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How to Develop 3 Essential Design Thinking Capabilities

Efficiency thinking is failing businesses and society. The future of business value creation is designing for both the individual and society using design thinking. Design thinking creates value through aligning the constraints of consumer desirability, technological feasibility, and business and economic viability. Design thinking is not limited to only certain people within organizations. Given the right experiences, anyone will likely be able to apply the human-centered problem-solving skills of design thinking. Developing divergent thinking, observation, and failing fast capabilities are critical for design thinkers.

Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. It typically occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing, "non-linear" manner, such that many ideas are generated in an emergent cognitive fashion.

Design thinkers need divergent thinking capability. In today's fast-paced digital marketplace, leaders should set expectations for employees to begin problem-solving by expanding the range of possible ideas rather than too quickly moving to narrow the number of ideas. A good starting point is asking why rather than what, even though this will likely frustrate some people.

Leaders looking to develop divergent thinking within employees could benefit from providing improvisational theater training. Researchers from the department of psychology at the University of Michigan have found that the use of improvisational theater training is a low-cost, effective way to increase divergent thinking, uncertainty tolerance, and affective well-being.


"Great design thinkers observe the ordinary" (Brown)

Observation is not something design thinkers outsource or delegate to others. If possible, it is best to make observations in the natural environment where the consumers use your product or service. Another viable option is using an observation lab, such as the Procter & Gamble Mason Business Center (pictured below).

The following are some practical tips to improve your design thinking observation capability.

Observation Do’s

  • Get rid of your preconceived ideas

  • Collect observations in different circumstances and from different perspectives

  • Consider whom to observe carefully.

  • Take good notes, quotes, and collect artifacts from the observation

  • Use active listening

  • Capture what surprises you or contradicts expectations

Observation Don’ts

  • Expect what you will observe

  • Draw conclusion on small sample sizes and biased observations

  • Rely on one expert

  • Attempt to rely on your memory

  • Ask leading questions

  • Search for information that confirms preconceived assumptions

A simple self-guided development approach that you can try right now is to simply take time to pause daily to reflect on an ordinary situation or an object that you would not usually take time to consider. If you are looking for a design thinking-specific learning program on observation, you should consider the IDEO U course titled Insights for Innovation.

Failing Fast

Design thinking occurs within a culture that encourages failing fast as part of the creative process. The acceptance of failure as learning is fundamental to innovation but challenging to grasp. Fear of failure is common at every organizational level, and it is detrimental to innovation decision-making. Researchers from the Department of Clinical Psychology, at the University of Bergen, in Norway found that mindfulness-based stress reduction meditation training moderates an individual's fear of failure positively.

"Mindfulness is described as a process of paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Hjeltnes et al.)


Brown, T. (2009). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. Harper Collings Publishers.

Felsman, P., Gunawardena, S., & Seifert, C. M. (2020). Improv experience promotes divergent thinking, uncertainty tolerance, and affective well-being. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 35, 100632.

Hjeltnes, A., Binder, P., Moltu, C., & Dundas, I. (2015). Facing the fear of failure: An explorative qualitative study of client experiences in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program for university students with academic evaluation anxiety. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 10(1), 27990-27990.

Kollmann, T., Stöckmann, C., & Kensbock, J. M. (2017). Fear of failure as a mediator of the relationship between obstacles and nascent entrepreneurial activity—An experimental approach. Journal of Business Venturing, 32(3), 280-301.

Roberto, M. A. (2009). Know what you don't know: How great leaders prevent problems before they happen. Wharton School Pub.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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