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Design Thinking Playbook

Design Thinking Playbook
What's new: K-Startup Grand Challenge 2020 for Australian/New Zealand Startups! More information here.

In this playbook, we cover:

  • What is Design Thinking?
  • Traditional Approach vs. Design Thinking Approach
  • Design Thinking Success Story #1
  • Design Thinking Stages
  • Stage 1: Empathise
  • Stage 2: Define
  • Stage 3: Ideate
  • Design Thinking Success Story #2
  • Stage 4: Prototype
  • Stage 5: Test
  • Design Thinking Success Story #3
  • Design Thinking Success Story #4
  • Performance of Design Thinking Companies
  • Measuring Design Thinking at your organisation
  • Why Design Thinking Fails
  • So you ran a Design Thinking Course. What's next?
  • Final Thoughts


A can of WD-40 can be found in millions of homes around the world. However, the world's favourite penetrating oil and water-displacing spray wasn’t perfect from the very beginning and it took 39 failed attempts to perfect the formula. This resulted in the name WD-40 which stands for Water Displacement perfected on the 40th try. 

Today, WD-40 has a market cap of USD $2.49 billion

The culture and mindset established within many organisations is one that loves certainty and punishes failure. We fear the judgment of our peers and this fear is what causes us to be conservative in our thinking. Many businesses seek perfection, which results in fewer risks taken eventually stifling innovation and creativity. The team at WD-40 failed regularly but learned from each failure. 

Embracing failure is a key characteristic of the design thinking mindset. 

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a buzz phrase that has been thrown around companies for many years now. It is not a new concept but there are still many large companies that are yet to embrace this modern-day mindset and methodology. To put it simply, design thinking is a human-centred approach to problem-solving. If you are after a more detailed design thinking definition, the one below sums up the approach well:

Design thinking is a collaborative, iterative and human-centred approach for solving complex problems in business, organisations and society.

Traditional Approach vs. Design Thinking Approach

But how is the design thinking process any different from the way companies have always 

approached problem-solving? The differences between the traditional approach and design thinking are highlighted in the table below.

The major difficulty people have when adopting design thinking is the drastic change required in mindset. Design thinking requires a certain mindset to ensure successful application. Some of the characteristics of the mindset include:

  • The answer won’t be clear from the start and even though this is not comfortable it allows for unexpected solutions.
  • It is okay to fail - failure is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to learning.
  • Stop talking and start making - design thinking approach relies on the power of tangibility
  • Human Focus - the people you are looking to design for are ultimately your path to innovative solutions.
  • By learning and iterating, there is a greater chance of generating successful solutions.

The legal industry is a perfect example of an industry with a traditional mindset trying to move to more of a design thinking mindset. Although the legal industry is not known for creative problem solving, law firms face the same challenges when it comes to disruption as other organisations. It is common for lawyers to feel obligated to make perfect solutions from the very beginning. But given we live in a world driven by the ever-changing needs of end users, this approach does not make sense.

Design Thinking Success Story #1

Observing what people do and how they interact with their environment gives you clues about what they think, feel and need. By watching people, you can uncover learnings and insights that would not be possible through general conversations. 

A famous example of this is a project run by IDEO for Oral B. They took the observation approach and uncovered a game-changing insight. The assumption with toothbrushes for children is that they should be like adult toothbrushes but smaller and skinnier, due to the fact that adults have big hands and kids have small hands. Makes sense right?

Screen Shot 2017-09-06 at 11.00.26 am.png

However, through observations they found that when kids were brushing their teeth they were using their fist and holding their toothbrushes too far up resulting in them hitting their own faces as they brushed. From this observation a solution was identified that kids need fat squishy toothbrushes. As a consequence of this discovery, Oral B had the best selling kids toothbrush in the world for 18 months.

Observation is an integral part of empathise, the first stage of the design thinking approach.

Design Thinking Stages

This end to end design thinking process consists of five stages:

Empathise – Understand the people

Define – What is the question you are trying to solve

Ideate – Coming up with the creative solutions

Prototype – Building a version of the idea and testing with the customer base

Test – See what the original user group has to say about it

Let’s dive a bit deeper into the first three stages!

Stage 1: Empathise

“If you want to understand how animals live, you don’t go to the zoo, you go to the jungle.” - Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, Former Lego CEO

The problems you are trying to solve within any organisation are rarely your own, they are those of a particular group of people. It is imperative to gain empathy for who they are and what is important to them. The highest quality solutions come from valuable insights into human behaviour. However, learning to recognise those insights can be harder than you think. 

This design thinking stage is all about directly engaging with people to better understand the way they think and the values they hold. For instance, HR teams are starting to focus on better understanding their employees to enhance the employee experience.

