How Leaders Can Implement Design Thinking for Organizational Success

Topic(s): change management, leadership
Publication: Harvard Business Review (2019)
Article: The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking
Authors: C. Bason, R.D. Austin
Reviewed by: Dr. Diana Walker

Design thinking is defined as describing processes, methods, and tools for creating human-centered products, services, solutions, and experiences. Although past research has demonstrated how organizations can use design thinking for increasing workplace innovation, new research (Bason & Austin, 2019) attempts to link the importance of effective leadership to the successful implementation of design thinking methods. According to the authors, project team members find design thinking methods to be subjective, overly personal, and reliant on divergent thinking. In order to shed the preconceptions that teams have about design thinking, leaders need to leverage empathy, encourage divergence, navigate ambiguity, and rehearse new futures. The challenge in practicing design thinking is having a project team come to the realization that failures are opportunities for innovation.


In more than one group studied, leaders leveraged empathy by sharing customer feedback with the team to evoke empathy within the group and encourage them to question how their actions affect customers. It is essential for leaders to frame these results as an opportunity for improving the organization’s customer service delivery system, instead of a mere performance evaluation. Providing such support lessens distressing emotions that can arise when there are unexpected findings. 


Encouraging divergence and navigating ambiguity requires leading teams to moving beyond the obvious and instead brainstorming the unlikely to achieve truly innovative practical solutions. The leaders who were observed ensured that their design thinking project teams made the space and time for diverse new ideas to emerge and also maintained an overall sense of direction and purpose. It is up to leaders to help their people resist the urge to converge quickly on a solution without feeling a personal lack of direction.


Rehearsing new futures refers to the testing phase of the design thinking method. This phase simulates different possible solutions with end users, employees, and other directly impacted organizational partners to discover the most effective and efficient solution. The research findings indicated that leaders should be specific about the overarching outcomes that need to be achieved, such as creating value for employees or external clients.


This research demonstrates that in order for design thinking methods to be successful, leaders must work alongside their teams and collaboratively deal with the emotions and discomforts that this method can potentially cause. It is also necessary for the leader to find the balance between leading and doing. Additionally, teams must be able to plan, act, and study their own discoveries. The authors argue that the primary challenge of design thinking is moving beyond simple change management to instead discovering the type of change that is needed.


Bason, C., Austin, R. D. (2019). The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review, March-April, 82–91.