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In the past brainstorming techniques have been popular methods of generating new ideas to implement in the business world.  For instance, ATMs were created after a participant in a brainstorming session suggested that the solution to the long queues at banks is to make a hole in the wall. Building on this idea, creating a “mini-bank” in the form of an ATM was brainstormed and today we have ATMs all over the world.  But now we have queues at ATMs! After that e-banking emerged and today we have banking Apps putting the bank into your hand when using your mobile phone.

These days, and evolving from traditional brainstorming, a new more radical type of business innovation intervention has emerged in recent years. It is called design thinking. Naiman (2016) defines design thinking as “a methodology used by designers to solve complex problems, and find desirable solutions for clients”.

Design thinking differs from traditional learning and business design in that it is not problem-focused like most organisation development work, but solution focused and action oriented towards creating a preferred future. In essence, design thinking draws upon logic, imagination, intuition and systematic reasoning to explore possible actions that could create outcomes to the benefit of the end user. Hence, the focus is very similar to production or service design in developing a solutions-based end-state. But the difference is that the people using design thinking think like artists, engineers or designers to generate a solution that is almost guaranteed to meet the needs of the client.

Design thinking goes through five steps:

  1. Show empathy with the end-user by putting yourself in their shoes when thinking about what they really need.
  2. Define the issue or possible solution.
  3. Ideate by generating ideas in a creative manner.
  4. Develop a prototype of the solution.
  5. Test the prototype with the user.

Whatever the nature of the need for improvement, design thinking presents a good opportunity to create a better future in business and societies at large.  But then we need more design thinkers, i.e. people who are able to drive the application of the five typical steps in design thinking to create new solutions. Too often, managers who have been trained in traditional problem-solving techniques will jump to the conventional and simplistic problem-idea-decision-solution paradigm. The end-result is a superficial and short-term solution not really meeting the needs of clients.

The business world now requires leaders to step up in becoming design thinkers, but then we need people who really think like designers. This opportunity also means that we need to break down silos between departments by inviting multi-disciplinary teams, and most importantly involving customers in design thinking work to find solutions to old problems or old ideas.  However, to leverage the power of design thinking requires that we get design thinkers – people who are open the follow the design thinking process and methodology in designing better futures for our customers.


Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP). This article is an extract from the book Managing Human Resource Development (2017) edited by Marius Meyer and published by LexisNexis.