More often than not, you will uncover important details about your customer group that may be otherwise overlooked. There are several techniques to use to better understand customers - engaging, observing and immersing.

Stage 2: Define

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” - Albert Einstein

The Define stage allows you to tackle the right challenge based on your new understanding of your customer. It is also the stage where you endeavour to summarise your findings from the empathy stage into powerful insights. Transposing insights into questions beginning with ‘How Might We’ (HMW) provides the foundation to encourage input, suggestions and exploration.

Here is an end to end example (learning to HMW):

Learning: Adults spend a significant amount of time trying to find the right gift.

Theme: Time spent buying gifts

Insight: Time is an important consideration in the gift buying process

How Might We: How might we simplify the gift buying process? 

Stage 3: Ideate:

“No idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered.“ - Winston Churchill

Ideation is your chance to start identifying solutions by combining your understanding of the problem space with your imagination. Using the How Might We (HMW) question as the basis, start coming up with ideas to solve the question. To show the power of ideation with the focus on a HMW question, the IDEO Toy Lab tried to help the local Zoo boost customers

The HMW question was “HMW boost the number of visitors to the Zoo?” and here are just some of the ideas that they came up with during a short ideation session:

  1. Date night with animals that are in action
  2. Dress up like your favourite animal day
  3. Zoo pop ups at malls
  4. Programs for little kids to build animal related items (eg. bird cage)
  5. Camp overnight at the Zoo
  6. Loyalty cards like airlines
  7. Pretend that animals are celebrities and give out gossip magazines
  8. An hour each day animals vacate cages and people can swing on bars for example

By focusing on a clear question, the IDEO team was able to brainstorm innovative ideas that could help solve the problem at hand.

Design Thinking Success Story #2

Elmo’s Monster Maker is an award winning iPhone app for children that allows them to design their own monster friend. Prior to launch, two employees had an idea they wanted to add to the app - allow children to dance along with Elmo. The idea was questioned by most team members and it was not a feature that looked like being approved. The employees decided to build a prototype to show the idea to the team rather than telling them the idea. 

By using a large cut out of an iPhone screen, one employee stood behind the cutout so his body appeared to be the screen (mimicking Elmo) while the other recorded his movements on the computer. The employee recording the movements pretended to use her finger to simulate how children would interact with the app. This video created was shared with the team in a meeting and saying it was well received would be an understatement.

This feature is now a key ingredient of this award winning app. The prototype took one hour to create and was more persuasive than just talking about the idea would have been. 

Prototyping is the fourth stage of the design thinking framework.

Stage 4: Prototype

“I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure.” - James Dyson

A key mindset of the design thinking process is “Show, don’t tell”. A prototype allows you to have a conversation around a tangible piece made quickly and cheaply.

As Richard Eisermann points out, “if a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand pictures”.  Prototypes can take many different forms, for example you can:

  • Create a simple 3D representation of your idea. Use paper, cardboard, pipe cleaners, fabric, anything! 
  • Build mock-ups of digital tools or websites with sketches of screens on paper. 
  • Tell the story of your idea from the future. Describe what the experience would be like. e.g. write a newspaper article. 
  • Create a fake advertisement that promotes the best parts of your idea.

It is essential to spend only a small amount of time and money to prototype. Fail early to succeed sooner! By making tangible items it allows for many small, low-impact failures to occur early, resulting in faster learning about what does and does not work and why. 

Stage 5: Test

“I haven’t failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that do not work. “ - Thomas Edison

Design thinking takes an iterative approach to solving problems. By continually testing and refining your work, there is a greater probability of quickly generating successful solutions. A prototype allows you to get quick feedback that you can apply, well you guessed it, quickly. This design thinking stage should be viewed as risk mitigation, as iterating allows you to manage risk by repeatedly checking assumptions and refining the solution with the customer.

Remember this stage is all about learning, so the more feedback you receive on your prototype the better! Constructive criticism is extremely valuable and it is essential that open questions are used to gather this feedback - here are a few of my favourites:

  • What did people value the most?
  • What got them excited?
  • Did anything happen that you didn’t expect?

There you go - the five stages of design thinking!

Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.

Design Thinking Success Story #3

Bank of America was looking for a way to increase the use of their savings accounts by customers. They applied the design thinking methodology and started engaging with customers to uncover insights. They found out that that people liked the act of saving more than the actual amount they save. For example, customers would get the same good feeling if they deposited $50 a month compared to $600 at the end of the year.

