Design Thinking For Business Innovation

Innovation has always be seen as a myth, where genius is the main ingredient for it. Unfortunately this is not the reality!

Innovation can be a systematic process. The key to successful innovations is to understand where the process starts. The process starts by first understanding the current needs, the current obstacles the target audience want to overcome and then formulating insights that can guide the thinking about potential solutions.

This is against to what most of us think and do today, where we try to provide solutions without understanding the real problems. So, probably by passion, we try to jump to a future that we envision for our customers without involving them or trying to understand what are there needs.

The argument can be raised that “Customers don’t know what they want” as Steve Jobs said or following what Henry Ford said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. This can be partially true when it comes to what customers express literally, but the key takeaway from this is to see what customers don’t see by sensing, observing and noticing the signals than predict the future like “faster” (but not the horses) in Henry Ford quote.

Design Thinking: a means for innovation!

Design Thinking is a mindset and methodology to help businesses in problem solving, finding possibilities and securing innovations that are desirables by humans at first, viable as business offering second and finally feasible as an implementation.

In few words, Design Thinking is all about starting with the human and ending with the human. Design thinking is about the people but first you need to change your mindset for this shift.

Design thinking can bring to businesses the power of curiosity, the power of exploration, the power of empathy (which is putting ourselves in others shoes) to help in solving big challenges in the uncertain world we live in today, and this is what innovation is all about.

Why innovation is hard to do in established organizations?

Most of organizations excel in execution within an environment of predicability and efficiency. But when they start to look for big ideas, the mistake most organizations do is to look for focus and control.

Innovation is governed by its own line of rules and the first rule of innovation is : The only certainty in innovation is uncertainty!

So the question arise, why do established organizations fail to find real innovations that really rock the boat?

Based on Professor Jeanne Liedtka,the following reasons may be the cause of such failure:

  1. Most organizations are obsessed with analysis, but analysis has its limit. How do we connect data from the known past to the unknown future? The whole point of innovation is to spot where is the future and how it will divert from the past! Data for the future does not exist, we have to make it up!
  2. The growth gridlock. Managers in established organizations get stuck between building something new and controlling something that exists, which in a sense kills most of innovation efforts.
  3. Customers are very terrible in envisioning what don’t exit yet, so just doing typical market research is not the best idea to get real innovations!
  4. Organizations tend to spend resources and efforts in innovation but in the blind! When the ratio of resources and efforts invested in innovation is larger than knowledge pursed, bad things happen!

How to be innovative?

To be innovative you need a learning mindset, you need a curious mind!

To be innovative you need to accept failure and look at it as a learning opportunity! We tend to like everything as perfect as possible, so we fight failure, which in its essence a learning.

To be innovative you need to have customer empathy, not customer focus! Empathy is involved in being interested in details of how people live, not people as market segments!

To be innovative you need to be a Design Thinker!

What is Design Thinking?

Looking at Design Thinking from an innovation point of view, it can be said that Design Thinking is “a human centered approach to innovation, where people behaviors are examined with deep lens to find their actual needs, finding insights that guide the design of the solutions, prototyping solutions, validating those solution prototypes with actual customers and iterating until finding the best fit”.

With that said, its also worth noting that Design Thinking is not the magic wand that can help us in solving every day problems, for example when we talk about efficiency, Design Thinking may not add a lot, but when we try to look at creative problem solving or innovation, this is where it can make more sense. It’s important to understand that Design Thinking is a systemic process that can manufacture innovation.

What Design Thinking can bring to businesses?

To clarify what Design Thinking can bring to businesses, its very important to distinguish between a puzzle and mystery.

A puzzle is a problem that if you have the right data you can solve it, while a mystery, its a problem that you don’t have data or even have too much more data than you cannot find the right solutions. This is where it needs a systemic approach to figure out the mystery and how we can solve it and this is where Design Thinking comes to the foreground.

Design Thinking can be thought of as a new toolkit that can complement other type of thinking toolkits, and as away to balance current thinkings. It can bring to businesses the curiosity, its also bring the power of empathy, which is putting our self in others shoes, which is something that can not be outsourced or contracted.

