Why Executives Should Learn Design Thinking

Design thinking is more than just colored pencils and Post-its. Here’s a primer on how it fits into executive education.


Design thinking is a problem-solving strategy that encourages the use of imagination, intuition and systemic reasoning to explore new possibilities for solutions.

It’s also a lot more fun than a traditional brainstorming session, said Liz Glaser, director of integrated talent management for e-commerce solutions company Pitney Bowes; she teaches design thinking in its Early in Career high performers program.

In these workshops — and in many design thinking courses — participants are likely to find piles of colored pencils, play dough, toys and white boards covered in colorful drawings, and they are encouraged to use them all for inspiration. “Giving people the ability to be creative is how you find answers,” Glaser explained. “It’s a lot less confining than a traditional learning environment.”

Learn with Toys

Sham Desai, director of telesales and digital linkage at Pitney Bowes, completed the EIC course last year. He said at first he was surprised by the toys and coloring tools, but he later found them to surprisingly helpful. “A three-day course can be grueling, but having something simple to play with frees your mind to pay attention,” he explained. He has since applied the philosophy to his own team, providing them with colored pencils and pads of paper at every meeting. “It helps them stay engaged.”

A lot of the reasoning behind using these seemingly childish tools has to do with giving people permission to work visually and collaboratively without a predefined outcome, said Shelley Evenson, San Francisco-based managing director of organizational evolution at Fjord, a design and innovation consultancy acquired by Accenture in 2013. “When people are having fun, they think more broadly about solutions, which gets ideas flowing.”

Of course, design thinking is more than just fun and games. It is a scientifically tested approach to problem solving that brings together three core elements that are critical to innovation: business needs, technological possibilities and the human element, Evenson said. Her team is dedicated to teaching Accenture employees and clients how to master design thinking.

Combining all three facets — business, technology and human — is how you avoid coming up with innovations that only solve part of a problem, she said. “United Airlines is a great example. They had a solution (removing paying customers to accommodate traveling employees) that ignored the human need.”

Learn by Doing

It’s also helpful when learning occurs within the context of business needs, which is why Evenson’s team is more likely to participate in workshops and team meetings, where participants are trying to solve real-world problems, rather than hosting stand-alone learning sessions. “We want to foster learning by doing, and that happens naturally when teams are already working together on a goal,” she said. “We speed the process by embedding people onto these teams who know how to apply design thinking.”

While most of these design thinking workshops happen in face-to-face environments, it can be done with online technology — as long as there is a collaboration component, Evenson explained. “Design thinking is a team sport, so learning how to do it alone online isn’t likely.”

She points to a recent workshop with the Accenture HR team to envision how the group would enable a new performance achievement culture; it’s a dramatic shift in how the company provides career planning and feedback. To wrap their minds around how the new system would work across the global company, which has almost 400,000 employees, the group designed a blueprint.

The blueprint featured all of the dependent business units, technology systems and people involved in the performance achievement process to identify touchpoints and sketch out how they would integrate these otherwise siloed groups. “They had never been able to visualize it before,” Evenson said. “Now they have that blueprint in their limbic systems, and they can picture it every time they make a decision.”

Further, teaching employees design thinking in the context of a single project doesn’t just solve that one identified problem or project goal. By giving employees the tools to think more creatively, and guiding them on how they can immediately apply them on the job, those skills become embedded into the work flow, said Bryan Mattimore, co-founder for The Growth Engine Co., an innovation agency in Norwalk, Connecticut. “Once they see how it works, it spreads like a beneficial virus to the rest of the team.”

Text: Sarah Fister Gale

This article was first published in Chief Learning Officer magazine.

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