Mar 3, 2021

When do you apply Design Thinking?


Is Design Thinking a good method and mindset for any problem? The answer is: No. When is it wise to apply it and when can you better use an alternate approach? The model called the cynefin framework, created by Dave Snowden, gives a good overview.


1. Obvious

In this quadrant the solution for the problem is obvious to all. There is one way to solve these kind of problems and no one argues about it. If the grass is too long, use a lawn mower.

2. Complicated

In this area you will see most consulting firms active, as there are more than one solution and an expert comes at hand to find the right solution for you. This is the area where knowledge is available to solve the challenge. However, in this quadrant you will find also many challenges suitable for Design Thinking, if you feel that the more obvious solutions might not be the real solution, as the core problem isn’t clear (enough). applying Design Thinking enables you to find the right solution for the right problem.

3. Complex

This is the area where Design Thinking is very useful. It is the area where there is no clear solution and solutions have to be tested via experiments and exploration. This leads to brand new solutions, usually no one has came up with yet. Solutions are hard to predict, only hindsight delivers the understanding if something will actually solve the problem. This is the area for unknown unknowns.

4. Chaotic

In this area you don’t have time to look for a solution, but immediate action is required.For example when a dyke breaches. Act first to stop the flooding, afterwards you can discuss if it was the best solution.

5. Disorder

This area is in the middle and is applied if you cannot apply any of the other four areas. This is applicable to situations where a lot is at hand and becomes too big to handle. Split up the area into smaller chunks that fit into one of the previous areas and handle them step by step.

Design Thinking vs Lean Startup

Besides the cynefin model about the complexity there is also the question how Design Thinking can be placed versus other ways of working, like Lean Startup. The model below shows that Design Thinking is especially important early in the process. It helps you to find the right answer for the right problem, while the use of Lean startup might lead you to the right solution for a problem that might not really exist. Therefore we often see that organisations love to start with Design Thinking, and if it comes to continuous improvement, they focus on Lean Startup and Design Sprints.


"Different problems require different approaches. Use these models to choose the right one!"

Kees Froeling

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