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

Although past research has demonstrated how design thinking can increase workplace innovation, new research described in Harvard Business Review (Bason & Austin, 2019) attempts to link effective leadership to the successful implementation of design thinking methods. According to the authors, design thinking is defined as “processes, methods, and tools for creating human-centered products, services, solutions, and experiences.” They say that team members often find these methods to be subjective and unnecessarily personal, and that leaders will need certain skills to help people shed their negative preconceptions. 


In more than one group studied, leaders leveraged empathy by sharing customer feedback with the team to evoke empathy within the group and encouraging 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 this type of support may also reduce the stress that naturally comes when an employee’s performance is challenged. 


These skills require leaders to move beyond the obvious and instead brainstorm to achieve truly innovative practical solutions. The leaders who were observed rallied their design thinking project teams to champion diverse new ideas and maintain an overall sense of direction and purpose. According to the authors, leaders should help their people resist the urge to converge quickly on a solution, even if it seems like the team will have to “spin their wheels” a bit.


Rehearsing new futures refers to the testing phase of the design thinking method. This phase simulates different possible solutions with customers or directly impacted organizational partners to discover the most effective and efficient solution. The authors say that leaders should be intentional about what they hope to achieve. 


This article demonstrates that in order for design thinking methods to be successful, leaders must work alongside their teams and proactively address some of the concerns that followers have about these methods. It is also necessary for leaders to find the balance between leading and doing. Additionally, teams need to take an active role in the process – they must be able to plan, act, and create their own solutions. 


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