How to Problem Solve with Design Thinking

Design isn’t just choosing the right images and fonts for your next website revision. It’s a problem-solving process that incorporates the needs of guests, team members, and partners in your mission. It’s a way of working that creates and refines real-world situations.

Design is the secret weapon of organizations that gives them a strategic advantage in figuring out what services their guests need and in defining the exact characteristics of every guest interaction. Design helps you understand how a guest accesses your website, what a guest is likely to do as they approach your campus, and gives you clues about creating a welcoming environment.

Design is the most important discipline that you’ve probably never heard of.

The right Guest Experience changes, implemented the right way, won’t just fall into your lap. You must actively design them. This requires learning – and then sticking to – the steps in a human-centered design process.

THE QUICK SUMMARY – Design Thinking for the Greater Good by Jeanne Liedtka, Randy Salzman, and Daisy Azer

Facing especially wicked problems, social sector organizations are searching for powerful new methods to understand and address them. Design Thinking for the Greater Good goes in depth on both the how of using new tools and the why. As a way to reframe problems, ideate solutions, and iterate toward better answers, design thinking is already well established in the commercial world. Through ten stories of struggles and successes in fields such as health care, education, agriculture, transportation, social services, and security, the authors show how collaborative creativity can shake up even the most entrenched bureaucracies―and provide a practical roadmap for readers to implement these tools.

The design thinkers Jeanne Liedtka, Randy Salzman, and Daisy Azer explore how major agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and the Transportation and Security Administration in the United States, as well as organizations in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, have instituted principles of design thinking. In each case, these groups have used the tools of design thinking to reduce risk, manage change, use resources more effectively, bridge the communication gap between parties, and manage the competing demands of diverse stakeholders. Along the way, they have improved the quality of their products and enhanced the experiences of those they serve. These strategies are accessible to analytical and creative types alike, and their benefits extend throughout an organization. This book will help today’s leaders and thinkers implement these practices in their own pursuit of creative solutions that are both innovative and achievable.


In today’s increasingly fast-paced and unpredictable environment, church leaders need to be involved in design thinking more than ever. Design is all about action, and churches too often get stuck at the talking stage.

Face it – despite all our planning and analyzing and controlling, the typical church’s track record at translating its rhetoric into results is not impressive.

Moments matter. And what an opportunity we miss when we leave them to chance!

  • All it takes is a bit of insight and forethought.
  • All it takes is for you to think like a designer.

One of the biggest contributions of design thinking is to hold us in the problem space long enough to develop the kind of deeper insights into the problem that foster more creative ideas later on.

Design thinking is a problem-solving approach with a unique set of qualities: it is human-centered, possibility driven, option focused, and iterative.

A learning mindset, empathetic understanding of stakeholders, and an experimental approach to solving problems is what design thinking’s methodology and tool kit are all about.

How is design thinking going to do this? By providing the tools to answer a simple series of questions:

    • What is? explores current reality.

    • What if? generates ideas.

    • What wows? finds the sweet spot.

    • What works? launches and learns.

These four questions build bridges to more innovative solutions via a systematic, data-driven approach to creativity. This might sound like an oxymoron, but we don’t believe it is. By breaking the process into four questions, potential design thinkers can explore the “how to” in a way that feels safe and structured to both leaders who think in details and those who thrive in innovation and creativity.

These strategies are accessible to analytical and creative types alike, and their benefits extend throughout an organization.

Jeanne Liedtka, Randy Salzman, and Daisy Azer Design Thinking for the Greater Good


As a way to reframe problems, ideate solutions, and iterate toward better answers, design thinking shows how collaborative creativity can shake up even the most entrenched bureaucracies, providing a practical roadmap to innovative, achievable solutions.

Use the four-question design thinking process listed above, think of another future Guest Experience action you would like to implement, and write it on a chart tablet.

On four separate chart tablets, write the four questions. Spend at least thirty minutes discussing each question, and write down notes and highlights of each discussion on the appropriate chart tablet.

