Commentary – Innovative Mindset is Key to Design Thinking (published in Techwire Sept. 2019)

Commentary – Innovative Mindset is Key to Design Thinking (published in Techwire Sept. 2019)




Design Thinking “embraces empathy, inspires creativity, and encourages experimentation that produces meaningful solutions to customers’ unmet needs. Design Thinking is ultimately a way of using insights to generate new, innovative ideas, not another process to build or organization to staff.”

Government organizations face design challenges every day. Whether creating new experiences for constituents, designing new services, or developing ideas to increase efficiencies, government organizations must adapt to a changing world. Problems are real, complex, and varied.

Traditional thinking is no longer a viable option. Today’s challenges require new thinking, new tools, and new approaches.

Unfortunately, both the public and private sectors are immersed in traditional thinking. We have become a left-brain-oriented society that has been conditioned to immediately come up with an answer when given a problem. We look for the single correct answer instead of exploring different potential solutions. Moreover, we are so afraid of failure that many times we limit the potential of our solutions because we avoid risk. Ultimately, we focus more on “checking off the box” than we do developing a truly meaningful solution for our end users.

To make matters worse, we spend more of our time trying to know what to think than we do exploring how to think.

I recently had the opportunity to present “Design Thinking” at the Los Angeles Digital Government Summit( summit.html). The session reviewed the key components of Design Thinking and how they can be applied to meet the unmet needs of LA’s residents. One key topic was around the innovative mindset.

Participants engage during the “Design Thinking” session at the LA Digital Summit. Listening are LA County’s Dave Wesolik (standing, left) and consultant Jeff Warren (right).

Here’s a common occurrence in organizations today: Management declares that innovation is a priority and, seemingly in an instant, armies of consultants and experts with elaborate, graphics-filled presentations are building models and plans that describe how the organization will innovate. An “innovation team” is formed, and a few small projects are run to demonstrate the potential of this new initiative. Everyone is excited — for the moment.

But after a while, nothing changes. Why? For one, meaningful innovation takes time. It’s an iterative process of testing new ideas and accepting failure until one succeeds. Most organizations want to see results — fast — so they eventually go back to the old way of doing things. Second, organizations often fail to embed innovation into their culture. To truly be innovative, it takes a different way of and working and making decisions. It takes empowering employees to take risks without the fear of failure. It takes rewarding creativity and ideas over immediate results.

Enter Design Thinking. Design Thinking provides a methodology that fuels innovative thinking. It helps people learn how to think versus what to think. It embraces empathy, inspires creativity, and encourages experimentation that produces meaningful solutions to customers’ unmet needs. Design Thinking is ultimately a way of using insights to generate new, innovative ideas, not another process to build or organization to staff.

Design Thinking teaches organizations to see things from the perspective of their customers. Too often, organizations believe they are so expert in their field that they look at things through a single lens — their own. They employ best practices, gather mounds of data, and hire people with vast experience. The danger is that they don’t take the time to see things through the eyes of their customers (whether citizens, employees, or partners) and end up force-fitting standard solutions to customers’ unique needs. As American professor and physician, Dr. Prabhjot Singh put it: “We spend a lot of time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it.”

Design Thinking awakens the creativity in all of us. As children, we were all creative. We played. We explored. We were fearless. Over time, we were taught to think in a more linear fashion, to seek the single right answer, and never fail. Design Thinking encourages insightful experimentation. It accepts failure as part of the path to success. It reignites the creativity we all once had to create meaningful solutions for organizations’ most pressing needs.

Organizations can use Design Thinking to:

  • Create new products or services
  • Solve existing problems or challenges
  • Unleash creativity to discover new opportunities
  • Uncover insights regarding the unmet needs of customers
  • Develop internal talent and increase their confidence, sense of empowerment, and contribution within the organization

Design Thinking is composed of five basic steps, as illustrated in the diagram below.

Design Thinking is not an elaborate process that requires years of education, piles of manuals to read, and expensive consultants to create fancy PowerPoint decks that in the end, don’t say anything. Design Thinking is experiential — you learn by observing, interacting, immersing. It is innovative, utilizing your right brain to develop creative solutions for your customers. It is experimental, interacting with customers to get input and reaction before designing the final solution.

Ultimately Design Thinking unlocks the creativity in all of us to design meaningful solutions for customers.

The best way to learn Design Thinking is to do Design Thinking, via workshops or projects. At LA County’s Internal Services Department, Design Thinking workshops are arranged around key real-world challenges being faced by ISD and the county departments. These highly experiential one- or two-day workshops teach Design Thinking concepts and immediately put them into practice on the given challenge.

Initial workshops have proved to be highly successful and build a spirit of collaboration, innovation, and partnership between ISD and other departments. Participants work together in small teams to work through the five phases of Design Thinking. Each group comes up with their own innovative solution to the challenge — and sometimes define the problem in different ways. More importantly, participants are given the tools, knowledge, and experience to use Design Thinking in their jobs, with their partners, and with customers. Future workshops have been scheduled for the coming year.

“What makes design thinking so relevant in local government is that we see many departments transforming IT via the business needs,” said Dave Wesolik, ( manager of ISD’s Information Technology Service Division. “From creating a more mobile workforce to better outreach to our residents, the county is looking for better ways to be impactful in our delivery of IT solutions. Design thinking is the key to that success.”

So, as you can see, Design Thinking helps us move away from traditional, left-brain-oriented, immediate thinking — to a more creative, empathetic, and insightful way that results in solutions that customers want. It is genuinely human-centered design.

Most importantly, Design Thinking allows organizations to chart a new path simply through a new way of thinking. It enables innovation.

As Henry Ford said: “If you always do what you did, you will always get what you got.” In a world that is constantly changing, we need to do better than that.

Jeff Warren, a longtime IT executive with multinational companies, is a consultant for the Los Angeles County Internal Services Department on “Design Thinking” and other topics.

By Jeff Warren (/

Jeff Warren is a consultant on “Design Thinking” and other topics for the Los Angeles County Information Technology Service Division. He is also the lead consultant for the Barkley Consulting Group, working with CIOs, business leaders, administrators, and IT professionals.