Its also worth mentioning that the type of challenges businesses faces today, are different from what we had before, the whole level of new uncertainty we are living in and the big issue like sustainability and how can we integrate it with our business need a new type of thinking and this is where Design Thinking can help us in.

That been said, it’s also needed to know that Design thinking is not the solution for every day problems! When we talk efficiency for example its not Design Thinking domain, Design Thinking is when we look at creativity and exploring new areas.

The process of Design Thinking

Professor Jeanne Liedtka, defined four general steps to achieve Design Thinking as a systemic process as follows:

  1. What is, What are the current needs, what are the current obstacles we want to over come?Its all about getting a deep insights about what our stakeholders are looking for and not about jumping to the future or conclusions so fast.
  2. What if? What are the current possibilities? How can we move our self from the current constrains we want to over come?Grounded to the insights we have gathered from the What is stage, we start to brain storming and try to find solution for the problems or the needs we have identified.
  3. What wows? Innovation does not have any value unless it can be realized. At this stage we take a deep look at the different ideas we have generated from the What if phase and try to find the sweet spots, ideas that matches our capabilities and our abilities to develop.Afterwards, we start the the concepting phase, where we try to materialize what we think is wow and bring it to form that we can test and engage our stockholders with.
  4. What works? This is where we take our LoFi prototypes generated from the What wow phase and put them in the hands of our customers and / or stakeholders. The aim is to take there feedback in a rapid manner, iterate and modify our offering till we reach the right or the best possible option.

The process main

From the Design Thinking process we can see that it is problem solving approach, human centered, possibility driven, options focused (where we have a protocol of ideas) and finally its an iterative method where we form and re-form with the aim of finding success.

Tools of Design Thinking

The course DESIGN THINKING FOR BUSINESS INNOVATION had highlighted in a high level different tools for Design Thinking that can be used at the different phases of the Design Thinking process. The aim to have an idea about what tools are available at each step and to select whats suitable on a project to project bases.


Tools for the WHAT IS

  1. Visualization: in simple words, its the transformation of information into a form that you can see either with your eyes or your mind. Pictures are a great example of visualization, sketches are also a form of visualization. Tough visualization is used mainly at this stage, but its a tool designers using in every stage of the Design Thinking process.Its very important to think of visualization as a way to de-risk project growth! the more things are illustrated and obvious to the project team, the more common understanding is there, which can results in better harmony!
  2. Journey mapping: Journey maps are very powerful tool to shift your focus from what my company wants or what my company is doing to what is the customer trying to do?  As a tool it’s not that much different than process diagrams, but it show on one aspect that is very important for unarticulated needs which is the emotional side of offerings. Mapping customers emotions is a very powerful way to unlock the the customers unarticulated needs.
  3. Value chain analysis: is a study of an organization interactions with partners, in the sake of producing the value propositions. Its the business side equivalent of the customer journey map and gives important clues about the partners capabilities, intentions and your organization vulnerabilities and opportunities. Using value chain as tool to explore what are the possible profitable growth and optimization opportunities that your organization can seize and it also can be used a tool to find value opportunities for partners supplementing the concept of co-creation.
  4. Mind mapping: its a tool to find patterns and themes in large quantity of data. It can be used to separate whats important from what is not so it can help us in channeling the right efforts for the What if phase. Also, mind maps can be used a way to de-risk project as more focus on what is important can be established, adding to that, its a great tool for alignment about what we know within a team.

The purpose of the What is stage is not prove an idea, but to get the insights that can help us in getting the WoW ideas later.

Tools for the WHAT IF

  1. Brainstorming: is a goal oriented way to generate ideas and its a fundamental tool when it comes to innovation. But to make sure its an effective tool, its must be used after the What is phase to make sure a proper understanding of the problem scope and design criteria has happened. Afterwords, with a good mix of the people from different disciplines, open ended questions and proper facilitation, ideas will flow. The end game for brainstorming is to come up with ideas that have a high potential to create value.
  2. Concept development: is the act of the selection of the best ideas from the brainstorming phase and then trying to develop them into detailed solutions that can be further evaluated. Development will always need a dedicated team that can help in making ideas real and it does not mean taking ideas from ideas to full solutions, but detailing how they would be so we later can develop them into tangible concepts that can be later tested by various stakeholders for feedback.

