Design Thinking: What It Is and How This Exciting Method Can Inspire Your Team to Think More Creatively and Innovatively  

Design thinking is a new approach to the process of creating new ideas, and one that your team could learn from. 

So far in our series on different ways of thinking, we have looked at the multiple types of thinking and a specific model of styles of thinking that people use in the workplace. Both of these discussions focused on how being aware of the diversity of ways of thinking among team members can lead to better and more creative teams that can properly utilize everyone’s skills and ideas. 

But now we want to shift to looking at some specific “thinking frameworks” and how they can be helpful for teams to adopt. Such frameworks zoom into specific ways of thinking that are different from how most people think, and also shed light on a lot of useful ideas and practices that teams can benefit from.

Some of these are types of thinking that we have looked at a little before, and are generally well-known like critical thinking and lateral thinking. But some of them are new conceptual frameworks that have been developed specifically for teams in order to deal with the complexities of the current world, such as systems thinking. 

To start, we want to delve into a relatively new but currently trendy thinking concept–design thinking. 

What is design thinking? 

Design thinking is technically a specific approach to thinking (although it could also be seen as a process) that is meant to get teams to think more creatively and outside the box. It’s a highly creative process whose goal is to produce something new at the end–a new process, idea, design, etc. 

The steps in this way of thinking get teams to ask questions and question assumptions, to research and experiment, and to brainstorm as many ideas as possible in order to find the best path forward.

Like many frameworks for effective teams, design thinking is a product of its time. The PDCA cycle was developed based on manufacturing methods in the 1950s, Belbin’s team role model was inspired by the growth of large corporations, and Lean Six Sigma was derived from the lean supply chains of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Design thinking takes as its basis the ideas of UX (user experience) design, which has become increasingly important with the growth of technology and online interfaces, especially smartphone apps. It’s extremely important that customers can easily use these apps and be guided through increasingly complex online interactions and transactions smoothly–hence why designing a good “user experience” is so critical. 

What makes design thinking different?

So what’s interesting about design thinking is that it involves listening and understanding. UX designers need to understand their customers and listen to their needs. In other words, they need to empathize with them. 

Another aspect of design thinking that is somewhat different is its focus on asking questions and challenging assumptions, since UX design always needs to be breaking the mold and coming up with easier and smoother design possibilities. Even while other team building models acknowledge the importance of asking questions and coming up with new ideas, it isn’t as emphasized explicitly as it is with design thinking. 

In design thinking there’s also a term called a wicked problem, which means a problem that has many interdependent causes that seems impossible to solve. Instead of focusing on the difficulty of the task though, or the complexity of the issue and its causes, design thinking proposes reframing these wicked problems as problem statements that are trying to address a specific human-centered need. In other words, you create a goal or question to answer, instead of keeping the issue as an unresolvable problem. 

Finally, there’s a degree of openness to repeated experimentation that is also refreshing. It’s true that other team building models are iterative and expect teams to repeat the process and try new things. But design thinking takes experimentation a step further by linking it to the brainstorming process and really encouraging teams to experiment with as many ideas as possible, even if they don’t work. In this sense design thinking is highly similar to team building, where failure isn’t looked down upon because it has lessons to teach. 

It’s these three features–empathy, challenging assumptions, and experimentation–that also make design thinking particularly useful for teams and team building. When turned inwards, design thinking can help teams find better ways of understanding each other and individual needs, as well as push the team to come up with better and more creative ideas through communication (dialoguing) and brainstorming.  

The five stages of design thinking 

So now let’s look at what the design thinking model actually says about what teams should do. There are five stages in the design thinking framework: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

However, it’s important to point out that these stages do not necessarily need to be done sequentially or in order. The idea is that teams move freely between any of these stages depending on the project that they are working on and the experimentation that they are taking. 

