Design Thinking ≠ Innovation

Design thinking does not guarantee innovation.

It’s a process structured to get you thinking in a different way; to get your siloed teams to think differently together; to focus on your customer or whatever human you’re serving with your product/service; to get you out of your stale comfort zone; to get a fresh perspective on your business; to put existing parts of your business into new strategic combinations.  

All that may result in innovation, but only when you put down the resources and commit to bringing your validated ideas to market. That requires lots of hard work by multiple teams in your organization. That’s innovation.

And yet, what Design Thinking does guarantee is a path to innovation; the first few well-travelled bricks on the yellow brick road in the right direction. It’s a guaranteed way to connect you to your customers (or whoever your product/service serves). And, it’s definitely a tool to rewire your brain and your company’s DNA in the process to become more human-centered in your decisions.

Viewing the method of Design Thinking as one that guarantees innovation will leave you disappointed. You’ll miss the journey in the way to your destination. And, the journey here matters a lot.  

Invention ≠ Innovation

We use a lot of words interchangeably in conversations. If we use something long enough to stand-in for something else, and if the difference is subtle enough, eventually people will come to accept the interchangeable meaning.

In recent conversations, I noticed people use innovation to mean coming up with new ideas. We “innovate” to come up with new products or services. “Innovation” changed the industry. In almost every thesaurus these two words (innovation & invention) are listed as synonyms. But, there is a subtle difference.

Invention is a leap of faith. It represents a unique idea so different from anything else that even the Patent Office agrees it’s yours. Innovation, on the other hand, is the process of bringing your invention to market with the goal of changing human behavior to lead to mass adoption.

The telephone is an invention. Your use of the telephone every day to call your grandma - instead of sending a letter - is innovation. The iPhone as a device is an invention. Your addiction to it on a daily basis is innovation.

The difference between invention and innovation is the degree to which human behavior changes. It’s the difference between a new “thing” and how much that new “thing” affects the people around you. In startup land, this is the idea vs. effective execution.

This subtle distinction makes a huge impact in world of UX, CX, Service Design, and Design Thinking.

Clients want earth-shattering, new, and shiny ideas that will give their products or services a “competitive edge.” That’s invention. The smart ones come looking for strategic ways to change human behavior through iterative, human-centered, incremental trial & error processes. That’s innovation.

How Long Does It Take to Get Started with a Design Thinking Partner

You’ve done your research, and you know the best way to generate and test ideas for innovation is to take the human-centric approach Design Thinking brings. You’re ready to find the best Design Thinking partner for your team, but before you can secure the necessary resources you need to answer one key question for yourself and for your management team:

How long will it take to bring on a Design Thinking partner and get the work started?

As with many design based questions the short answer is “it depends”. As many of you are aware, there are often multiple moving parts which need to align when trying to get any effort started. With so many different variables to keep in mind, it’s impossible for us to give you a concrete answer that will apply to all scenarios.

Instead, we’ve examined the stages (and overall timing) our clients go through when trying to secure a Design Thinking partner. Typically, these are:

  1. Research: There is a lot happening in this stage. You are taking all the actions necessary to find potential partners (searching online, reaching out to your network, etc), and you’re also considering what criteria the potential partner will need to succeed when working with your team. In addition, you’re starting to gather information you’ll need to secure management buy-in, finalizing the details of the internal team who will work on the project, and defining high-impact project constraints.

  2. Outreach: At this point you’ve found several potential partners to follow up with and interview. While evaluating these partners against the criteria you set in the Research stage, you’re also communicating project status with your management and internal teams while further defining project goals & success factors.

  3. Partner Secured: Now it’s time to check potential partner references, introduce candidates to management and the internal team they’ll be working with, get the legal contracts together,  and negotiate and sign the papers.

  4. Onboarding: The contracts are signed and the team is sold, you now need to download any company and industry information to your new Design Thinking partners. This is also a heavy logistics phase. You’ll need to secure meeting space, travel, and gather workshop materials.