The What if stage is about dreaming but with a focus! Building on what we know to come up with what can really tick.

Tools for the WHAT WOWS

  1. Assumption Testing: its a tool for surfacing key assumptions in new business concepts and using data to see the likelihood of this assumptions to be true. Because we have certain hypotheses, we need to validate the it. Hypotheses can be thought of as insights into the future. We need first to find the key questions that we need to find answers for, find and identify our assumptions and then gather data or running live experiments to see if our assumptions are true or not.
  2. Rapid prototyping: its the step where we create visual and some time manifestations of the concepts. The key thing here is to materialize our concepts in a way that we can later test with our key stakeholders for feedback and validations. The whole purpose is to have this rapid learning that can help us reach our goal, which is viable, desirable and feasible innovation.

Coming to this stage the What wows stage, its about materializing concepts into tangible things that can be tested with customers and stakeholders.

Tools for the WHAT WORKS

  1. Customer co-creation: is all about inviting the key stockholders for the creation process and engaging them in the new business offering development. At this step, we take what we have created in the What wows stage and we put it in front of the customers to know there reactions and observe how do they perceive it, to iterate to an improved offering.
  2. Learning launch:  is a step where we try to experiment in a cheap and fast way in the marketplace. Its more of a bridging step between the customer co-creation and the commercial market launch, but with the least efforts possible. Also, the purpose of it is to increase the learning and find out what works and what not and modify the offer according to that. Learning launch is about trying to find both the confirmation and non confirmation points in our hypotheses.

As we can see from all the steps above, Design Thinking is all about the rapid learning and co-creation. We empathize, visualize, co-create, develop, test and iterate till we reach the best outcome.

Tips about how to manage a design project

Professor Jeanne Liedtka laid out some tips on how take your design project forward, here are the key ones:

  • Initially there are a superstitious people who don’t know what Design Thinking mean, try to explain it to them in simple and relative wording (talk with there language)
  • Reframe all your work around customers and what are there needs
  • Finding real customer problems that are effecting your organization and show it to stockholders and relate it to the real offerings, it will be even good to show a real customer video in using a product or a service
  • Formulate a team and trying to find real customers to make ethnography
  • Talk in numbers, try to define the problem as cost problem in the organization, although customers will benefit from it at the end
  • Manage your anxiety! You don’t have ready made solutions but you have proposals! So you try to believe in your self and you will get it
  • Try to get some solutions, this will help in creating more confidence for you and for your management
  • Make sure its a collaborative efforts to help change the perspectives of others

Design Thinking in Action 

Have you heard before about The Good Kitchen?

The good kitchen is a story that was told by Professor Jeanne Liedtka to show how Design Thinking was used in action to solve real business problems.

To know the story, we have to travel to Denmark, where it has been recognized that aging is a problem that needs a different view on how it is approached!

With more than 125,000 senior citizens and counting (Total 5 million inhabitants in Denmark), one of the major issues that have been identified for this group was nutrition, how can they have the right nutrition for the elderly?

Everyone was thinking that its an issue of menu design, so people before using the Design Thinking method where jumping to a solution that they thought is the right (without taking the feedback of the real stakeholders), and the search was for: How can make a better menu?

This was taught of as the solution to the problem, but as we shall see, it was found that this is only a narrow thing with in the scope of what could have the impact on the elderly nutrition.

The problem was assigned to a design agency, where they will use Design Thinking tools and methods to try to un-look the real problems and then find the right solutions.

The agency have used tools like journey mapping to show on aspect that is very important, which is the unarticulated needs using emotional analysis of the customer journey.

Surprisingly the design agency, found that there are both emotional needs both at the elderly side and the provider side (people who make the food) which made this dilemma. This is why they tried to convince the government that the scope is bigger than the question of how can we improve the menu.

