7 Reasons Why Design Thinking Matters for Leaders Today


When I cut my teeth in leadership, activities like problem-solving and strategic planning were left to the people at the very top. That process looked like this: A small, select group of key people would get together, lock the door, and put together a plan. Then they would work toward getting buy-in from all interested parties. This plan would rarely be modified once this team emerged from their planning process.

I simply don’t think this approach is effective anymore. Too much has changed.

I would never suggest strategic problem solving or planning isn't necessary. You must have an efficient way to set the course as well as mitigate unanticipated obstacles and challenges along the way. However, the idea that a small, select group of people can figure this out in a vacuum is not the best approach in my opinion.

  • Yes, we need leadership teams. Flat organizations never work, even when they are small.
  • Yes, executives are responsible for setting the course for an organization. You can’t pass the buck to someone else.
  • Yes, leadership by consensus is flawed and problematic. Consensus-based leadership is not design thinking.

I’m not suggesting you take a wiki approach to strategy and problem-solving. What I’m proposing is this: find ways to get different groups to work together to broaden and diversify a shared understanding of what’s possible.

Design thinking engages all stakeholders in your organization and equips you with new ideas and pathways for success.

This is what I love about the discipline of design thinking. It’s about synthesizing multiple ideas and arriving a conclusion that is simply more robust than before.

When groups like school faculty and administration come together to wrestle with big, persistent challenges, new ideas emerge that are often more effective than if either group operated completely independently of one another. When groups like marketing and product development come together, their very different perspectives create possibilities that have the potential to create something entirely new and better.

Let me share with you seven reasons why I think design thinking matters in leadership today:

  1. The problems, obstacles, and challenges you face today are multi-dimensional. It’s going to take new thinking to bring about different outcomes.

  1. People want to feel like they’ve contributed to the solution rather than just being told what to do. You’re going to change the level of performance across your organization if everyone has a sense of ownership in where you are headed and how you’re going to get there.

  1. Your perspective isn’t complete. You only have one lens to look through—yours. That leaves a lot on the table, particularly unanticipated roadblocks or opportunities you can’t see yet.

  1. Working harder will not create exponential growth anymore. We’ve moved beyond the industrial age where efficiency and scale were the only pathways to success. In a postmodern world, opposing ideas can be combined to create new possibilities.

  1. Design thinking is a process that is repeatable, manageable, and evolutionary over time. If you can’t control all the variables, then you have to lean into process and discipline to ensure you end up where you want to go.

  1. The power of connection and relationships will create affinity and commitment across your organization you can’t manufacture any other way. No leader achieves a breakthrough on their own. It is the result of interactions with a variety of people in different settings. Design thinking brings ideas—and people—together which will have a lasting effect on your community and culture.

  1. Thinking about outcomes will create momentum. When groups of people move past protecting themselves or preserving their ideas, it creates an atmosphere where a level of momentum can take place you’ve never experienced before. Design thinking keeps everyone focused on creative solutions rather than justifying positions.

You won’t get where you’re going if you’re still thinking In the same ways that got you where you are today.

If you’re still not convinced design thinking could have a positive impact on your leadership and your organization, then I would suggest fear is holding you back. No leader wants to admit fear exists. But it’s real. I promise. Trying something different is bold, risky, and leaves you vulnerable.

If you never leave your comfort zone, you will stunt your growth and stifle your organization. You need to go places you’ve never been, think in ways you hadn’t considered, and try new experiences if you ever hope to create a breakthrough.

REFLECT: What’s holding you back from the results and outcomes you desire? Are you confident you have unlocked the potential of every person in your organization? How can design thinking open up spaces for conversation and ideas that could lead you to explore and try things you’d never considered before?