  5. Project Kickoff: Finally, it’s time to get started! All the resources are in place and the teams are ready to go. As you ensure the teams understand the process, you plan on being heavily involved and continuing to update your management along the way.

Depending on many factors (the speed of securing internal resources, the number of players who are involved, any other company politics at play) we’ve seen this process take a minimum 3 months and sometimes last for a year or more.

So, the question remains: how can you make the process more efficient?

You can’t control others. What you can do is be as prepared and informed as possible, and take action in the above stages wherever you do have control. Here’s a list of steps we’ve seen others take to speed up the start of a Design Thinking sprint:

  1. Research and learn more about Choosing a Great Design Thinking Partner. Doing this can help make your research and outreach phases much more effective.

  2. Learn more about Selling Design Thinking to Management in order to gather the proper information and have it ready when the time comes.

  3. Figure out who from your organization should be included and start reaching out to them as early as possible. This can help decrease internal team on-boarding time.

By taking control of the areas you have influence over you tip the scales in your favor in regards to lessening the time it takes to get started with a Design Thinking Partner. You won’t be able to change everything and everyone, but you will be able to better set yourself and your team up for success.

We’d like to hear from you!

What’s been your experience in hiring a Design Thinking partner? Was the process you went through different? Are there steps or insights we didn’t mention hear that you think are important? Please let us know in the comments!

Selling Design Thinking To Management: Metrics to include in your pitch.

In selling the idea of Design Thinking to management, it’s often helpful to back it up with some research. However, as Jeanne Liedtka points out in Exploring The Impact of Design Thinking in Action, “rigorous academic research in scholarly management journals on the impact of the methodology on organizational outcomes remains scant, though anecdotal data is plentiful concerning its ability to improve outcomes when innovation is the goal.” 

Forrester recently did a comprehensive study of the impact of Design Thinking at IBM. We’ve found that the “numbers-heavy” results are useful in getting reluctant management teams on board. Here’s a summary:  

1. Project teams doubled design and execution speed with IBM Design Thinking. Profits from faster releases combined with reduced design, development, and maintenance costs to deliver $678K per minor project and $3.2M per major project, for $20.6M in total value. 

  • Organizations slashed the time required for initial design and alignment by 75%. The model demonstrates cost savings of $196K per minor project and $872K per major project.

  • Project teams leveraged better designs and user understanding to reduce development and testing time by at 33% This equates to cost savings of $223K per minor project and $1.1M per major project.

  • IBM’s Design Thinking practice helped projects cut design defects in half. Projects were more successful in meeting user needs, thereby reducing design defects and subsequent rework to save $77K per minor project and $153K per major project.

  • Faster time-to-market enabled increased profits from net- new customers and the higher present value of expected profits. Faster time-to-market increased profits by $182K per minor project and $1.1M per major project.

2. Human-centered design improved product outcomes, reduced the risk of costly failures, and increased portfolio profitability. Refined strategic prioritization enabled investments in solutions that were less likely to fail. Better design increased average product profits. IBM helped expand design thinking at the organization over three years to penetrate one quarter of the entire portfolio, enabling $18.6M in increased profits.

3. Cross-functional teams collaborated to share problems and find solutions, reducing costs by $9.2M in streamlined processes. 

Additionally, data from sixty survey respondents provided the following notable insights: 

  • Improved collaboration and business strategy drove increased customer experience and sales, streamlined processes, and reduced project labor.

  • 72% of IBM clients utilize design thinking in most or all teams

  • 52% of survey respondents associated IBM with design thinking

Likewise, the study details benefits hard-to-quantify, yet clearly visible, benefits:

  • Encouraged an empowered, engaged, and happy workforce.

  • Perfected internal processes for HR, sales, and beyond.

  • Enhanced KPIs such as UI, UX, CX, NPS, and brand energy.

