Innovate your organization in 5 steps: Design Thinking

Editor’s note: This post was republished with permission from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s Growthology blog.

Imagine taking the process inventors and innovators use to create physical prototypes and products and applying it to ideas and processes. Visualizing and communicating these intangible things is a challenge for thinkers and process-driven people. Design thinking seeks to disrupt the status quo of problem solving by synthesizing the traditional, structured analytical approach with a creative flair.


Design Thinking is a collaborative, creative process for solving problems. A group of stakeholders representing different points of view gather with a design thinking leader or moderator. The process is structured innovation – creative, but in a way that keeps the time aligned with the central goal. The process is now used by innovative organizations such as Lego, GE, IKEA, and Apple.

Design thinking has been on our minds at the Kauffman Foundation lately. Recently, our Entrepreneurship team convened a summit of stakeholders – program managers, grantees, researchers, previous applicants – to turn the concept of a traditional Call for Proposals on its head. And, at the recent Innovation Growth Lab (IGL) conference, there was a lot of buzz around using design thinking to create innovative organizations.

How to Get There: 5 Steps to Innovate

The Institute of Design out of Stanford University is one of the foremost pioneers for design thinking. The identifies 5 steps in the design thinking process.

  1. Empathize: Design thinking begins with a very human-centered approach, thinking about the primary experience and the challenge at hand. Gathering a number of stakeholders to understand and describe the challenges from their perspective is central to the process.
  2. Define: After the stakeholder groups are understood, the problem is identified. For many problems, this is one of the more difficult steps. Given the work from the previous step, the design approach for the problem needs to be centered around the experience of the different user groups.
  3. Ideate: The ideation step explores problem solving. Through ideation the groups discuss what an ideal future state would look like and the possible steps and solutions for how to get there.
  4. Prototype: Prototyping requires that the group moves its idea into a physical, tangible form. The prototype, visualizations that are either physical or drawn, will rely on the feedback from stakeholders, be technologically feasible, and viable for the organization. Design thinking sessions require a room and resources for everyone to draw and iterate on designs.
  5. Test: Combining all of the knowledge from the prior four steps, this process refines and iterates on feedback to create a model that can be tested and implemented. In this phase, the prototype is put into action. Failure should be an expected part of this process, because as with any iterative process, things are not typically perfect from the first go.

Other groups have varying models for the design thinking process, although all share crucial commonalities. The of Paris follows nearly the same model but categorizes them into inspiration, ideation and implementation. IDEO Design Group and Stanford’s share that the results of design thinking must be desirable and human-focused, technologically feasible, and viable for the business.

Organizations need to be thinking about whether their culture inspires or isolates creativity. While design thinking models alone will not automate cultural innovation, they are an important tool in the process. Organizations need to be innovative to survive in the changing economy. Developing a design-centric culture can help boost innovation by focusing on people, reflecting on the future-state and how to get there, celebrating creativity, and learning from failure.

alex_krause250x301Alex Krause is a research assistant in Research and Policy for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, working on the Kauffman Emerging Scholars program and assisting in the development of the entrepreneurship and education dashboards. She also assists in writing literature reviews, blogs, articles, and information briefs on economy, policy, entrepreneurship, and education. 

She previously worked as the project director of Building a Community of Readers for the Kansas City Public Library. Earlier, she was an AmeriCorps VISTA for the Office of Mayor Sly James and his Turn the Page KC reading initiative and an economics analysis intern for the U.S. State Department in the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.

Krause is a contributor of Kauffman’s entrepreneurship research blog,, which is syndicated by Missouri Business Alert.

Find Krause on Twitter: @AlexKrause


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