Collaborate To Innovate

When to use Design Thinking?

Today I’m going to show you exactly how to foster the right innovation process for solving the right problem and improve collaborative results. In this comprehensive post I’ll cover:

  • When to use Design Thinking
  • What a problem is
  • The difference between different innovation methodologies, frameworks, and techniques
  • Advanced innovation tips on timing
  • Lots more


So if you want better innovation performance in teams and more creativity at the workplace, you’ll love this updated post.

Lets get started

And this is what you will learn more about in this post.

For whom is Design Thinking applicable?

According to IDEO Design thinking is applicable no matter your role or industry. Whether you work in business, government, education, or nonprofit, design thinking can help you develop innovative solutions based on the needs of your customers.


Cynefin framework: Different types of problems

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 alternative approach? The model called the cynefin framework, created by Dave Snowden, gives a good overview.




1. Obvious problems

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 problems

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 problems

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 problems

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.


Innovation project vs process

Peter Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship GURU (read his book!) confirms that innovation cannot be seen as something you do as a project, but rather as a process. This means that innovation must be an uninterrupted process of learning and adapting to both internal and external conditions. It never stops. To succeed in changing environments, you need a system and a workflow that you can easily integrate into your daily work.

And that is where processes like Design Thinking, Design Sprints, Lean Start-Up and Agile Scrum come in. These have all in common that they leave room for unforeseen insights. They help to become more comfortable with the ‘fail fast — learn fast’ approach that is needed to mitigate risks in innovation.


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.


Geert Claes — When, which … Design Thinking, Lean, Design Sprint, Agile?


40 Design Thinking Situations in your workday

We did research with our 7500 participants from 197 organizations and discovered this list of 40 moments to help your team innovating without noticing. We selected for each of those moments an innovation tool that you can use. You will see those tools in this post: Design Thinking for Innovative Problem Solving (The 9 Step Entrepreneurial Approach)


Understand the challenge and situation before you start

Design Thinking is all about finding solutions by first of all understanding situations and challenges. And not just those of your target audiences. To make an impact, your team also needs to understand the perspective and project challenge of, say, an internal commissioner. At the start of a project, there are many times when you can apply Design Thinking principles. Do you recognize the moments below? By being aware of this and providing the right tools at the right time, you create a shared vision and strategic clarity between clients and project teams.

The Design Thinking situations:

  • A new project will start and a kickoff meeting will be organized. Perfect situation to design a meeting that creates a common purpose.
  • It is not clear to team members what they are working on in the project. The innovation assignment is too broad for example.
  • That moment when someone has suddenly become a problem owner, but is not the only problem owner in the story. This happens with problems that cannot be solved by one stakeholder and someone is put forward for convenience. Ideal situation to create co-ownership through design thinking principles.
  • The client is open to a modern way of problem solving and is looking for the right case to apply this to. Perfect situation to set up a design sprint and design the right innovation assignment.
  • A project is about to start and you want to transfer ownership of the potential solution to the right stakeholders in advance.



Explore the context: researching your internal and external clients.

A solution is only valuable if it is used. The only way to make this happen is to create things that people need or want. This makes sense for clients outside your organization, but the same goes for your internal clients. Lot of solutions are created for internal purposes. But the different departments, roles and projects create silos and these make it complex to collaborate smartly. This is fantastic for Design Thinkers, because your help can make a big impact. Below are the situations where you can add value.

The Design Thinking situations:

  • There are projects where many different stakeholders are involved

    such as internal and external customers, are involved in an issue and you want to come to a joint challenge to create joint ownership for the solution. Design Thinking helps bring them together and focus on the common needs and use that as a starting point for shared solutions.


  • Sometimes your starting point is that there is already a solution.

    Even without being sure it’s solving the right problem. Perfect situation for Design Thinkers! You can add value by offering a process to test whether the solution fits the target group/customer. This is interesting for any manager who wants to spend the time and money wisely and deliver positive impact.


  • You have to recruit internal clients and I am curious how you can join them


  • It’s difficult to talk to customers but you still want to make assumptions about how you can best serve them


  • An urgent problem has arisen involving multiple stakeholders


  • Your team doesn’t feel confident enough to conduct interviews because they don’t feel they are an expert on the subject.


  • You notice that the team is leaning too quickly towards a solution and you are not sure whether you are solving the right problem.


  • You want to discover which trends are influencing your challenge and how you could respond to them.


  • A solution has been devised in the past that no longer works, and you want to research the current situation before coming up with a new solution


  • You want to investigate how you can develop other services that will make your customer trust you even more



Define your focus: creating a new problem statement.

  • You have a lot of information from the target group and want to focus on what you will continue with in the coming period
  • You want to determine with different stakeholders what the challenges are that are relevant for everyone in order to feel joint ownership for the solution
  • You want to get the right question sharp before you start working with the wrong answers.

Reminder: curious to the tools for these situations? Check out this post: Design Thinking for Innovative Problem Solving (The 9 Step Entrepreneurial Approach)



Imagine new ways: coming up with ideas

  • You want to come up with more solutions than those few that are logical and obvious.
  • What you have always done no longer works the way you want and so something else has to be devised
  • You want to engage stakeholders by making them part of the development process
  • You want to explore options or come up with alternatives to a challenge or situation.



Concepting: Expand your ideas

  • There are ideas, but they are still too vague to act on. So you want to elaborate them more concretely
  • You want to better connect your ideas with the customer or target group.
  • You have a lot of ideas and need to decide which one to really go with.



Frame your product: defining the business model

  • You have worked out ideas and want to make them communicable so that outsiders can easily see what the solution entails and how it meets the needs of a target group
  • You have to work out a business model of your idea
  • You have to pitch your idea to some decision-making people
  • You and your team must transfer the project to another team in the organization
  • You want to be able to pitch a substantiated problem-solution combination



Build your prototype: by developing from concept to prototypes

  • There are ideas that have been approved, but you need to come up with even more concrete proposals on how to develop them further.
  • You have to agree with your team about the practical implementation of your solution.
  • You want to discover with your team what the best manifestation of your solution is in practice
  • You want to develop something that the target group can interact with to test whether the idea fits or not.
  • You want to prepare a successfully tested prototype for sale by looking extra from the marketing perspective.



Test your prototype:

  • You want to know how the target group reacts to your solution and elaboration
  • You want to know to what extent your detailed solution matches the practice of the target group
  • You want to get buy-in from relevant stakeholders



Improve the prototype

  • You want to know what the next step is to make the solution-market combination
  • You want to know what it takes to scale up the solution.

Reminder: curious to the tools for these situations? Check out this post: Design Thinking for Innovative Problem Solving (The 9 Step Entrepreneurial Approach)


Design Thinking is applicable no matter your role or industry. Whether you work in business, government, education, or nonprofit, design thinking can help you develop innovative solutions based on the needs of your customers. There are lots of situations during a day to make impact on productivity and collaborative results.

Curious about the impact of our approach? We have delivered over 460 learning experiences, see those experiences over here.

Your turn

What would be your favorite moment to try Design Thinking? When your team already has a solution or when you suddenly become a problem owner?

Let us know via a comment below

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

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