The Design Thinking Workbook

Essential Skills for Creativity and Business Growth

A Superior Strategy for Tackling Today’s Hurdles

So, what’s the common thread that links Amazon, improvisation, and Hawaii’s Castle High School?

The answer: each has successfully harnessed design thinking (DT) as a catalyst for achieving its objectives. For instance, the practice of improvisation incorporates games like “storywording,” where a story unfolds one word at a time, each contributed by a different person. This exercise, besides fostering team spirit, also serves to unfetter the mind, priming it for the creative phases of DT. Similarly, Castle High School initiated a needs study — a design-thinking-informed approach — to collaboratively enhance educational programs and drive student success. Moreover, the narrative of Amazon’s design thinking journey awaits you later in this Summary.

But why should you consider weaving design thinking into the fabric of your business, team, or personal endeavor? That’s a fair question! The transition to a design thinking approach demands investment of time and resources. However, the return on that investment is truly staggering.

In 2018, a study demonstrated that design-oriented firms outgrew their industry counterparts at twice the rate. And if that doesn’t pique your interest, here’s another compelling statistic – these design-oriented businesses delivered shareholder returns up to a staggering 75 percent higher than their industry peers, all thanks to the application of design thinking.

A 2013 study by the Design Management Institute revealed that design-centric companies outperformed the S&P index by a jaw-dropping 228 percent, consistently for a decade.

Although there are myriad other studies that echo these findings, the point is crystal clear: Design thinking is an invaluable skill, especially in the business arena. While the Design Thinking Workbook is primarily oriented towards business applications of design thinking, it is equally applicable to personal problem-solving.

This Summary zooms in on the corporate applications of DT, but as you navigate through, consider how these tips and tricks might enrich your personal life. We will kick off with an overview of the authors’ design thinking methodology, followed by a deep-dive into the fundamental skills, tools, and techniques that can augment your DT journey.


Demystifying Design Thinking

Reflect on the last team project that didn’t pan out as expected. Did you face roadblocks in communication? Were there challenges with creativity? Was your team focusing on the right issue, or did a course correction come a little too late? Design Thinking is the secret sauce to avert such missteps.

Design Thinking, or DT, is a human-centric problem-solving method designed to help you zero in on the root cause and address it in creative, innovative ways that benefit all stakeholders and bolster business growth.

Although several DT methodologies are in circulation, Meadows and Parikh champion a six-step process: challenge, observe, understand, envision, solve, and prototype.

Initially, you define the challenge or the problem at hand. Clarity is vital here, as it saves you from the disappointment of realizing midway through the project that you’ve been addressing the wrong issue all along.

Following that, you become an observer of the people who might be grappling with the problem you’re trying to solve. You keenly watch their behaviors, actions, and tendencies.

The third phase is understanding the behaviors of your target audience. Here, you unravel the motives behind their actions, their aspirations, and sometimes the undesirable outcomes they’re striving to avoid.

The fourth step entails envisioning a solution or a desirable future state. This phase involves envisaging the end goal. Are you looking to simplify a process for the user, or to cultivate a pleasurable or soothing experience? How do you visualize the user behavior or experience in the future? Keep in mind, it’s easier to tame a wild idea than to instill life into a mediocre one. So, dream big!

The penultimate step is to solve the problem. This involves brainstorming and leveraging other techniques to generate creative ideas. It also necessitates making critical design decisions that bridge the gap between the current situation and the envisioned future.

The last step in the DT process is prototyping. Once a solution is decided upon, you prototype and experiment to test the feasibility of the solution and how well it fulfills user needs. This might involve multiple rounds of prototyping as you learn more about your users and the proposed design. Once the optimal solution is identified, it’s time to scale up.

Remember, this process isn’t always linear. As you delve into DT projects, you might find yourself revisiting some of these steps. This is perfectly normal, and in fact, an inherent part of the process! All that is required is a keen focus and an open mind as you inch towards the best solution.

While a DT approach works like a charm in many scenarios, it isn’t a universal remedy. Design Thinking is a human-centered mindset, and it’s not the go-to solution for problems that are unrelated or not centered on humans. For instance, a DT approach won’t come to your rescue if you’re trying to solve the issue of storm-damaged electrical wires or erosion-induced fence shifting.

However, we often misinterpret technical problems as human ones, or vice versa. DT methodology helps to clear the fog and pinpoint the root cause of a problem, assisting you in determining the nature of the issue at hand.

Take this example: A newly appointed manager found himself inundated with complaints about the sluggish elevators in a 30-story building.

What kind of problem do you think this is? A human or technical issue?

Ponder over this for a moment. We’ll soon delve into the fundamental skills required for DT. And don’t fret, we’ll circle back to the elevator conundrum shortly!




The Cornerstones of Design Thinking

Isn’t it fascinating that the bedrock of Design Thinking is a collection of skills you already know about, and may even put into practice now and then?

We’re talking about empathy, observation, listening, and analytical reasoning. But that’s not all – there’s also insight, creativity, cooperative working, and the art of storytelling. Rings a bell, doesn’t it?

Let’s take a deeper dive into a couple of these vital abilities.

Surely, empathy isn’t a foreign concept to you. It’s the capability to relate to and share the feelings of others. But did you ever consider that empathy itself has various dimensions? Meadows and Parikh categorize these dimensions as cognitive, emotional, and active.

Cognitive empathy equates to understanding someone else’s viewpoint.

Emotional empathy is what usually comes to mind when we think about empathy – the ability to experience others’ emotions.

