We hear “Design Thinking” a lot, but what does design thinking mean and look like? How it’s different from “being innovative? These are some of the questions that, I often get in various contexts of lean-agile delivery, innovation, entrepreneurship, and product management.

This is how I would describe design thinking – “Design thinking is an art of creative problem solving with an unbiased human-centric and environment context that instills empathy, sensibility, purpose, and imagination to explore beyond the obvious. It, irrespective of organization’s size, maturity, and complexity, instills a holistic approach to understanding a problem and then finding solutions that are desirable (addresses right customer need), feasible (built on realistic competencies of an organization), and viable (delivers value that customer would happily pay for)”.

A design thinker mind is also innately conscious that the chances of a successful outcome on anything we undertake are as good as assumptions we have made leading up to that outcome. Besides this, design thinkers base their actions on principles & value-based rules and not rules-based-principles and values. Many organizations pursue rules-based principles and values that restrict innovation from flourishing.

With little retrospection, you will find that a design thinker, in practice, subtly embraces a mindset in all actions that identifies and validates assumptions as soon as possible – especially the killer assumptions. For example, a driver with a design thinking mindset will not assume that a driver ahead of them is driving erratically and honk. The driver will slightly go to the left or right to observe how the driver ahead of the driver is operating and how the road ahead of them is. This habit of observing, for a holistic understanding of the situation, before reacting in design thinkers infuses empathy. And empathic individuals are innately creative with higher emotional intelligence, and as we know creativity is the mother of all innovations. So being innovative, in essence, is an outcome of the conscious practice of design thinking.

Another question that I often get is about the benefits of using design thinking to solve problems. When organizations & individuals consciously embrace design thinking, it manifests an invisible organizational platform, like a coral reef, where innovation thrives through its employees’ unique creative and evolutionary personas. Like coral reef grows stronger over time, enabling more species to join and thrive on it, on an organizational platform built on design thinking practices, innovation ecosystem thrives and grows. This innovation then isn’t an after-thought or something that we need to pay attention to discretely. The organization and innovation are one and only one then.

Part of design thinking is to see the problem in the context of the big picture. However, design thinking also requires empathy without connecting emotionally to the problem and ensuing solutions. Though empathy is an absolute must to find innovative solutions, design thinkers should never emotionally invest and internalize a problem or solution. It’s a bad practice as it impairs judgment and ability to pivot in time. As a principle, it’s about connecting with the human-centric factors, context, and environment of a problem with the intent to incept solutions that are desirable, feasible, and viable. A big picture view is intrinsically followed when solutions are envisioned within the context of its environment and “human-centric factors.” Through an empathetic connection, a design thinker’s mind knows “what questions to ask to explore deeper for latent problems” and “how to phrase those questions.” It’s a subtle holistic thought process that manifests in individuals via self-questioning first, such as: What value am I creating through my role that’s ultimately reaching our ultimate customers, and in what form? How whatever I do to solve is resulting in “customer’s success” not just “solution’s success”? How can I be on a path to purposeful performance? What difference am I making in my immediate customer’s life by helping them with their customer’s success and positive experience? With this self-questioning and understanding of their own position well, design thinkers connect with a mindful approach to problem-solving.

Through these inward questioning first, followed by empathetic outward questions, surprisingly, we begin to get an image of solutions that are often astonishingly creative, holistic, purposeful, and meaningful. Now imagine what these design thinkers together could do in transforming organizations, societies, or whatever ecosystem they are part of. The great thinkers and leaders from our history exuberated these traits. Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King were, in essence, design thinkers.

A non-profit Share Box –Stories for kids sourced from around the world resulted from a visit to drop food for families at the Children’s Hospital in Boston with my wife and her friend. These families travel from all over the world; they often have language barriers and only enough cash to treat their kids medically. To spend money on food is probably the last thing on their mind. I wouldn’t have come up with this idea without being in a position to experience the environment – the context and perspective of these families with sick kids. There was a sudden empathy that led me to ask myself – What can I do? How can I uplift these kids or any child facing hardship anywhere in the world by applying my education, passion for innovation, and experience in building products and services?

While teaching a cohort on agile and lean practices last year, someone asked me, “how do you encourage leaders (or anyone) to incorporate design thinking into how they operate. Also, how can we use design thinking approach in our job setups that are highly structured and regulated”. It’s often a case in highly regulated industries like healthcare, pharma. It’s a widespread misconception that organizational structures and constraints don’t let us practice design thinking and innovate. The design thinking manifests via specific personas in an organization, and the organizational structure does not constrain it. To let design thinking gradually seep into the culture, leaders should recognize and develop employees on a few personas and avoid focusing too much on roles and responsibilities. The roles & responsibilities instruct employees on what’s expected of them, whereas personas are like mindful mentors that guide from within. These personas are not mere social portrayals of individuals’ personalities but self-infused principles and values that guide employees towards empathetic problem-solving irrespective of their surroundings, organizations size, maturity, knowledge area, and setup.

As a life-timer scholar and practitioner of design thinking, and as I often retrospect and reflect on my 20+ years of professional career and experience. I realize that design principles and values always provided the foundation and acted as an anchor to expedite my learning. Anyone can become a design thinker. And, to begin applying design thinking, start by consciously immersing a few personas into your way of working. When practiced, these personas within the scope of roles & responsibilities become habits for design thinking and a mindful food for innovation. Though, as per ” The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelly” there are ten personas, my favorite include:

An Anthropologist persona has traits to observe with an open mind, empathy; intuition; the ability to see things that nobody noticed; and a way of seeking inspiration in unusual places. An Anthropologist persona is the most potent persona in design thinking but simple to practice in any organization.

Cross-Pollinator persona applies knowledge from unrelated domains to find solutions to a problem in a new environment. It’s amazing how our mind makes connections to incept creative ideas by mixing expertise and experience from unrelated domains.

Set Designer persona believes that any environment for problem-solving is like what stage is to an artist. The set designer persona has its origin in frugality and, therefore, frugal innovations.

I believe that individuals in any role can immerse design thinking into their way of working by a conscious practice of these personas at their jobs.