(Illustration by John Kutlu)

Design thinking: It started as an academic theory in the 60’s, a notion of starting to look at broader types of challenges with the intention and creativity that designers use to tackle their work. It gained widespread traction as a product design process, has been integrated into culture change initiatives of some of the world’s most important organizations and governments, and has been taught in schools kindergarten to grad school. It’s been celebrated, criticized, merged with other methodologies, and modified for nearly every conceivable niche.

Regardless of what side of those perspectives you fall on, it’s undeniable that design thinking is continuing to grow and evolve. Looking across the social innovation landscape today, we see a few patterns that, taken together, suggest that social innovators continue to see great promise in design thinking. They are working to find ways to make it yield real performance gains for their organizations and clients.

From design thinking to design doing

Creative leaders have moved beyond increasing people’s awareness of design thinking to actively seeking concrete opportunities for using it. One of the principal drivers of this shift has been the need to demonstrate value and return on investment from design-thinking initiatives—something people have talked about for years. (Ever heard the question, “Is design thinking just the next fad?”) Social sector organizations, in particular, stand to benefit from the shift from design thinking to design doing. Timelines for getting things built in the social sector are often slow, due to legitimate constraints of responsibly doing impact work, as well as to legacy practices and politics. As long as organizations use design thinking responsibly and acknowledge the broader systems in which new ideas live, some of the emerging models can help them move projects along more quickly and gain greater stakeholder participation.

At The Design Gym, we have seen this eagerness for results show up in the form of Design Sprints—fast, iterative, user-focused project cycles that tackle a problem over the course of several days or weeks. Design Sprints emphasize seeing problems in smaller chunks, and encourage users and stakeholders to play a central role in problem solving, moving projects forward faster and cheaper than "business as usual," and leading to more concrete and tested outcomes.

This year, our team led the FSG Impact Hiring Innovation Lab’s cohort of companies through design thinking sprints to gain insights from stakeholder groups, generate unique ideas, and prototype solutions. Such projects allow organizations to put design thinking to work on high-priority, strategic challenges. They often produce outcomes impressive enough to influence larger organizational and team design strategies, project scoping, and internal culture shifts—approaching problems with design thinking sometimes becomes the norm. We expect the next question for leaders who have seen the benefits of "design doing" will be how to continue designing their teams and cultures to show not tell—showing stories of real outcomes, not telling of their new training toolkit, and making design thinking more than a side-of-desk project.

Building cultures around design thinking

As design thinking has proliferated, many organizational leaders have moved from replicating the design thinking programs of academic institutions like the Stanford d.School or foundational agencies like IDEO to adapting the methodology to their own goals, external environments, and organizational cultures.

One organization that has particularly inspired us is Beespace, a New York City-based social-impact foundation. Beespace has designed a two-year program that helps new organizations not only get off the ground, but also create the conditions for breakthrough innovation. To create this program, which combines deep thinking, impact assessment, and rapid prototyping, Beespace's leadership asked itself what tools it would need, and came up with a mix that included not just design thinking, but also disciplines of behavioral science and systems thinking, and tools stemming from emotional intelligence and theory of change.

This shift from replicating approaches to fashioning ones that serve a particular organization's unique needs represents movement to a more mature, sustainable way of employing the methodology. It is a shift away from copying and pasting toward something more introspective, customized, and hopefully impactful. Leaders should not get too caught up in stories of success, but instead push their organization to dictate what success means and how it should show up. Given that these practices overlap so deeply with mission, people, organizational structure, and definition of impact, no two programs should look the same.

Empowering the few to shift the many

We have seen a lot of interest this year in "train the trainer" programs, particularly from organizations realizing the value of developing their internal capabilities to reduce reliance on outside consultants. Such development often entails focusing on the few people in the organization who are highly capable of instigating major change, as opposed to spreading awareness among the many. It takes time and resources, but the payoff is well worth it from both cultural and operational perspectives.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative (100RC) takes such an approach to its mission of working with cities around the world to help them become more resilient. 100RC has focused on training a relatively small group of change agents, called Chief Resilience Officers (CROs), in the cities in which it works. CROs are senior-level city employees tasked with developing strategies and initiatives—with significant support and guidance from 100RC—to bring about long-term transformation.

Although the concept of developing internal advocates is surely not new, as an approach to adopting design thinking, it is generating a conversation we believe will continue to get smarter. We expect to see different models for building internal expertise, as the work of introducing design thinking into an organization can be done by lots of different people: expert facilitators, workshop trainers, creative leaders, designers and design strategists, or even just that brave soul who suggests approaching a 30-minute brainstorm slightly differently. We’re excited to see how different organizations explore the possibilities and find which ones work best for them.

Looking at the creative community holistically to tackle larger societal issues

No beating around the bush here—it’s quite a political climate here in the United States. But, out of this has come an absolute groundswell of creative activism and some really unexpected collaborations. Among the creative community, the boundaries around problems that fit within our scope of work have expanded. Individuals, nonprofits, government agencies, start-ups, and huge corporations alike are asking what it means for them, where they can (and should) put a stake in the ground, and who else out there can help make it happen.

Over the past few years, there’s been greater cross-pollination between different industries and types of organizations—collaboration that’s creating wild innovation bigger than either political party could achieve on its own. As Paola Mendoza, artistic director for the Women’s March on Washington, recently said, “We, artists, inspire people to love when it is easier to hate.” Now is the time to begin looking beyond our traditional boundaries of for-profit vs. nonprofit, public sector vs. private sector, and one mission vs. another. The time is ripe to call for collaborators rather than competitors to tackle some of the larger creative challenges facing society today.

FSG Impact Hiring Innovation Lab, for instance, is bringing together nonprofits such as The Aspen Institute, Fortune 500 companies such as McDonald’s and T-Mobile, and creative agencies like ours to develop innovative strategies in hiring, retention, and advancement of opportunity youth and other populations facing barriers to employment.

We anticipate that collaboration between governments, nonprofits, individuals, corporations, and startups will continue to increase. And, there are few greater motivators than a sense of passion and purpose—something individuals and organizations alike can amplify to energize their cultures. We have yet to see what true beauty can blossom from these dynamic and often trying times. What we do know is that complex problems require new ways of thinking, new ways of working, new types of partnerships and conversations, and radical forms of diverse collaboration. And the creative catalysts inside all of us are best positioned to address them.

Shifting the storyline

Social innovators have begun thinking about design thinking in more mature ways. As some of the concept’s novelty wears off, the social sector is increasingly focusing on questions of application, ownership, and impact. The theme of the story is shifting from "What is design thinking?" to "Look at what we did using design thinking." For practitioners and creative leaders, it is a good time to ask what these trends mean for your ability to tell your own future success stories.

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