And, finally, since management folks always appreciate a cost-benefit discussion, the interviewed organizations experienced the following risk- adjusted costs: 

  • Internal labor and IBM fees for projects totaled $6.8M, driven by distinct costs of $159K per minor project and $1.5M per major project.

  • Transformation costs reached $5M in IBM resources and internal labor.

  • Training incurred costs of $218K in IBM facilitation and internal labor.

  • Forrester’s interviews with four existing IBM clients, data from 60 survey respondents, and subsequent financial analysis found that a composite organization based on these interviewed organizations experienced benefits of $48,360,958 over three years versus costs of $12,045,247 by engaging with IBM’s Design Thinking practice, adding up to a net present value (NPV) of $36,315,711 and an ROI of 301%.

And, the of course, there is the Design Value Index (DVI), an investment tool that shows companies that integrate design thinking into corporate strategy can outpace industry peers by as much as 228%.

We’d like to hear from you!

What’s been your experience in getting management on board with Design Thinking? Are there steps or insights we didn’t mention hear that you think are important? Please let us know in the comments!

Selling Design Thinking to Management: What worked for us

Getting executives on board with design thinking can be an exercise in patience. 

Think of it as teaching a class. How would you explain to a classroom full of five year olds what design thinking is and how it can help them get more chocolate? More importantly, why this method over something else?

For starters, we like using this Venn Diagram to explain how Design Thinking fits into the larger picture of innovation in an organizations. It’s vital for management to see that you’re thinking bigger picture. 

As you narrow down to details, it’s helpful to break down the mystic barrier of Design Thinking into practical steps. There is no shortage of beautiful visuals out for you to use (here's an example). The process has its variations, but the general framework is fairly constant. 

That takes care of the what & how. 

The lynchpin is the why. Why do they need to pay attention to this method over their current mode of problem solving? In other words, what’s the benefit? 

Here are a few benefits of design thinking we've seen resonate: 

  • increase in revenue over time as products & services ideas are deeply rooted in customers’ actual (vs. speculative) needs

  • reduction in costs over time as validated product ideas are likelier to be more profitable

  • cross-functional ideation as a key component of the method brings about better ideas, eliminating homogenous group-think

  • application beyond R&D; any team can use this process to solve business (and even life) challenges and/or as team-building sessions.

  • Design Thinking improves organizational innovation outcomes by producing higher quality solutions

  • Design Thinking improves innovation outcomes by reducing the risk/visibility of failure

  • Design Thinking improves outcomes by improving the likelihood of implementation

  • Design Thinking impacts innovation outcomes by improving adaptability

  • Design Thinking impacts innovation outcomes by the creation of local capability sets

  • Design Thinking and co-creation isn’t a fad, but rather a new way for all problem solvers to put the user at the center of a problem to develop solutions from the outside in rather than the inside out.

We’ve also found it helpful to keep a regular schedule of updates flowing up the ladder for continuous buy-in. Updating executives on progress, letting them listen or view recorded user sessions is one of the most effective ways to get support. 

Selling Design Thinking to Management

“Design Thinking’ what? I can’t draw.” 

If you’ve ever tried explaining design thinking to executives, you’ve probably heard some version of this. 

Drawing abilities aside, in some ways “design thinking” is a misnomer. Although the method was born in the design world, it has long ago ceased to be the “designers” domain. And, while a lot of the tools embedded in the design thinking process come from the design world, the process itself is fundamentally a way to develop products and services in a customer-centric way. 

Yet, Here’s what usually happens today: an executive says, “wouldn’t be interesting if……?” His direct reports rummage through reams of data in expensive industry reports, or some such quantitative data source. They come back with a nice powerpoint presentation about why the idea will work (or not). Decisions get made.

Where’s the customer in all this? 

The outcome of applying design thinking has been proven through different case studies from various company sizes and industries such as Apple, Microsoft, IBM, IKEA, AirBnB, Starbucks, and others. Design thinking supplements existing quantitative methods with a qualitative approach of focused on identifying customer needs. Design thinking practitioners use data from customer conversations & observations to create validated products & services that fulfill today’s needs, anticipate future needs, and delight every day. 