At the end of the discussion, select the top three items from each of the four questions. As a team, decide how you will proceed with this action, who will lead the effort, and when the target launch day is. Turn them loose on the “how.”

Part of a weekly series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

Regular daily reading of books is an important part of my life. It even extends to my vocation, where as Vision Room Curator for Auxano I am responsible for publishing SUMS Remix, a biweekly book “excerpt” for church leaders. Each Wednesday on 27gen I will be taking a look back at previous issues of SUMS Remix and publishing an excerpt.

>>Purchase SUMS Remix here<<

>> Purchase prior issues of SUMS Remix here<<


What If Leaders Thought Like Designers?

Then they would be familiar with these three words: Empathy, Invention, and Iteration.

Empathy –  design must start with establishing a deep understanding of those we are designing for. Leaders who thought like designers would put themselves in the shoes of their team or client. More than just “customer-centered” (that’s internal and external customers), the idea here is to know the “customer” as real people with real problems, not seeing them as statistics or targets or a cog in the machine. It involves understanding both their emotional and “rational” needs and wants. Great designs inspire – they grab us at an emotional level. Yet we often don’t even attempt to engage our customer or team at an emotional level – let alone inspire them.



Consider one of my favorite metaphors – the bridge. Now go to New York City with me and look at the bridges there: the Manhattan, the George Washington, the Williamsburg, and others – and then there is the Brooklyn Bridge. The others offer a route across the water. The Brooklyn Bridge does that too, but it also sweeps, symbolizes, and enthralls. It has, like other design icons such as the Sydney Opera House, become a symbol of the land it occupies and an inspiration to generations. Translate that same feeling to leading people, and you can begin to grasp empathy.

Invention – design is also a process of invention. Leaders who thought like designers would think of themselves of creators. Many people have talked about the “art and science” of leadership, but to be honest we focus mostly on the science aspect. All to often leaders play the role of scientist, investigating today to discover explanations for what has already happened, trying to understand it better. Designers invent tomorrow – they create something that isn’t. To get to growth, it is necessary to create something in the future that is different from the present. Powerful futures are rarely discovered primarily through analytics. Analysis is an important role, but it must be subordinate to the process of invention when the goal is growth.

Great design occurs at the intersection of constraint, contingency, and possibility

– Richard Buchanan, former Dean of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design

 When leaders start the growth conversation with the constraints of budget and the hard road to success, we get designs for tomorrow that merely tweak today. Great design starts with the question “What if anything were possible?



To illustrate, let’s go back to New York City, this time to Central Park, one of America’s great public spaces. In 1857, the country’s first public landscape design competition was held to select the plans for this park. Only one plan – prepared by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux – fulfilled all the design requirements. Others were stymied by the requirement that crosstown vehicular traffic had to be permitted without marring the pastoral feel of the park. Olmstead and Vaux succeeded by eliminating the assumption that the park was a two-dimensional space. Instead, they imagined the park in three dimensions and sank four roads eight feet below the surface.

Iterate – Leaders who thought like designers would see themselves as learners. Leaders often default to a straightforward linear problem-solving methodology: define a problem, identify various solutions, analyze each, and choose one – the right one. Designers aren’t nearly so impatient,or optimistic. They understand that the successful invention takes experimentation and that empathy is hard won. So is the task of learning.



The IKEA way of business we know (and love!) today didn’t originally start out that way. Almost every element of IKEA’s legendary business model – showrooms and catalogs in tandem, knockdown furniture in flat parcels, and customer pick-up and assembly – emerged over time from experimental response to urgent problems. “Regard every problem as a possibility,” was IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad’s mantra. He focused less on control and “getting it right” the first time and more on learning and on seeing and responding to  opportunities as they emerged.

