Design thinking and organizational effectiveness


The Designing for Organizational Effectiveness Certification incorporates design thinking into an approach to help practitioners see, and develop, new ways to address organizational challenges.

We are enthusiastic about the discipline of design and how it can help us be more innovative practitioners.

This enthusiasm grows out of a history of applying a multidisciplinary approach to organizational change, learning and performance at the Master of Science Program in Learning and Organizational Change. Design has been one of the disciplines we’ve incorporated into our curriculum since the program’s inception more than 15 years ago. It shows up, for example, in courses such as Cognitive Design and Designing Sustainable Strategic Change, and through collaboration with organizations such as Leo Burnett, the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, and the YMCA of the USA.

Here, we highlight some of the practices and philosophy behind our approach toward applying design to organizational effectiveness.

Tools and sensibilities

Design thinking, in our use, is both a set of tools and a set of sensibilities.

Each mutually reinforces the other in our effort to learn how we might be effective – in whatever manner we define effectiveness – within the complex social structures that are our organizations.

Design tools include design methodology, experience maps, prototypes, ideation techniques, and the many techniques  that are part of the practice of human centered design.  All of these tools help us make insights and ideas explicit.

But without a set of sensibilities – understanding people in all of their cognitive, emotional and social complexity – we risk creating outcomes that create no change within the organization. We must draw on insights from multiple disciplines – organizational development, organizational and social psychology, learning sciences, and organizational learning among them – to build our sensibilities. Sensibilities helps us account for the human part of human-centered design.

Design methodology

The design methodology we follow sets the framework into which we apply our tools and sensibilities.

Discovery is the process of developing an understanding of the full organizational and problem/opportunity context. What is the actual, lived experience of the individuals who are the focus of our design efforts? Where are the cultural barriers or enablers? How might we draw inspiration from others, who have addressed analogous issues? What existing research might inform our design? How might we frame the issue we are addressing, in a way that may lead us to non-obvious solutions?

Strategize/Ideate is about getting to “what’s the big idea?” that emerges from how we frame our organizational issue based on discovery. Strategize helps us ensure we engage sponsors and stakeholders in the design process and, simultaneously, to address the change resulting from the design. Ideation tools help us focus on divergent thinking before converging on opportunities to develop ideas into prototype form.

Prototype is experimentation. How might we test the assumptions embedded in our ideas?

Implementation is the process of experimenting our way into adoption. How might we continually iterate our solution as we learn more about it, through actual use?

Evaluation answers the question: Did it work?

The methodology can be applied as a process, with each of the five elements representing a process stage. We use this process approach to inform the design of the curricular and co-curricular activities for the Designing Organizational Effectiveness Certification.

Yet, the methodology is more impactful as a mental model than as a process. The sequence of activities becomes more fluid.

Discovery never ends. Prototyping, implementation and evaluation can continually inform an understanding of the organizational context. Engaging with stakeholders to understand their lived experience can be done simply and continuously.

Ideation is about the discipline of divergent thinking and valuing cognitive diversity.

Prototyping is learning how to make ideas physical, which our colleague Maggie Lewis points to as a unique skill of design thinkers. It is also taking on an experimental mindset. You begin to see opportunities to experiment and test ideas – and assumptions – even in routine activities.

Implementation is not a step-by-step plan to mindlessly follow. It is a plan that allows us to incorporate experiments, feedback, iteration and evaluation that prioritizes adoption over imposition.

And evaluation is, simply, the measure of good design. Does it work?

Zoom-out, zoom-in

Evaluation answers the question: Does it work? Be we also need to answer: Does it matter?

We approach the “does it matter” question by zooming out and zooming in on organizational effectiveness issues and opportunities.

Zooming out includes looking at the big, strategic questions that warrant our attention as organizational leaders. How might we continuously improve employee engagement? How might we foster a knowledge-sharing culture that leads to innovation, or quality improvement, or efficiency? In the Designing for Organizational Effectiveness Certification program, we refer to this type of zooming-out view as identifying our “Big I” space for innovation.

Zooming in, then, is focusing on a more narrow opportunity space that is better fit to yield an innovative and practical solution design.  We refer to this type of zooming-in view as the “Little i” space for solution design.

A key to answering the “does it matter” question is understanding how design tools plus zooming out and zooming in can work in concert.

For example: You might start your innovation effort by applying design thinking tools to discover new insights into the lived experience of stakeholders impacted by the issue that defines your Big I space (i.e., employee engagement or knowledge sharing culture). Your insights may then help you to frame opportunities in new ways. Employee engagement may be framed in social network terms –  who employees connect with, and how. Knowledge-sharing might be framed in crowdsourcing terms – rather thaWhan individual-to-individual behavior, the focus is on leveraging the crowd to complete some task, or address some question.

This new framing opens the door to help envision non-obvious Little i solutions. “How might we enrich the social networks of employees, to improve engagement?” or “How might we use crowdsourcing to facilitate desired cultural outcomes?” Each creates a clear Little i opportunity space within which you can again apply design thinking tools to do further discovery, to brainstorm innovative ideas, to prototype and to implement.


Philosopher and educator John Dewey long ago set the stage. For Dewey, learning means interacting with the world in which we live, sensing incongruities, posing questions to explore, proposing and then testing approaches to resolve those questions. “Doing” – a bias toward action and testing – is central. This is what it means to be a continuous learner and reflective practitioner.

Our use of design thinking and design practices are in harmony with these ideas. But design tools and sensibilities should be seen as being in service to developing capabilities to be a continuous learner and reflective practitioner.

Design tools can help us make our questions, ideas and insights explicit, and to test and evaluate them. The sensibilities we apply to design remind us to continuously respect the cognitive, emotional and social complexity of people working in organizations – and can lead us to sensing incongruities and problems to explore.

To round out our list of design sensibilities, we can add Dewey’s attitudes required for reflection – whole-heartedness, directness, open-mindedness, and responsibility – to recognize how the effort to become a truly reflective practitioner is really where we must start. It makes you a better practitioner. And, it makes you a better designer.

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