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Design Thinking and the Learning Function

Talent Development Firm
Design thinking is a hot topic right now. An Internet search will net some 23 million results. But what exactly is design thinking? Here are the definitions from some design thinking leaders: 

  • a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity (Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO) 
  • a halfway house between analytical thinking—for the purely deductive and inductive logical thinking that utilizes quantitative methodologies to come to conclusions—and intuitive thinking, or knowing without reasoning (Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management) 
  • the ability to turn abstract ideas into practical applications for maximal business growth (Jeanne Liedtka, professor at the Darden School of Business). 

In addition to the multiple ways of defining design thinking, there are also a variety of design thinking methodologies from places such as the LUMA Institute, IDEO, the Stanford, and the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design. 
The bottom line is that design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation or problem solving that instills deep empathy. It integrates the needs of people with the needs of the organization.   

The May 2017 issue of TD at Work,Design Thinking Meets ADDIE,” presents an example of how you might use design thinking in your learning and development role. Whether you’re a performance consultant, instructional designer, trainer, or L&D leader, there’s something there for you. The following sections will show how we connected design thinking with each of the ADDIE steps, along with elements from human performance improvement.

Design Thinking Shapes Analysis

Design thinkers practice divergent thinking to get a 360 perspective. That meant going beyond standard business and performance analysis practices of determining business goals, relating them to the performance of company leaders, and determining the gap between the desired and actual performance state. 

First, you should research the entire ecosystem—beyond the performers and their environments. You may need to look outside the organization to identify broader economic, cultural, and leadership trends. Next, shift your focus internally and leverage the design thinking method of ethnographic research. This observational method of research helps design thinkers understand the context in which customers—or in our case, leaders—operate, and it provides insight into what they may need or how they might use a product or service. Ethnographic research helps design thinkers understand the challenges people experience and identify otherwise elusive ideas for making life better. 

Design Thinking Shapes Design and Development

Co-creation is another design thinking technique that can be applied to the instructional design and development process. This means putting something unfinished in front of a stakeholder and letting that person shape it. It is strictly a no-selling zone; you hand over the idea to a group of stakeholders and step back and let them run with it. Stakeholders talk among themselves, share ideas, collaborate, and make suggestions. Without the co-creation feedback, you may move ahead with wrong assumptions. 

Another change to the design and development phases of ADDIE is the move from pilot to prototype. What’s the difference? Tom Kelley, in The Art of Innovation, writes, “Prototyping is both a step in the innovation process and a philosophy about moving continuously forward, even when some variables are still undefined.” By our definition, a pilot is 90 to 95 percent sound. Market-ready prototypes are 75 percent sound. 

With a prototype in place, assumption testing is the next step. These are some of the questions you can test during the prototype:


  • Does the platform (formal, informal, self-directed, OTJ application) work? Does it transcend cultures and generations?
  • Does the desired mindset shift occur through the experience?
  • Given an orientation, would participants and their leaders have enough information to engage?
  • Will this learning process be a great experience?
  • If people take control of their learning destiny, will they think and feel differently? 

Design Thinking Shapes Implementation

When using design thinking, you will need to address the concepts of “prototyping” and “failure,” first with yourselves and then with the participants and their leaders, to manage everyone’s expectations. Most organizations haven’t really embraced prototyping outside perhaps the product development arena. Thus, many have to learn to use the appropriate language and help participants and others to understand why failure is a good thing. You have to embrace the design thinking mantra of “fail often and fail fast.” 

And there was one aspect of design thinking whose significance many underestimate on the part of their participants and their leaders: the presence of ambiguity. Ambiguity is part and parcel of design thinking. Tom Kelley and David Kelley’s words from Creative Confidence remind us that “it takes courage to leave the land of certain outcomes and the comfort of what we know to try a new approach.”

Design Thinking Shapes Evaluation

Design thinking doesn’t seek or need empirical evidence of success. But this is contrary to the learning and development profession’s rigor around measurement and evaluation. It’s not always acceptable to members of a project team to abandon professional standards, but design thinking offers ways to test the prototype and identify improvements. 

As usual, it’s important to require participants to complete a predevelopment experience assessment for a baseline. Also identify multiple ways to gather informal feedback, including ongoing conversations with facilitators and the experience coordinators. Although they have the survey responses, design thinkers seek additional information. Using evaluation data as the starting point, probe for more. This results in immediate enhancements to components of the experience. In other words, you are iterating the prototype. 

This process relies on using a have/want matrix. Taking every comment that participants and leaders make in surveys and elsewhere, the team plots the feedback in the matrix to reveal:

  • what is working—the elements of the experience that stakeholders want and are in place
  • activities learners didn’t want that the team is delivering, giving developers the opportunity to eliminate activities and redeploy resources
  • opportunities to add or enhance elements of the experience with feedback on what learners want but aren’t getting. 

For a deeper dive, check out “ Design Thinking Meets ADDIE.” This issue of TD at Work includes definitions of design thinking, steps for creating stakeholder maps, problem-framing guidelines, storytelling tips, a worksheet for testing assumptions.

About the Author
Kathy Glynn is the owner of Blue Sky Thinking. She is a design thinking facilitator, coach, and trainer and an adjunct professor at Kendall College of Art and Design. She was a senior performance consultant for Steelcase Inc. where she designed, developed, and implemented user-centered learning solutions for optimal organizational performance and business outcomes.  Glynn has over ten years of experience in performance improvement and is responsible for analyzing needs and creating learning solutions as well as measuring the effectiveness of learning solutions. She has managed major initiatives in sales, marketing, sourcing, legal, and leadership.
About the Author
Debra Tolsma is the owner of Relevant Learning Solutions. A design thinker, facilitator, and coach, she’s a frequent guest lecturer at Kendall College of Art and Design and Grand Valley State University, both near Grand Rapids, Michigan. She also served as the global manager of performance consulting and instructional design and development for Steelcase Inc.
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