One of the most prolific buzzwords in organizations today is design thinking. Originally used within design and creative spaces, the concept is pushing boundaries and gaining traction across a wide variety of industries and business functions—most of which have nothing to do with product design or development. From law firms and financial boardrooms to classrooms and manufacturing floors, design thinking is just about everywhere.

This evolution is exciting and problematic. Because design thinking is rapidly growing and adaptable by nature, it has caused a lot of confusion and misunderstanding among business leaders. The ambiguity of the term and its overuse has even caused some to question its integrity and viability. Most do not really understand what it is, why they should use it, or how to implement it.

That, however, doesn’t mean the concept is a passing fad. When learned and applied correctly, design thinking can bring tremendous value to an organization and holds up to the many challenges leaders face in today’s increasingly complex and ambiguous world.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking, in its most basic form, is a process for creative problem solving. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO and a leading voice on the ideology, defines design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Design thinking is an iterative design process that bridges imagination and implementation to help organizations rapidly and incrementally address complex challenges, create value, and grow.

In other words, design thinking essentially teaches you how to think—and act—like a designer. It is an iterative design process that bridges imagination and implementation to help organizations rapidly and incrementally address complex challenges, create value, and grow. It applies innovation to processes and services, not just products.

Interestingly enough, design thinking is not a new concept. Design professionals have been applying its principles for decades, and some experts claim they can trace its roots back to the early 1900s.2 Over the last several years, however, it has gained popularity among business leaders for two key reasons:

  1. The growing complexity of the world
  2. The need for innovation

Although there are still instances in which a linear, step-by-step engineering approach is relevant, most of today’s business challenges are multi-faceted and have no predetermined outcomes. For example, there is a big difference between a manufacturer designing a shoe and a healthcare company solving the opioid epidemic. The healthcare company is utilizing modern technology and exists in a highly competitive, volatile business landscape. This type of complexity has pushed companies to think outside the box in all areas of their businesses.

This is where design thinking comes into play. It creates a framework that helps companies make sense of complexity while ensuring a broad diversity of thought and perspective into the development of a concept. A few of its key principles include:

  • Re-framing the problem in human-centric ways
  • Encouraging diverse ideas through brainstorming
  • Applying a test-and-learn model that tolerates failure

These principles can be applied to just about any industry or role, including those involved in business management. In today’s collaborative and cross-functional work environment, it is important that all stakeholders engage in strategic dialogue to review what processes have worked in the past while assessing those that need improvement.

What benefits does it offer?

Because many professionals don’t truly understand design thinking, they fail to see its value. However, the benefits it can bring to an organization are tangible and relevant.

Drive Innovation. Most leading organizations understand that they need to operate in an arena of innovation if they are going to be successful. Design thinking pushes companies to develop fresh answers to old and new problems that can shape the future and drive success.

Stay Competitive. The truth is that today’s high-tech and fast moving world is only going to get more complex, and no one wants to be left behind. Companies that want to keep themselves ahead in a Google world will need to have design thinking in their growing toolbox.

Attract and Retain Talent. Fostering a work environment where people are encouraged to use imagination, reasoning, and logic to explore new possibilities and solve problems is the future of business. The collaborative approach of design thinking is compelling to many of today’s professionals, particularly Millennials.

Taking the next step

For many professionals, the most challenging aspect of design thinking is learning how to do it. The method goes against the grain of traditional, linear thinking and requires business leaders and project managers to re-learn problem solving by starting with the desired outcome, not the problem. This takes time, knowledge, and a lot of practice. However, the success of innovators like Apple, GE, and Samsung are proof that adopting the approach is well worth the effort.

Business leaders that want to adopt design thinking should start by finding a strong training program with workshop opportunities. From there, the goal is to scale that knowledge across the entire organization so that every business area—and its people—can thrive.

There is no question about it: The business world isn’t getting any simpler; competition continues to intensify, and innovation is critical. Cultivating a culture of design thinking across an organization can yield outcomes that create, deliver, and capture sustainable and differentiated value in the marketplace.