Design thinking

CarleyDesign, Innovation, Philosophy

Why you should consider applying design thinking within your organization.

Today, as people and organizations, we are faced with complex problems that we cannot answer as individuals. These are problems with many interdependent factors that make them seem impossible to solve. Just think of issues within education, health care and welfare or problems such as epidemics, the poverty gap ... These complex problems are called wicked problems. The term wicked problem was first used by Horst Rittel, design theorist and professor of design methodology at the Ulm School of Design, Germany. Rittel defines a wicked problem as follows: a social or cultural issue or concern that seems difficult to explain and inherently impossible to solve. In the paper "Dilemmas in a General Planning Theory" he describes ten characteristics of wicked problems:

  1. There is no definitive formula for a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule, as in there is no way to know that your solution is final.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are neither true nor false; they can only be good or bad.
  4. There is no immediate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems have no fixed number of possible solutions.
  7. Each wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Each wicked problem can be viewed as a symptom of another problem.
  9. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem because the explanations vary greatly depending on the individual perspective.
  10. Planners/designers have no right to be wrong and must be fully accountable for their actions.

These are often situations that we cannot avoid and that directly or indirectly affect us. The problems are often linked to each other, very complex or simply too big to solve directly. When we, as an organization, are confronted with such a problem we try to deal with it quickly. Yet many struggle to solve these problems in a correct manner, there is resistance from employees, the environment does not cooperate, the desired result is not achieved, etc. The reason is that the various facets of the problem are often incomplete, evolving, and difficult to define. Therefore solving wicked problems requires a deep understanding of the stakeholders involved, and an innovative approach that is provided by the design thinking method. With this method, instead of focusing on developing an object, you start to zoom out and include the system with its sub facets around the problem in development as well. Design theorist and academic Richard Buchanan linked design thinking to wicked problems in his 1992 paper "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking". The iterative process of design thinking is extremely useful in addressing these complex problems. You can formulate the problem in a human-centered way, create many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and take a hands-on approach to prototyping and testing.

Let's have a look at an example. Meet Sam who works in organization A and Alex who works in organization B. We'll assume for a moment that organization A has not yet implemented the design thinking method. And that organization B took a training and is fluent in the basic principles. Both organizations are confronted with the following situation: a transition is made to set up a more sustainable policy. Organization A appoints Sam as transition manager to shape the policy within the organization. Sam gets to work on this assignment and conducts a literature review on what the possibilities are. Sam eventually drafts a proposal and presents it to management. They give their feedback and the necessary adjustments are made. After approval, the policy is implemented within the organization. But against Sam and management's expectations, the employees turn against the adjustments. The processes in the production hall were changed without the participation of the employees which results in inefficiency and ignorance.

Organization B takes a different approach, appointing a multidisciplinary team with employees from different departments, some experts in the field of sustainability and a panel of residents from the neighbourhood. Alex is the project lead. Organization B also conducts research but with a focus on the user. They take an empathetic approach by conducting interviews to discover the needs of the organization, they do field research and visit some befriended organizations that have already gone through a transition. After having defined some challenges, Alex organizes a brainstorming session with the multidisciplinary team. Five concepts are selected and these are tested in a simple way after which the necessary adjustments are made. There is close cooperation with both management and other employees. The process of testing and adjusting is done several times until everyone agrees with the outcome. Because all users were involved throughout the process and problems were identified early through the testing, Sam achieved a successful outcome.


From the example, we learned that Design Thinking can provide benefits to address these complex problems. British research has shown that companies that invest in design thinking are 25% more likely to introduce innovations. The design thinking method is all about understanding the people for whom a product or service is being developed. It is a mindset that needs to be introduced within the organization and supported by everyone. The basic principles are as follows:

  • Iterative: You have the freedom to experiment. Making mistakes is human and also very informative. The design thinking process is flexible and will be done several times with the concepts being adjusted each time. This principle shows that design thinking is a perfect fit for tackling unpredictable wicked problems.
  • Efficiency: Because you test early, you will be able to detect and eliminate problems in an early phase. You won't be faced with unfinished business at the end of development.
  • Human-centred: You empathize with your user from the start. This is a method in which the wishes and needs of the end user are central. In many companies, design thinking is mainly used to create products or services that better meet the wishes and needs of the customer.
  • Multidisciplinary: You work together with various disciplines: HR, management functions, production staff, etc. but also with residents, neighbors, experts and others. By taking different opinions into account you can come up with innovative developments.
  • Co-creative: It's not just one person's turn. All stakeholders work (inter)actively together. Together you will come up with many ideas, select and test concepts with potential.

The design thinking method has many advantages but there are also some pitfalls to consider. Designers often have to study for several years to master this method. It is a way of thinking that you have to learn and that you cannot implement from one day to the other. Therefore, for some, this method can feel abstract and will require hands-on tools and examples. Another pitfall is the participatory part. Involving different groups and giving them a say can create false expectations at times. It is impossible to always go on with all the ideas. So, experience in setting up co-creative processes with multidisciplinary groups is also a must to apply this method well. If, after reading this blog, you have acquired a taste for it and would like to explore it further, we can recommend the following literature, videos and books:

We'd love to hear your take on design thinking and how you deal with wicked problems! How do you experience this within your organization? Are you already applying the design thinking method? Possibly we can learn from each other, we can support you with expertise and training and together we can innovate and try to bring structure in the complexity.
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