Problems like perceiving the people who make the food for elderly as a low status job was one of the thing that contributed to the nutrition problem, adding to that when we look at the seniors side, things like letting them eat alone was a reminder that there family left them.

With Design Thinking tools and methods the agency have found the What is and now they are ready to take the insights and find real solutions to the problem.

The agency approached the stakeholders (kitchen staff, elderly people, government, etc.) to co-create, They formed workshops with all the stakeholders to create a sense of ownerships. Suggestion like can they think of the elderly kitchen as a restaurant? Would this be the solution.

As you can see, this stage is all about dreaming big and getting rid of the current constrains to envision a brighter future and this is the What if phase.

They started afterwords by taking the possible ideas like menu designs, restaurant concept, etc… and tried to find what can be wowing and valuable. At this is stage which is the What wows, understanding what is can be making the bigger difference.

At the end, comes the last stage which is the What works where the creation of the concept of “The Good Kitchen” have been decided based on the feedback of all the stakeholders.

What was the results?

Before The Good Kitchen:

  • 60 % of elderly in nursing homes or under supervision were getting the wrong diet.
  • 20 % suffered from malnutrition.

After The Good Kitchen:

  • Sickness absence went down 9 %.
  • Job applications more than tripled.
  • Subscriptions to The Good Kitchen increased tenfold, and the elderly found a new zest for life.

The results as you can see where all about happier seniors with better nutritions, motivated employees with more pride in work.

What happened was not about the numbers but about the shift that happened to to all stakeholder, which as a result made the good kitchen all about “Good food that comes from the heart”!

More from Jeanne Liedtka

The author of the online course Professor Jeanne Liedtka has also published two books on the subject, one book that is a detailed replica of the online course (actually its the course of the online course), which is The Designing for Growth Field Book: A Step-by-Step Project Guide, you can consult it for more information on Design Thinking, its process and its tools.

The other book is more of a case study book, where stories about how Design Thinking was applied in various fields and how it successfully managed to achieve the successful outcome it was intended to. The book is in titled: Solving Problems with Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works.

book1                book2

About the Design Thinking course

This course was provided as a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) by the Coursera platform. The aim of the course is to provide an overview of the process and tools used for design thinking, and examine their application in organizational situations. The course was provided in late 2013 / early 2014 provided by University of Virginia and instructed by Jeanne M. Liedtka and was held for 5 consecutive weeks.

The aim of this post was to walk you through a summary of the online course provided by the Coursera platform, in-titled DESIGN THINKING FOR BUSINESS INNOVATION. Its worth to mention that summary of the course materiel is highlighted in this post and this is not intent as a complete course content layout.

I have successfully finished this course in January 2014 and the following still image provide a verification of my course completion.


Note: This course seems to be deprecated from the Coursera platform at the time of writing and only access to previous enrolled students is applicable. But to know more about the course, you can visit the following course introduction in YouTube, at:

About the author

Mussab Sharif, an innovation manager and practitioner in a leading Middle East telecom operator. Having a major of computer engineering and in the process of finishing my MBA specialized in Service Innovation & Design from Laurea university for applied sciences in Espoo, Finland.

3 thoughts on “Design Thinking For Business Innovation

  1. Hi Mussab, good entry!!

    i was enrrolled in the Coursera MOOC, but i didn’t finish it because i didn’t have time to do it.

    Now, i’m having time to study design thinking, but i don’t find any material from the class, have you got this material?

    I appreciate that if you have the material, sent him to me so I could study it

    thanks a lot!!

    PS: I also was enrolled in Gamification MOOC on coursera, did you like it?

    • Hello,

      All the courses are online in there websites, I dont have them any how offline.

      If you have enrolled before, you should be able to access the content, as I believe, like my case 🙂

  2. Thank you for an excellent summary. One thing I was left wondering, however, was your statement that “When we talk efficiency for example its not Design Thinking domain”. I understand what you mean by it, but could we not also envision the use of design thinking for some radical innovation in efficiency?

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