How to become a design thinking advocate (Part 1)

Begin with yourself. Focus on doing.

It’s not easy to start something new — and even harder to stick with it. In this 3-part series on how to become a design thinking advocate, our designer Stanley Lai shares some practical tips: from getting started, to habit-forming techniques, to teaching others.

Interested in getting started as an advocate for design thinking?

That probably means you’ve heard about the emerging popularity and democratization of design — the appropriation of the processes, mindsets and techniques that designers have long used in their work, adapted to broader innovation and less-traditional applications across a wide range of industries. When design methods become the heart of a business, it inevitably transforms its operations, its people and the way they work together in building products and services. And it’s proven to be a huge competitive advantage.

Granted, transforming an entire business seems like a tall order. So where to begin?

Don’t wait for permission, and don’t feel like you have to ask for it either.

The simple answer I think, is this: Begin with yourself and just start doing it! Starting anything new can be a bit daunting at first. Often we’re worried that we’re “not doing it right”. Or that we ultimately won’t succeed and we’re wasting our time.

If you find yourself paralyzed with similar thoughts, I’ve been there as well! Here is what has worked for me:

  • Leave room for failure. Don’t expect yourself to be a master of design thinking from the get-go. It’s completely normal to fumble, flounder and fail when we’re learning something new.
  • Taking the first little steps is important enough. It’s all you need to do to get started.
  • Don’t wait for permission, and don’t feel like you have to ask for it either. Design thinking is something I find easier to show rather than tell.

When you’re ready to utilize design thinking methods, start by considering how you can apply them to the problems you’re solving today: Where do you have the liberty to independently explore a problem or solution? How could you hear from and get inspired by stakeholders and users? How might you leverage divergent and convergent thinking?

Most design thinking activities are easy and playful, which means they are a ton of fun as well. By simply focusing on “the doing”, you allow the outcomes, benefits and distinction of the design-driven approach to be more easily understood by leadership, teammates and clients.

I’m a huge fan of THNK and IDEO, who have generously shared some of their most popular tools and methods for everyone to use. Here are some quick, easy and fun ones to get started with, either alone or with a partner:

Five Whys | Empathy and understanding people is at the heart of design thinking. Five Whys is a simple tool to develop deeper insight and understanding into someone else’s experience and motivations.

Conversation Starters | This is a fun way to do some ideation with a partner, stakeholder or someone who will be using your solution. The more absurd your Conversation Starters, the more fun (and useful!) they become.

Reframing | Especially when faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge early in the design process, it is always helpful to shift our perspective and see things in a new light. Reframing helps you to “think differently” and see opportunities where you might miss them otherwise.

Neue Kombinationen | Are you trying to explore solutions, but you keep getting stuck? This tool randomly throws out sets of keywords that you can use as the foundation for your solution. Do a few rounds of this in rapid succession, and it might just help break you out of your rut. It sounds ridiculous — at least it did to me in the beginning, but it does work!

Value Proposition Canvas | When you have finally landed on a possible solution, the Value Proposition Canvas is a great way to evaluate key insights of your audience and how they line up with your proposed solution.

While these individual activities can be lots of fun, the real magic of design thinking happens when the various activities are strung together into a single purposeful process. What we want to do is:

  • develop deep empathy and insight into our users and stakeholders
  • allow us to be inspired by their experiences, and then…
  • apply deliberate divergent and convergent ideation towards our solution.

In Part 2 of our series, we will explore in more detail what the design thinking process can look like and what you should be paying attention to as you flex new muscles and focus on the doing.