No expensive industry reports required. 

Design Thinking IRL: The education initiative

You’ve probably heard that our education system may or may not prepare future leaders, mainly because it may or may not prepare our kids for real life. This is an unsettling thought, not only to parents, but also to businesses who will hire these students to solve organizational problems in the future.

Our education system, including the curriculum and school environment setup, has been EXACTLY the same (with only minor tweaks) for at least 50 years, if not more. But, the world has moved on, and so has problem solving in the real world. Yet, we don’t teach our kids how to problem solve with constraints, imperfect information, and focus on the people having the problem in the first place. More importantly, we don’t teach them to fail and learn.

And yet, some brave educators do. We’ve encountered several k-12 educators who are teaching the Design Thinking philosophy, methodology, & tools to their students. One of these brave souls is Rich Wiener, who leads the Ramsey High School Design Thinking class.

We spoke to Rich not long ago about his experience teaching Design Thinking to high school students, and how his class is preparing them for life outside the classroom.


DTL: How do you define design thinking? Why is it important? 

RW: I define design thinking as a process for creative problem solving. What’s particularly characteristic of design thinking is its emphasis on human-centered design and empathy. It’s oriented around understanding the user, empathizing with the user, and designing around the user’s needs. 

DTL: How did you first encounter design thinking as a methodology?

RW: I was drawn to it in 2013 because of an interview with David Kelley [of IDEO]. It particularly impacted me at the time because I was working on a project to define what it means to have 21st century skills in education.

I wanted to understand what the learning experience needs to be for preparing kids for this complex society. [Design Thinking] struck me as a possible solution to foster certain skills - creativity, innovation, complex/messy problem solving - that’s a real weakness in the K-12 school.

I’m also always concerned about the overemphasis on memorization of content, routine thinking, and socialization that educational institutions tend to emphasize. Design Thinking looked like a possible approach to setting up the conditions from an educational perspective that are necessary to promote 21st century skills.

DTL: How are you practicing Design Thinking in K-12? 

RW: After becoming more familiar with the methodology, we posed the question: what would happen if we dropped the Stanford D. School graduate course in design thinking into a high school?

We didn’t know how it would go, just given the students’ developmental level. There was also a question of: do we know enough about the dynamics of design thinking as instructors? It took about two years to train the teachers by sending them through various Design Thinking programs.

DTL: What is the structure of your K-12 Design Thinking program?

RW: So far, we’ve been through five sessions, with different real-world partnerships for each class.

We spend the first half of the semester training the students in Design Thinking, through a whole bunch of hands-on, practical exercises. And, then, they are partnered with a company for about three months to solve a real-life challenge using the Design Thinking methodology and tools to produce innovative solutions. 

DTL: Are there particular facets of design thinking that have helped your students most? 

RW: Fostering the mindset of creative confidence, or being comfortable with being uncomfortable. It teaches them to be fearless in putting their ideas out there for others to build on. 

Another one is failing forward, or being comfortable with making mistakes. In a K-12 system, this is really problematic. Students are programed to not want to fail in pursuit of that A-grade. That’s contrary, of course, to real creative, innovative thinking.

Design Thinking really forces the kids to experience what it feels like when you’re trying to produce new ideas, or see new relationships in the real world. This is really what creativity is all about.

DTL: How do you measure the impact of your design thinking program on your students?

RW: At the end of the day, our benchmark is: has their mindset shifted to embrace the unknown and accept failure as a learning experience?

We are constantly thinking about: can a student face failure and learn from it? Can a student tolerate the ambiguity of working through a really complicated problem with a real company? Can they handle not knowing where they’re going, afraid they’re not going to come up with an answer for that company, and not really understanding the problem along the way?

As you know, in design thinking, they’re going to have to reframe that problem based on customer needs. It's a really hard, yet extremely important thing.

