What is design thinking?

Design thinking is both an approach to innovation and change as well as a methodology for problem solving that leads to implementable solutions. Design appears to have emerged from the arts, from crafts, from architecture, and as the industrial revolution gained steam, the design process began to evolve into identifiable stages. Yet, historians and design theorists have attempted to trace the origins of design thinking with little conclusion. Whether it be the fine arts, the natural sciences, engineering, or the social sciences, “design eludes reduction and remains a surprisingly flexible activity” (as Buchanan opens Wicked Problems in Design Thinking). At the most basic level, there are three distinct stages to the design process – define the problem, explore (cycling between creating and refining), and implement the preferred solution.

Applying design thinking to strategy crafting requires four stages in the design process. These four distinct but highly interdependent stages provide a sound foundation for a large variety of possible planning tools and experiences. Each phase has a specific set of outcomes and goals and these outputs serve as important inputs to the next stage of the process.

  1. During the initial design of the strategy crafting process, key effort ensures that the entire process will meet expectations and take the appropriate amount of time, resources, and engagement. Tools are selected to address important questions and deliver the necessary outcomes.
  2. The paired processes of divergence and convergence are all about exploring opportunities and creating choices then sifting and filtering through the possibilities to craft the best strategies for the future. Divergence employs a variety of creativity and innovation methods to generate a large number of choices.
  3. Convergence has the primary goal of making choices from the large variety of opportunities created during divergence. Here filtering, selecting, and testing ideas is critical. Early concepts of the strategies begin to form.
  4. During the final alignment stage, the strategies and corresponding strategic documents are produced and carefully aligned with the resources and capacities available to successfully execute.

Image of the What is design thinking process

Adapted from A Designer’s Approach to Strategy Crafting by Robert Brodnick

Looking more closely at the process, the image below adds guiding questions and hopeful outcomes in steps along the top of the diagram, and potential tools and considerations in corresponding steps along the bottom of the diagram. The four stages are shown in orange. The image shows a broadening set of possibilities as the triangle widens through divergence and then a narrowing set of opportunities and big ideas as the final strategies are crafted.

Image of the What is design thinking process