Once upon a time, designers were considered a fairly rarefied breed in the corporate world—people with more interesting hair, eyeglasses and talent than the rest of us, but not a key part of the “real" business. Today, however, that’s changing. As more and more companies face the need for constant innovation, design is earning more respect. In fact, these days, many organizations are training their employees to think like designers.

Jeanne Liedtka, a professor of strategy at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and author of three books on design thinking, argues that learning to approach problems the way designers do can be a useful way to spark innovation in almost every company.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

How did you get interested in design thinking?

Almost 20 years ago now, I got very interested in the idea of design as a metaphor for strategy. I started reading a lot of the work of architects and looking at how the architectural process offered a metaphor for how organizational leaders could think about their responsibility as creating a space which encouraged new behaviours rather than the old.

So that was my original idea, and I wrote a bunch of articles on that. I didn’t really do much with it because metaphors are kind of hard to work with but then the design-thinking firms, like IDEO, started to get a lot of publicity in the US and we kind of came to realize that well, you know, there’s this other whole aspect of design which does have tools, which tended not to be architects so much as experience designers, graphic designers, people like that, so I started paying attention to that world and what they were doing. And what I saw there was a set of tools that would be potentially very useful to managers, so we started to try and teach them.

What’s the difference between design and design thinking?

Design thinking is a problem-solving process. You can apply it to any problem you’ve got, any challenge. Now, it works better on some problems than others, but essentially it’s a way of approaching the problem. Whereas, design we go back to thinking about in relation to things. It’s designing products, it’s designing experiences, it’s designing organizations, things that often have very specific sets of expertise associated with them.

Do you ever see design-driven companies that aren’t good at design thinking?

Oh yeah, I think you’ve got a lot of engineering-driven technology companies that are all about technology-driven innovation. Just because a company’s a high-tech start-up doesn’t make it a design thinker.

I think it’s hard to argue that somebody like Steve Jobs actually used design thinking. I mean, he was a creative genius. He came up with an idea in his own head, and gee, thought other people would like what he liked, and it turns out he was really right some of the time, as in the iPod, and not so right some of the time. That’s not design thinking. It’s great design—I don’t think anyone would ever fault Apple as not being one of the companies who really put design on the map in many ways—but it’s not design thinking at work.

What does the reality tend to look like in a firm that’s good at design thinking?

My view is that everyone has the potential to be an innovator. The trouble is we’ve told some people that that’s not their job, and so they don’t try. I think the heart of the matter is that with some help, we all have the opportunity to make things better.

We don’t all need to invent the iPod. I think that’s one of the problems that we’ve had. We’ve talked so much about disruptive innovation, and this idea that innovation is really about doing these new-to-the-world breakthrough things, when the reality of it is there’s lots of different kinds of innovation, on the one hand, and secondly, you don’t know what will be disruptive, often, until you get it out there and see what people do with it. So my philosophy has been that basically, everybody in every organization is capable of contributing to the innovation conversation.

Some people just need more help than others because it’s well out of their comfort zone stepping into the uncertainty and ambiguity that characterizes innovation. But also, because we don’t really teach people tools to do this, and like anything else in organizations, it works a lot better with tools and processes.

I think it has a lot of parallels to the quality shift, so if you go back to post-World War II, we used to think that quality was a functional specialty, and that the people who did it were experts. And then, basically, TQM (Total Quality Management) brought along a set of processes and tools and they were able to institutionalize quality and scale it and make it part of the job of everybody in the organization. I think we’re seeing the same thing in innovation.

Are there other aspects that parallel TQM?

Certainly with the traditional notion of quality, there are a lot of areas that coincide with innovation and some that don’t, so you’ve got things like this notion of the search for root cause very similar to the search for unarticulated needs and problem reframing that we do in design thinking, so that’s one area where there’s a great fit. Then there are areas where there is not such a great fit, particularly because a lot of TQM is about the reduction of variance. Well, variance may be the mother of waste but variance is also often the mother of innovation, so if you reduce people’s ability to experiment with variance you make it very hard for them to find low-risk methods for doing new things.

How important is a willingness to take risks in design thinking?

Historically, we’ve taught managers to avoid risk, but you can’t innovate and avoid risk. But you can, however, innovate while managing the risks and you can innovate in the least risky way you have to. One way I think of design thinking tools is it’s just a toolkit for risk minimization while you’re innovating. That’s the reason why we have small experiments, why we do ethnographies, so we can do data-driven ideas generation. All of these things are really about recognizing the necessary risks that any innovation entails but not taking any risks you don’t have to.

If you’re trying to beef up your company’s design capabilities, what should you do?

You need to hire a very special kind of designer—a designer who wants to work with non-designers, who wants to make people feel better about their ability to do this work, not worse. As Kaaren Hanson, who used to handle design strategy at Intuit, a big software maker in the US, said, there are designers who want to hoard it and designers who want to give it away, and you’re looking for designers who want to give it away.

How do you know you’re hiring a giver, not a hoarder?

I think sometimes it’s really an attitude more than anything else. For instance, one head of design that we were interviewing at a very well known company said, “You know, I think teaching design thinking to lots of people in the organization is a really bad idea. It’s like having people practice medicine without a licence." You know this person is a hoarder, right? They’re not looking to make people feel better about their ability to innovate. They’re threatened and they’re defending design as their territory.

It’s important to know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about design thinking. We’re not talking about unleashing managers and claiming they’re capable of developing new products or claiming they’re capable of doing the kind of highly visual work that designers do. Designers have a unique set of skills and you’re not going to impart them to a group of non-designers in something like our 10-week design thinking online course.

What we are trying to do is give them literacy in some of these basic methods that they can apply in their own world and they can use to one, understand how customers or other stakeholders define value better; and two, experiment with some different ways for delivering more value.

Who else do you need?

I think the other thing is to start with volunteers, find the people in the organization that are most eager to do this kind of work, support them, let them gather some success stories, let them figure out how to do it in your organization given your own particular culture and approach to things, and then maybe think about expanding it further.

If you’re a middle manager in a not-very-creative organization, how can you nudge your team or company to take a more design-thinking approach to their work?

I think the biggest impediment to innovation in organizations is fear—fear of making a mistake—and the more we operate in a culture of fear of making mistakes, the less likely we are to be able to be good design thinkers. What we find is that successful leaders create a kind of microclimate that almost protects their people from the elements of the larger system and culture and process that are not design-friendly.

In strategy, we like to take people out of the equation and make it all about systems and process, but when it comes to innovative growth, it can’t be. Without creating safe spaces, you will get a little innovation from people who are kind of impervious to fear, but by and large, you won’t get much from everybody else.

There are two other skill sets I would highlight. One is the ability to really understand what the world looks like through the eyes of the people you are trying to serve. Designers call that empathy; we in business tend to call it identifying unarticulated needs. Either way, it’s the same thing—it’s the notion of “give people tools so they can stop imposing their own view of the world on everybody else." And then the third thing is teaching people how to design and conduct experiments and giving them the freedom to do that.

There’s a lot of enthusiasm now around Big Data-driven strategy. Can Big Data and design thinking coexist?

Design thinking doesn’t mean you throw all the old tools out the window. It doesn’t mean that you stop taking advantage of Big Data or quantitative data when you’ve got it. What it says is, you figure out what question you’re trying to answer and think carefully about what kind of approach to data is most likely to give you a powerful answer. Quantitative data will often tell you where you have a problem, quite specifically, but it won’t tell you why you have a problem and how to solve that problem.

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