DTL: Can you share some of the feedback you get from the students around their experience?

RW: We’ll often have students say to us that one of their biggest learnings was to be OK with uncomfortable ambiguity (as is often the case with problems in the real world).

Also, we have kids who say, “I’ve learned not to be held back by what I think is possible.” In the beginning the kids always look at a problem and they think, “I feel like quitting this class. I’ve been here two weeks, there’s no way we’re going to be able to solve this.” And then they learn, in the end, that they shouldn’t be held back by what they consider to be "possible”.

To me, that’s the kind of learning outcome I’m looking for.

DTL: How do you measure the impact of Design Thinking on the businesses you partner with?

RW: Ultimately, using Design Thinking, did the kids produce ideas/innovations that help the company or social organization solve their problem? In the end, we’re designers trying to solve a real problem.

With our K-12 program, I’ve received letters from these partnerships saying, “We didn’t have really high expectations of working with high school students, and we were very surprised that the team was able to produce great ideas using this approach." And, in a couple of cases, the kids actually solved some practical problems for these companies.

It makes me laugh as someone who has come to learn and believe in Design Thinking. When we start out in the practical portion of the course, you kind of hope that going through the Design Thinking steps you actually come up with good innovations. But, you’re always wondering in the beginning “Is it going to happen?”

DTL: As seasoned professionals, we wonder the same thing. Every time.

RW: Right?! We need a little magic and consistency. There’s a certain reality to this. A lot of failures and a lot of mediocre ideas have come up. But, there’s always been this collection of new, fresh ideas and insights that have produced this positive feedback for us. 

DTL: Collaborative design is a big part of Design Thinking. How does it play out in K-12?  

RW: In the K-12 system, there’s a difference between working in groups and real collaboration (or what we call "radical collaboration" in Design Thinking). To us, collaborating means you want your team member to succeed. Having that team member succeed is more important than worrying about, “Are my ideas good?” and, “Am I going to succeed?”  

So once we get that dynamic going, everybody feels a responsibility to help each other be their best creative designer. That’s when we have real collaboration.

In the end, the kids tell us that “Oh, we never had an experience like that. We never knew how to truly collaborate because we were basically playing out very linear tasks teachers give us, and these assignments have nothing to do with collaboration.”

DTL: Wow. So what are some examples of real-life projects the kids worked on? 

RW: Our students are often solving problems relevant to them. Schools tend to be so superficial, and the context is so content-memorization oriented that we really don’t confront or challenge our students enough with these authentic problems. In the K-12 system, we have really done a poor job of instituting these kind of programs.

One example would be solving for inclusion for LGBTQ+ in athletics. That was a really challenging, emotional topic. As the kids did their empathy interviews, they found a lot of diversity around people's beliefs around LGBTQ+.

With empathetic interviewing practice, the kids found that you have to establish a kind of belief system in your innovation process to cultivate that creative confidence, but also that you have a personal belief system that you need to constantly keep in mind. 

High school kids are very smart and insightful, and much less programmed than adults. The key is to unlock their ability to reflect on themselves and to understand insights associated with what they’re experiencing.

DTL: How has utilizing design thinking helped you in your own career? 

RW: On the professional side, educators are always looking for a vehicle that will be effective in developing cognitive and emotional growth. We also want the kids to feel social responsibility, and know how to take action. Most importantly, we want them to find a pathway to self-actualization.

That sounds kind of philosophical, but it’s really what it’s about. It’s about finding your voice and that pathway to who you are. So the point is, we’re always looking for these these instructional vehicles. Design Thinking, for me, is a really powerful pathway that I’ve come to embrace because I can see it’s made a difference in the students’ lives.

There are lots of models promoting high levels of cognition and creativity and innovation. But, Design Thinking is bringing out a level of understanding and insight that’s exactly what we’re looking for when we’re looking to promote “21st century higher level skills.”

DTL: How has utilizing design thinking helped you in your personal life? 

