How Design Thinking Can Spark Innovation

Sean O'Shea Background

Sean O'Shea

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“Design Thinking” is a term that gets thrown around in creative industries, and it’s often misused. It is not strictly the domain of product designers, visual designers, or UX designers. In this case, “design” means “engineer.” Design Thinking is the practice of engineering how we think. And everyone can employ it.

Thinking about the way we think and reaching in to manipulate not our thoughts but our thought processes is not something we do very often. But when done correctly, it can be a powerful tool—especially when it comes to problem-solving in groups.

Why we think the way that we think

Like most everything else about us, our cognition is the product of evolution and natural selection. Our ancestors were the ones that could perceive, process, and act on information better and more quickly than their peers. Over the millennia, we’ve developed cognitive shortcuts known as heuristics to think and solve problems more efficiently.

Innovation is hard

Heuristics shape our thinking in two important ways. We’ve evolved to be somewhat logical thinkers, understanding cause and effect and following linear lines of thought from A to B. This is very helpful for solving simple problems, but it can hinder true innovation—the ability to arrive at completely novel solutions.

Heuristics are also the root of many cognitive biases, which can warp our perception, cloud our judgment, and impede our logic. Functional fixedness makes it difficult for us to conceive new ways to use familiar things. Mental rigidity impedes our ability to reframe problems. Confirmation bias makes it hard for us to leave our preconceived ideas behind, especially when it comes to constraints that define the problem space.

Approaching problem-solving with a linear and inflexible mode of thinking leads to staid and uninspired solutions. True innovation is the ability to transcend this linearity and shed unnecessary constraints of a problem to arrive at a wholly novel solution.

A faster ship

Shipwrights during the Age of Sail always worked to improve the speed and efficiency of their ships. For centuries, speed was determined by two things: the area of the sheet to the wind and the shape of the hull. More sails and a sleeker hull meant rounding Cape Horn with your cargo of grain weeks before a rival trading company.

So that’s what shipwrights did. They festooned ships with more sails and more masts until, by the end of the 19th century, the humble outrigger had evolved into humongous 7-masted windjammers.

A sailboat with many sails.

But this was not true innovation. Cursed with a deep understanding of sail aerodynamics and ship architecture, shipwrights were incapable of stepping back and seeing the problem anew. Mental rigidity. Preconceived notions. Instead of thinking creatively, they were just taking a centuries-old solution to the extreme.

Moving laterally

Sometimes we need to jolt the brain when problem-solving or brainstorming. Help it jump the tracks of linear thinking to explore entirely new territory. This is especially helpful when experts are involved. Like the shipwrights, they bring so much baggage to the table that it’s difficult for them to see the problem in a new light.

The opposite of linear thinking is “lateral thinking.” This term was coined by Edward de Bono—a psychologist and physician, among other things. He developed several techniques for facilitating this mode of thinking. We’ll look at two.


A provocation is a new, wacky constraint meant to upend vertical thinking processes and reframe a problem. They help us jump the tracks of lateral thinking into entirely new territory.

This is a technique for group brainstorming sessions. The facilitator will introduce a provocation when thinking begins to stall to provide a new platform from which new ideas can spring. Provocations are verbal and prefixed with the word “Po”.

Here are some example provocations that could be used when brainstorming how to design a new car—

  • “Po. There are no roads.”
  • “Po. Wheels are square.”
  • “Po. Cars can’t carry fuel.”

These are false and illogical constraints, and they’re meant to be. Upending the problem space is an efficient way to break out of linear thinking. Sometimes these constraints lead to a comprehensive solution. Often they seed the nugget of an idea you can build upon without those constraints.

Going back to the shipwrights trying to make a faster ship—

  • “Po. There’s never any wind.”

This kind of provocation allows experts in sail dynamics to think outside the box. This kind of provocation is necessary to jump from wind power to steam, coal, and beyond.

This is innovation.

Steam powered ship

Thinking hats

Another method for infusing lateral thinking into group brainstorming sessions is Thinking Hats.

There are six hats. Each represents a persona that embodies a single mode of thinking. Participants wear only one hat at a time and approach discussion solely through the lens of that persona. They’re not physical hats—just metaphorical. And they are color coded.

  • Blue hat — Cool and aloof. Facilitates the session, directing others.
  • Green hat — Symbolizes growth. Focused on generating new ideas.
  • White hat — Neutral and objective. Only cares about facts.
  • Red hat — Emotional. Immersed in how things feel.
  • Yellow hat — Sunny and positive. Always optimistic.
  • Black hat — Negative. Devil’s advocate. Thinks about why something can’t work.
The different design thinking hats

This technique ensures that participants examine problems and solutions through multiple lenses from different perspectives.

The hats can also be used to shape group dynamics. Are there several naturally negative thinkers in the group? Avoid asking them to wear the black hat. Is your group made up of optimists reluctant to shoot down an idea? Be sure to introduce the black hat at some point.

The hats also protect participants’ egos. People don’t want to seem wrong or foolish or be out-smarted. Adopting a role allows us to leave our egos behind. When someone is required to be negative, getting upset with them for revealing the holes in your idea is unreasonable.

The hats can also be spoken as verbs—

  • “We’re not black hatting yet; save that comment for later”
  • “Let’s red hat for a bit and explore how this approach will make our customers feel”
  • “I think we need to white hat for a bit. What does the data say about our donors?”

This framework takes the groupthink out of group sessions and provides a scaffold for building sound ideas together.

Don your hats and po

Try out these techniques the next time you confront a problem that needs solving. You can use them simultaneously and combine them with other lateral and design thinking techniques. Research and practice this skill, and become a champion of design thinking in your organization. Innovate with confidence.

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