A bridge, a park, and a business model – they share fundamental design principles:

  1. Aim to connect deeply with those you serve
  2. Don’t let your imagined constraints limit your possibilities
  3. Seek opportunities, not perfection

Is there a way for ChurchWorld leaders to think like designers?

inspired by and adapted from Designing for Growth by Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie to fit ChurchWorld realities

updated from an earlier post

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

In today’s increasingly fast-paced and unpredictable environment, church leaders need to be involved in design thinking more than ever.

Pause Button: If you are a ChurchWorld leader and believe that you don’t need to concern yourself with design thinking, you should probably take a look at Why Design Thinking and What if Leaders Thought Like Designers. Just saying…

Design is all about action, and churches too often get stuck at the talking stage

Face it – despite all our planning and analyzing and controlling, the typical church’s track record at translating its rhetoric into results is not impressive. In the business world, researchers estimate that only somewhere between 10% and 60% of the promised returns for new strategies are actually delivered. Having been around ChurchWorld for over 30 years, my observation is the reality would be between 10% and 30% – tops. Practices that consume enormous amounts of time and attention most produce discouraging results. All the empty talk is making it harder  and harder to get anything to actually happen. Churches expect the staff to be member-focused while the majority watches. When a staff or volunteer actually takes a risk, they are punished if it doesn’t succeed. Ambitious growth goals aren’t worth the spreadsheets they are computed on. Getting new results requires new tools – and design has real tools to help move from talk to action.

Design teaches us how to make things feel real, and most church rhetoric today remains largely irrelevant to the people who are supposed to make things happen

Church elders and staff can make plans, bring on new staff, invest in the latest conference success story – but they can’t change the organization without a lot of help. The only people who will care enough to help are those for whom strategy is real. Things that feel real to people are both interesting and personally significant. They are experienced, not just pronounced. While leaders are showing growth spreadsheets, designers are telling stories. We have a lot to learn from design about how to tell a story that engages an audience, captures the experience dimension and makes the future feel real. Look at any presentation created by anybody at a design firm and compare it with the Death by PowerPoint presentation you are forced to sit though by your organization. Enough said.

Design is tailored to dealing with uncertainty, and ChurchWorld is obsessed with analysis that assumes a stable and predictable world

That would be the world we don’t live in anymore. The world that used to give us puzzles but now dishes up mysteries. And no amount of data about yesterday will solve the mystery of tomorrow. ChurchWorld is designed for stability and control and is full of people with veto power over new ideas and initiatives. They are the “designated doubters.” The few who are allowed to try something new are expected to show the data to “prove” their answer and must get implementation right the first time. Designers have no such expectations. They thrive on uncertainty and are enthusiastic about experiments and patient with failure. Design teaches us to let go and allow more chaos into our lives. Designers have developed tools to help them actively manage the uncertainty they expect to deal with.

Design understands that products and services are for human beings, not target markets segmented into demographic categories

It is easy in ChurchWorld to lose sight of the real people behind the masses surrounding our campuses. The reality of human beings and their hopes and hurts fades as they are tabulated and averaged into categories, reduced to the status of preferences in an analysis paper. Lost within that reality is the deep understanding of needs – often ones that aren’t even articulated – that are the starting point for real ministry. This messy reality is something that designers understand well. They master the skills of observation, of understanding human beings and their needs, while typical ChurchWorld leaders learn mostly to evaluate, an activity that rarely involves the kind of empathy that produces fresh insights.

If you want efficiency, you get everybody who thinks the same way and they’ll get to a decision quickly. And that works 80 percent of the time. But for that 20 percent of the time when you need something disruptive, innovative, and creative, you’re going to have to put up with a little bit more ambiguity.

Jeremy Alexis, Illinois Institute of Technology

Who are the designers on your team?

inspired by and adapted from Designing for Growth by Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie to fit ChurchWorld realities

Designing for Growth

When Moses Isn’t Around, You Have to Create Your Own Miracle

According to the authors of Solving Problems with Design Thinking, most managers they meet harbor a deep, dark secret: They believe in their hearts that they are not creative.

In today’s seemingly rampant innovation mania, managers and leaders cannot appear unimaginative, let alone fail to come up with brilliant solutions to vexing problems on a whim.