RW: Just like the kids, I’ve internalized the design thinking mindset as way to tolerate and embrace ambiguity. I use it in my own life as I deal with my own children when we run across complicated, messy problems.

For example, my daughter fell off track as a junior in high school with the SATs, final exams, boyfriend problems, etc., and she had this nervous breakdown recently. It’s a emotionally pretty intense for a parent.

So I find myself thinking, “Ok, how do you design yourself through this? How do you tolerate this ambiguity right now? How do I work with her and not be afraid that I might make the wrong decision?”

Whether professionally or personally, the Design Thinking mindset permeates my ability to be an effective parent, teacher, college professor and friend.


It’s always refreshing to take a step back from our day-to-day business consulting to see how Design Thinking is used in a different environment. Rich, and others, are getting real with what their students need to succeed in the real world. So should everyone else.

Design Thinking is not the only method of problem solving, but it’s a process to explore as an alternative to what’s currently in the school system. We are here to help. If you want to explore Design Thinking in your educational institution, let’s chat.

How are you teaching the kids to problem solve?

One Failure at a Time

Have you ever really, truly failed at something? What I mean to ask is, have you ever tried something hoping to get a result that you never even came close to attaining? How did you deal with this failure? Did you decide to let it define you, or did you choose to redefine it?

Recently, we've come up against one or two of these types of failures in our efforts to bring Design Thinking to a wider audience. We started to let this define our work, but then managed to catch ourselves. 

Instead of going down a path of fear, we decided upon a path of knowledge. We took a long, hard, and, most importantly, honest look at our failures. This honest view point (i.e. Admitting to ourselves that "We did not come close to succeeding here.) allowed us to ask WHY we failed, then alter our plans to try again.

It's a simple concept in theory, but one of those that can be extremely difficult to put into practice. Once we did put it into practice, however, that is when the successes started to unfold.

One failure at a time. Step by step. 

What If You Pushed Aside Doubt?

The ethos "There is no such thing as failure" is not new, but when was the last time you, or your team, actually practiced it?

Sure, embracing it too tightly can mean business demise, but what if you held on to the concept just a little?

What if the next time you had an ideation or design session you didn't allow doubt or potentiality of failure into the room just for that hour or so? What would you find?

Maybe nothing, or maybe something really amazing. [1, 2]

Why not try and find out?

1. Tsaousides, T. (2017, December 17). Why Fear of Failure Can Keep You Stuck. Retrieved from

2. Kalb, I. (2013, June 1). Could Fear of Failure Limit Your Success. Retrieved from

Don't Forget to Fail

Many a business person has been inspired by the story of Spanx founder, Sara Blakely [1]. After-all, she IS a self-made billionaire whose passion and perseverance have chiseled out one of the most successful businesses of our time. Who could deny being inspired by that?

Personally, I know many friends and colleagues who have worked to learn from and mimic her actions in an effort to foster their own business success (myself included). However, after reading a recent interview with Ms. Blakely [2], I realized there was one foundational milestone that many of us have been overlooking in this quest.


In the interview, Sara Blakely tells us that, "When I was growing up my father would ask me, 'What have you failed at this week?' His lesson was that trying was just as important as the outcome. Not trying something was failure."

The effect of this practice? Blakely tells us "It allowed me to be freer in trying things in life and to embrace failure as part of a growing process."; a mindset that allowed her to try to make a business out of pantyhose with the legs cut off, instead of stopping before she got started due to a fear of failure. 

I believe it is this mindset which is the cornerstone to all the other steps along her journey, yet so many of us overlook it. Instead, we define failure as an unfavorable outcome to some event, and look to avoid it at all costs.

Our main method of avoidance? Not trying at all.

The irony is that this avoidance tactic is not only not helpful, but it is the surest way to stifle any innovation.

1.  Wikipedia. Sara Blakely. Retrieved from

2. Schreiber, G. Sara Blakely: The Spanx Billionaire Who Thrived On Failure. Retrieved from