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If Design Thinking Is So Great, Why Aren't More Companies Using It?

Monday, October 29, 2018

If there was a method we could use to uncover the voice of employees, improve the learner experience, and drive business results, we’d use it. Right? Well, that method is design thinking, but most of us working in learning and development (L&D) aren’t fully adopting or embracing it. Why not?

Lack of Leadership Buy-In

First, the term “design thinking" has become a popular buzzword, which means it’s rather ambiguous, overused, and misapplied. As a result, leaders tend to question its integrity and viability. In addition, because of its origins, others assume design thinking is for creatives or product development. Most do not really understand what it is, why they should use it, or how to fully adopt and implement it.

Solution: Educate, Communicate, Share
The only way to transform the mindset of leaders is to demonstrate how design thinking can be applied in the context of L&D. Share use cases and success stories or highlight real-world examples of how design thinking can solve performance issues. You may ask yourself: What if I don’t have any case studies or success stories? Join a design thinking community of practice (or create one) to learn from other industry professionals. Better yet, try it out yourself with a small use case. Then, you’ll have your own story to share.

Here are some problem statements that you can ideate and prototype with your organization to get you started:

  • How might we give employees experiential ways to learn on their own?
  • How might we create a culture of curiosity and learning among professional workers?
  • How might we embed learning for an hourly workforce?
  • How might we provide training that doesn't take sales associates away from their job?


Stops at Theory

Most L&D professionals have at least read an article or watched a video on design thinking. The five phases of design thinking (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test) are straightforward, and to some degree, we’ve applied aspects of it to our work, such as conducted an audience analysis or attended a brainstorm session. Therefore, while we understand and have even implemented the basics, we really aren’t adopting the full method from end to end.

Solution: Get Out There and Practice
Assemble a workgroup and tackle something small. Instead of focusing on your learner population, try to focus on your team. Think low stakes. Go through some empathizing activities (such as create a persona or two), define an issue you want to address, and start ideating. You can get this far in a half-day meeting. Prototype some solutions and test away! Your goal at this point is to get through each of the five phases without stalling.


Recently, a design team identified an issue they were experiencing: how to improve internal collaboration. After ideating together and prototyping, they ended up creating a Yammer group that they post to each week to share one great idea. And guess what? It worked!

After you have finished your first application, try it again. But this time, go a little bigger. Include more people in your workgroup and go for an even tougher challenge—maybe one that includes learners.

Bottom Line

Design thinking can be applied to any line of business, any industry, and any person. The best way to implement design thinking is just that—apply it. We are here for our learners. Why not invest in them with a proven set of principles and tools that ensures we keep them at the center of our focus?

About the Author

Britney Cole, associate vice president of solution architecture and innovation strategy for The Ken Blanchard Companies, creates an atmosphere of excitement and forward-thinking for clients who want rethink what it truly means to unleash the potential and power in people and organizations for the greater good.

With more than 15 years’ experience in organization development, performance improvement, and corporate training across all roles, Britney brings a pragmatic and diverse perspective to how adults desire to learn on the job. She comes to clients with a lens of WHO they are solving for first and foremost. Britney focuses on human-centric solutions, bringing Design Thinking and Agile methodologies to her work and clients to create innovative, relevant and meaningful experiences that create business impact.

She works hands-on with the latest and emerging technologies, including Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, mobile apps, curation platforms, social collaboration, chatbots and microlearning. She and her teams have helped organization with platform selection for leadership solutions as well as implementation, integration, content curation, and custom development.

Britney forms lasting partnership due to her practitioner mindset and ability to think big on emerging technologies, learning experience design and digital leadership development that blend in the human connection.

Britney is a published author and speaks regularly for learning and HR conferences, including DisruptHR, ATD, eLearning Guild, and Chief Learning Officer Symposium. Britney earned her Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering from Colorado State University and her Master’s degree in Educational Technology from San Diego State University.

About the Author

Keith Keating is a senior director of GP Strategies supporting General Motors’ Center of Learning. With a career spanning more than 20 years in learning and development, Keith Keating holds a master’s degree in leadership and has experience in instructional design, leadership coaching, operations management, and process transformation. More recently, Keith has been leading GP Strategies’ clients on the development and execution of their global learning strategies. Regardless of the role, at the heart of everything Keith does centers around problem solving. He studied design thinking at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and found it was a perfect tool to add to his problem-solving toolkit. Since then, Keith has been using design thinking to help clients tap into understanding and resolving unmet customer needs.

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Spot on article Britany. I totally agree with just going out there and doing it. After when people compliment and ask what just happened, then tell them what it's called.
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Thanks for the article. I also LOVE design thinking and am surprised that not more people use it. Liked your HMW questions.
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