For most of us there will be no Moses-like parting of the waters of the status quo that we might safely cross the Red Sea of innovation. Drowning is more likely our fate.     – from Solving Design Problems

There is hope.

Instead of trying to part the waters, leaders need to build a bridge to take us from the current reality to a new future.

In other words, we must manufacture our own miracles.

According to Liedtka et al, the technology for better bridge building already exists, right under our noses. What to call it is a matter of dispute, but they call it design thinking.

This approach to problem solving is distinguished by the following attributes:

  • It emphasizes the importance of discovery in advance of solution generation using market research approaches that are empathetic and user driven
  • It expands the boundaries of both our problem definition and our solutions
  • It is enthusiastic about engaging partners in co-creation
  • It is committed to conducting real-world experiments rather than just running analyses using historical data

And it works.

Design thinking is capable of reliably producing new and better ways of creatively solving a host of organizational problems.

inspired by and adapted from Solving Problems with Design Thinking by Jeanne Liedtka, Andrew King, and Kevin Bennett

 Solving Problems with Design Thinking

For further reading:

Why Design Thinking?

What If Leaders Thought Like Designers?

Leaders Need to Work Our of Both Sides of Their Brains

Leaders Need to Work Out of Both Sides of Their Brains

After my design thinking diatribe in yesterday’s post, maybe it’s time for a little balance in the ever-present battle between the linear, analytical left brain and the chaotic, creative right brain. There is an unavoidable but healthy tension between creating the new and preserving the best of the present; between innovating new ideas and maintaining healthy existing ones. As a leader, you need to learn how to manage that tension, not adopt a wholly new set of techniques and abandon all of the old. It’s not that many analytic approaches are bad – it’s just that in many organizations, it’s all they’ve got.

The VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous)future we’re living in will require multiple tools in the leader’s tool kit – a design suite especially tailored to starting up and growing new ventures in an uncertain world, and an analytic one suited to running established organizations in a more stable environment.

What leaders need is not a right brain transplant that throws the old left brain tool kit away – they need to be taught some new approaches to add to the tool kit they’ve already got. Business as usual can help leaders do things designers have trouble with. Design needs business thinking for good reasons:

Novelty doesn’t necessarily create value

The flip side of the defense of the status quo because of its familiarity is the pursuit of novelty only because it’s new. How many times have you seen (or have been guilty yourself) ChurchWorld leaders who have attended the latest conference and returned to their church to try the latest and greatest geewhizjimmyhawthingy guaranteed to (fill in the blank) your church?

Even value creation is not enough

Churches, in order to survive, must care about more than just creating value for the existing organization. It is an important, but insufficient, first step. To survive long-term, churches need to be able to execute and capture part of the value they create in a duplicatable process that accomplishes their mission and reproduces their “product” – disciples. While doing creating and innovating, they must in Jim Collins’ words “remain true to the core.” This requires solid businesslike thinking: can we translate a new and innovative idea from small experiment to a significant part of the organization’s being without messing up the recipe?

How many more stylish worship environments or new group ideas do any of us need?

Cool stuff is great, but design has the potential to offer so much more. Design has the power to change the world – not just make it pretty or more functional. Just because you can do a thing doesn’t mean you should do it. The discipline of design should address our most challenging problems, not just pretend to make us better or fulfill our dreams.

Part of an ongoing adaptation of Designing for Growth by Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie to fit ChurchWorld realities

Why Design Thinking?

Because design thinking is actually a systematic approach to problem solving.

Find a leader who is innovative in any organization, and he has likely been practicing design thinking all along. It starts with the people we serve and the ability to create a better future for them. It acknowledges that we probably won’t get that right the first time. It does not require super powers.

Design Thinking’s time has come.

Design thinking can do for organic growth and innovation what TQM did for quality – take something we always have cared about and put tools and processes into the hands of leaders to make it happen.

– Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilve, Designing for Growth