Active empathy, on the other hand, means behaving in a manner that benefits others.

Cultivating empathy requires a conscious effort to grasp others’ perspectives and emotions. Engage with them about what matters in their role in a project, or why they chose their line of work. Strive to comprehend their thoughts, aspirations, motives, and sentiments. Imagine yourself in their shoes.

Initially, it might seem odd, and you may need to constantly remind yourself to do it, but with time, empathy will become second nature.

Yet another crucial cornerstone of Design Thinking is listening – a skill which greatly complements empathy. But, hang on, aren’t we all good listeners already? You might be, in which case consider this a gentle refresher. Many people believe they are listening when, in fact, they are merely hearing.

Now, what’s the distinction here?

Hearing is a physiological process where the ear detects sounds in its surroundings. Listening, however, requires focused attention, aimed at comprehending the message conveyed by those sounds. Consider this – when you play background music while working, are you actually listening to the music and its lyrics, or are you just hearing it while concentrating on your work? Now, think about a live concert. Are you merely hearing the music, or are you actively listening to the songs, embracing the emotion within the lyrics and melody?

For effective design thinking, you must master listening, not just hearing. When interacting with stakeholders or teammates, concentrate on their words and the message they’re conveying. Don’t jump ahead to your response. Dedicate yourself to understand the speaker’s intent and the message they’re trying to get across. Remember to listen to the tone of voice as well – an exclamation like “oh!” upon seeing your product could express excitement, disappointment, or even bewilderment. And that nuance is crucial!

Remember our chat about the sluggish elevator conundrum? We’ll circle back to it shortly!




The Toolbox

So, here we are with a six-step procedure and eight foundational skills – can you guess how many tools and techniques this entails?

Meadows and Parikh catalog nearly 30! While it’s impossible to explore all in this Summary, let’s survey a few.

Ever come across the “Five Whys”? This technique is particularly helpful in ascertaining whether the correct problem is being addressed. This is a pivotal aspect in any problem-solving task – if you don’t start with the right problem, there’s no way you’ll find a solution!

So, how do the “Five Whys” work? This technique is a hands-on approach, so gather your team, post-its, and writing tools before you begin.

Start with agreeing on a problem statement, like “an associate hurt his thumb”. Jot this down on a sticky note and place it on your workspace – a wall or whiteboard will do.

Next, draw an arrow beneath this note and ask yourselves why this problem occurred. Write all the answers your team can think of on Post-its and place them under the arrow and the original Post-it. Decide on the most probable answer. This is your level two problem. In our scenario, perhaps the associate injured his thumb because it was caught in a conveyor belt.

Repeat this process – add an arrow beneath the level two problem note, brainstorm potential reasons for its occurrence, and pick the most plausible one. Continue until you identify the root cause. Generally, it surfaces after about five rounds of “whys”. But if it emerges before or after that, that’s fine too. You can continue the process until you unearth the root cause.

So, let’s revisit our example. An associate injures his thumb. Why? Because it got caught in a conveyor belt. Why did it get caught? Because he tried to retrieve his bag from the moving belt. Why did he try to do that? Because his bag was on the belt which suddenly started moving. Why was his bag on the belt? Because he was using it as a table.

And there we find the root of the problem – the associate needed a table near the conveyor belt.

Does this example seem somewhat abstract? It’s actually a real-world application of the “Five Whys” – it took place at an Amazon fulfillment center in 2004. Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder, and CEO, used the “Five Whys” to trace back to the root cause of the problem, leading to a simple solution – installing a table near the conveyor belt to prevent similar safety incidents in the future.

Another effective Design Thinking technique is the HMW, which stands for “How might we…?” This is an idea generation method akin to brainstorming, but it focuses on addressing questions that begin with “How might we”. For instance, “How might we make brushing teeth fun for teenagers?” The HMW approach encourages a state of speculation and ideation, fostering a wide range of ideas vital for effective brainstorming.

Finally, we have the SCAMPER technique. This acronym prompts teams to consider whether there’s any aspect of existing products or solutions that can be substituted, combined, adapted, modified/magnified/minimized, put to another use, eliminated, or reversed/rearranged. It’s yet another tool that comes in handy when seeking creative solutions.




Now, you may still be wondering about the saga of the slow elevators. Was it a matter of technology or human nature? And what was the manager’s winning strategy?

Delving into the conundrum, the manager started with some good old-fashioned people-watching. The revelation? The real crux wasn’t the elevator speed per se but rather the frustration brewing while waiting for it in the lobby. The manager’s lightbulb moment? Installing full-length mirrors next to the elevator doors. Voilà! Suddenly, people were too engrossed in their own reflections, fixing their attire, adjusting their hair, or analyzing their expressions, to be bothered by the wait.

And there you have it—the problem of the sluggish elevators wasn’t a mechanical hitch after all, but a human-centered one. The issue was resolved, not with an expensive technical fix, but with a pinch of ingenious design thinking. Quite a satisfactory denouement, wouldn’t you agree?

We’ve merely skimmed the surface of the insights Meadows and Parikh have to offer in their master guide. You’ve taken away the six-step DT methodology – challenge, observe, understand, envision, solve, and prototype. You’ve explored the three facets of empathy – cognitive, emotional, and proactive. And you’ve distinguished the nuance between hearing and intentional listening. Towards the end, you’ve learnt about the five whys, HMWs, and SCAMPER. All these invaluable tools will surely steer your design thinking approach to problem-solving towards success. But the well of wisdom runs deeper, and if you’re thirsty for more skills, tools, and techniques, you know where to tap into it!

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