The freeflow nature of the design thinking model thus reinforces the importance of teams thinking outside the box and not necessarily following the “obvious path”. But for the sake of explaining each stage, let’s look at design thinking in the following order:

1. Empathize (Research)

In the empathizing phase, teams are gathering information and trying to understand how people around you are thinking and feeling, even if there isn’t a defined problem yet. Basically, this is the same as gathering research, but with a twist. Teams shouldn’t just be looking over data and numbers, but also listening to clients, customers and other team members as well.

This is an important step because it’s really about raising your antenna and “tuning in” more than actively searching for something that you think is an issue. Your team is trying to read the room and gauge what might be coming down the line. Therefore, it’s more about listening and understanding people (using that emotional intelligence that we talked about) than anything else.

2. Define

It’s only once you and your team do enough empathizing and absorbing how others around you are feeling and thinking that your team can then begin to actually define the problem that you need to work on (although you can, and probably should return to the empathize stage whenever you can). 

As we mentioned above, the way to define the problem is by creating problem statements that turn problems into statements and then questions that can be answered or goals that can be achieved. Problem statements use points of view that are human-centered and action-oriented, so they maintain a basis in shared reality and keep the goals from being too abstract. 

For example, if your team is having trouble communicating openly during meetings, you could state “Our team needs to create a work environment where more people share their opinions.” From that, your question could be “How do we create an environment that is more open to sharing?” This paves the way for the next phase, which is generating ideas.

3. Ideate 

The ideation phase is when you get to work thinking of new ideas. The way to do this according to design theory is through one of the most creative processes out there–brainstorming. Brainstorming is all about thinking up lots of different ideas and making as many connections as possible, usually as a team. 

Within the ideation process, design thinking focuses on two concepts that are equally important: emergence and articulation. Emergence is the dialogue where the ideas are formed–conversations with coworkers in a brainstorming session, a rapid fire session of word association, etc. It’s the building off of each other’s thoughts.

Articulation is about posing questions and challenging assumptions. This is another way that brainstorming sessions can be conducted, through questions that are targeted to get team members to think differently. Articulation is also a way to start turning thinking through specific ways to look at solving the problem you defined earlier.

4. Prototype 

In this phase, teams take the ideas that emerged from the ideation phase and start to create “prototypes”. In other words, they see what ideas are workable and strat to outline them or create models for implementing them.

In this stage, your team is working to see what ideas are the best solutions to your problems. You can choose multiple ideas to prototype, but remember that your team may have limited time and energy to test all of them. You can always return to your brainstorming ideas again and look for new prototypes as well.

Prototyping, according to design thinking, should be rough and scrappy. When implementing a new idea, it’s important to give people a taste of it first–so that they imagine what it will be like. This is called pre-experience. So even if your prototype isn’t fully fleshed out, that’s a good thing, because then you can rework it easily based on the results of your tests  

5. Test

In the “last” phase of design thinking, teams take their prototype or modeled idea and test it. This is also known as the experimentation phase, and this word is important to use because there is no real “failure”. Even if your prototype fails, you still learn what does and doesn’t work, and the results will lead you to try other ideas.

Related to the testing phase is the concept of learning in action. Basically, you learn only when you try your ideas out in the real world. This is how you grow and become stronger. And as we said, you can always go back to another phase and start again, now with more knowledge and understanding. So there really is no failure, only the process of developing better ideas.


The above was a general overview of design thinking. There’s a lot more to say about it, which we will be exploring in future blog posts. For now though, it should be pretty clear that design thinking and team building (like the kind we do at Invite Japan) are very much in line. Design thinking, like team building, emphasizes creativity, thinking outside the box, asking questions, challenging assumptions, empathizing with others, and not being afraid to fail. 

Design thinking should be something your team considers adopting, if only for brainstorming new ways of doing things and inspiring creativity on your team. But even if your team is not necessarily involved in creative endeavors, they can still benefit from many of the ideas presented. All teams need to be a little creative and generate new ideas, and design thinking has the benefit of helping teams accomplish this through practical and implementable steps. 

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