Design thinking is all about empowerment and unleashing potential

Design thinking has been around for a while now. I have been practicing it for almost ten years now. All innovations follow the Gartner Hype Cycle and that shows us that the interest in design thinking is waning. There are other ways of working that are related to design thinking like service design, design sprints, and different forms of Agile. All these things have their ups and downs when it comes to popularity. All these things have their benefits and pitfalls. What I like about all these new ways of working is that they allow us to create a different space. It’s a space in which we have tools to empower people, to tap into their unused potential, to make the quiet people heard, to truly co-create solutions, to create a platform for all stakeholders to come together. And that is what the future should look like.

Brilliant piece of engineering

When I first came into contact with the Design Sprint method as written down by Jake Knapp when he worked at Google Ventures, I immediately wanted to try this. I had been using Design Thinking and Agile ways of working for a while and the Design Sprint method seemed to be the high octane, high speed version of this. I was intrigued. I managed to convince a client to do a whole week, the full monty Design Sprint. From idea to a validated solution in just five days. Normally this would take months. It worked. The method works. The method is a work of art. It is a brilliant piece of engineering from the guys and girls at Google Ventures. The genius of this method for me lies in the fact that they researched what limits creativity in regular design processes and fixed that. The genius lies in unleashing human potential.

In a regular design process, the designer is the creative person and the other stakeholders just provide input and validation. Creativity is boxed in. In the Design Sprint, everyone is a designer. The Design Sprint method is built on the premise that people are more creative than they think. This is also the basic thought behind the whole Design Thinking philosophy if you ask me. Everyone is creative in elementary school and most people stop thinking of themselves as creative when they enter high school and after that. There is all kinds of programmed conditioning around creativity that makes people believe they are not creative and that only people who went to art school are creative. But there is a huge potential of untapped creativity if we change the framing around creativity and provide people with the tools to create. You don’t need expensive design software or a fancy design degree to create. You just need a pencil or tools that most people have like Powerpoint. There are so many myths around design that can be debunked and when we lift those limiting thoughts, creative potential is unlocked. And when people create things, their perspective shifts and new ideas spawn. This is so beautiful to see. To me, the unlocking of creativity, of potential is the most beautiful thing.

Another big limiting thought about creativity and design is that it needs to look perfect. Design is a process and it’s messy. If you aim for perfection and beauty, this takes away from the ideation part of design. Beauty is a powerful ally and things will probably have to look nice eventually, but on the road to that point, if you don’t worry about it, letting go of the idea of perfection helps to relax and makes it easier for people to get into it.

“Perfection is a distraction — another shiny object taking your attention away from your real priorities.” — Jake Knapp

One of the most limiting things in a creative process is that some people are louder and say more things than other people. There is usually some hierarchy. And some people are more extrovert and some more introvert. In this world, the extroverted people with authority have the loudest voices but certainly not always the best ideas. What the Design Sprint method does brilliantly is that there are a number of mechanisms built in that give the silent, shy, introverted people an equal voice. Everyone gets to design a solution so everyone gets seen. And in the so-called Ask The Expert exercise, every person get an equal amount of speaking time. And a good facilitator also makes sure that everyone gets heard of course but the Design Sprint method makes this much easier. Everyone is treated equal. That is such a breath of fresh air compared to lots of processes where not everyone gets heard and not everyone feels free to speak their mind.

“Nobody knows everything, not even the CEO. Instead, the information is distributed asymmetrically across the team and across the company.” — Jake Knapp

There are other brilliant mechanism built into the Design Sprint method like time boxing but the empowerment of people by reframing creativity and the equal treatment of all stakeholders is so the best part.

The safe space of a retrospective

To me, the Agile ways of working are also about equality and co-creation, about empowerment and unleashing potential. One of the powerful elements of this is the retrospective. In most agile ways of working, there is some form of retrospective. The way I see it, a retrospective is a safe space where everyone can express their views. So it is open. It’s also constructive. Because the goal is improvement of the process, all criticism is constructively examined to see how this can be addressed. And not just criticism is given, participants also have to think of ways to address the things that didn’t go so well. And, because retrospectives are meetings that are done at regular intervals, there is not the pressure to fix everything at once and improvement ideas can be tested and adjusted in the next iteration. There is also space to identify the things that go well so there is a nice mix of positive and negative.

“A retrospective is a meeting where a team examines how it’s working together with the goal of improving their future collaborations.” — Miro

Hold the space

If your mission is (like me) to unleash creativity, empower people, and tap into untapped potential to arrive at creative and effective solutions, these things help enormously. For potential to be unleashed, we need to create a safe space, to lift limiting thoughts and to let people experience that they can do more than they think. Design Thinking, the Design Sprint, Agile, all these things hold a core of safety, equality, creativity, potential, but also effectiveness and efficiency. They tap into the human psychology. They offer us tools to unleash potential. They can help us create a totally different mental model and space. That is the beauty.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you clap for this essay, I will know I connected with you. I will dive deeper into the topics around Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also subscribe to an email service here on Medium which will drop new essays right into your inbox. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at :) You can also find me on Instagram. When I am not blogging about Design Leadership, I work as a design strategist and project manager at Zuiderlicht.



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Dennis Hambeukers

Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner