cancellation of a policy, the application of an existing norm, the improvement of technology, the revision of an institutional framework, the change of an implementation scale, or of a government? Scientific and philosophical methodologies are restricted to their own formula. DT is praised to conclusions traditionally associated with (now competing) disciplines such as Governance or management. 

What sets DT apart? 


Design Thinking for NGOs 

The ability to deliver high-impact solutions, in a context of heightened competition, even among social enterprises and institutions part of a State's apparatus.

The first instance of an NGO implementing DT is Save the Children Vietnam in the 1990s, with the Sternins’ work on positive deviance. By 2001, IDEO was working for clients whose activities were far afield from design. 


Both positive deviance and design thinking are human-centered approaches. Their solutions are relevant to a unique cultural context and will not necessarily work outside that specific situation.

Monique Sternin, Positive Deviance Initiative’s Director


In the 94th edition of the UNHCR RSC Working Paper, entitled Learning from Design Theory, the methodology is presented as a device enabling social innovation. One underscored strength is the heightened involvement of community groups in the design of the programme. It prevents the implementation of projects contradicting local habitus. The key factor of DT’s relevance appears: it resonates with the NGOs’ no-harm principle and the prerequisite to meet real needs - to go beyond assumptions. 

DT and NGOs, a match made-in-heaven? 

An incentive might be that funders adopted DT’s tenets in the late 1990s. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Kellogs Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Coca Cola Foundation, all adapted their business model to the methodology. Mastering the language spoken by those who lend money does indeed increase the chance of seeing an in-house project funded. 

With Design Thinking, create a project culture fixed on the solution. Encourage the emergence of new perspectives and ideas. Include beneficiaries in the creative process. Swiftly improve programmes, continuously. 


Additional Resources

  • offers access to resources for aspiring design thinkers. PRISMA recommends Design Thinking Bootleg in which you will gain access to tools and methods of DT. The cards will get you through the 5 spaces of design thinking: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test with matrices, fact sheets, examples, and methods. The bootleg is available in English, German, and Spanish. 
  • IDEO Human-centered design toolkit: created by the company that has pioneered DT, it was designed specifically for NGOs. It will guide you through DT’s activities.
  • If you develop services, you must check Service Design Toolkit, a method to improve the quality of services in a human-driven way.