From this insight Bank of America developed the round up concept, a product that allows customers to save with every transaction that they make. Customers as a result are able to get that same good feeling after every transaction. The outcome was staggering with Bank of America gaining over 10 million new customers and $1.8 billion in savings for them.

Design Thinking Success Story #4

Another design thinking example comes from Starbucks. A few years ago the food and beverage industry was experiencing a drop in sales and poor margins. Starbucks decided to interview hundreds of customers to better understand what they expected from their coffee shops. The predominant insight gained from these interactions was that customers actually wanted an atmosphere that provided a sense of belonging and relaxation.

Building on these insights, Starbucks positioned round tables strategically to make solo coffee drinkers more comfortable and less self-conscious. 

Performance of Design Thinking Companies

Even though the value of design thinking is clear, it is still hard to measure and define as part of a business strategy. Good news - there are statistics out there that show the positive impact made by design thinking in business. In a study conducted by The Design Management Institute, design-led companies in the United States outperformed the S&P by over 200% (2015). The below chart outlines the success of design-centric companies such as Apple, Starbucks and Nike, compared to the S&P 500. 

Applying design thinking principles has played a pivotal role in these companies staying ahead of their competition.

Measuring Design Thinking at your organisation

Companies often fall into the trap of implementing a new methodology but failing to measure its success. When it comes to innovation, it is important to set up and establish clear success metrics such as the number of experiments run or Return on Failure (RoF). Stay away from the traditional metrics of ROI and NPV as these often end up stifling innovation within an organisation. Innovation success metrics will ensure your team has a collective understanding of what success looks like.

Measuring design thinking takes a similar approach. There are three measures that can be used to gauge the impact of design thinking at an organisation.

  1. Cultural - consider employee satisfaction, internal engagement and efficiency
  2. Financial - consider sales and productivity
  3. Product quality - consider customer satisfaction

If we go a layer deeper, here are three specific ways to measure the return on Investment of design thinking.

  1. Training - number of people upskilled through a design thinking course and coached in design thinking
  2. Project - number of projects that have applied design thinking techniques
  3. Employee satisfaction - measure the impact design thinking programs have on employee satisfaction (eg. surveys, feedback from projects)

Give it some time and use these measures to see if design thinking has ‘moved the needle’.

Design thinking is a method to help accelerate innovation. There is a clear indication that it impacts revenue and success of organisations that implement it internally. 

Would you be shocked if you were told that design thinking is also a form of risk mitigation?

Well, design thinking actually allows us to determine which ideas are worth taking to market and which ones we should pour cold water over. The misconception is that design thinking is a risky process - let the rest of the organisation know that it actually helps reduce risk. Share all the success stories that come from applying design thinking (whether large or small).

Why Design Thinking Fails

Excited employees can’t wait to apply the design thinking methodology after receiving training on the topic, however it is sometimes not that easy. Here are five roadblocks that are stopping organisations from successfully embedding design thinking.

1. Only applying design thinking end to end

When learning design thinking techniques it is essential to understand the end to end process, from empathy to test. Companies often try to apply this same exact end to end process for every problem encountered. This doesn’t always work because design thinking is a non-linear process.

Ensure that the design thinking model is applied in a way that works best for your problem.

For instance:

  • You may move from test to ideate: Tests create new ideas for a project.
  • You may move from prototype to ideate: Learn from prototypes to spark new ideas.

2. Internal assumptions and biases

“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” - Peter Drucker

Budget, Process, Technology.

These are regular limitations flagged by long-term employees when going through the ideation process. Employees understand the current business environment and the limitations that come with it.  These assumptions and biases need to be put aside when applying the design thinking steps as it will impede the positive impact of design thinking.

3. ‘See everything as a nail’ mindset

Those without an understanding of the design thinking methodology see it as the solution to every problem in the organisation. Bringing design thinking into a project that is already on the path to failure will not demonstrate the power of design thinking. Design thinking takes a human-centred approach and its impact will be diminished on a project that is already implementing a solution that your customer does not want.

4. Culture of shooting down ideas

Any change as large as the shift to design-led thinking requires support from the top. Where this exists, the results can be rapid and substantial. However, a culture of shutting down ideas will prevent design thinking from succeeding in an organisation. Oftentimes in large companies we wait for leaders to show us the way, but this is extremely difficult in a culture that does not support failure. Sometimes the best way to combat this is to know how to sell your idea to management.

5. Access to customers

The design thinking methodology follows a human-centred approach. There is no point running design thinking training if your employees will never be allowed to engage with and learn from your customers.  Access to customers is crucial, given the highest quality solutions come from valuable insights into human behaviour.

Screen Shot 2017-09-05 at 9.28.44 am.png

Design thinking needs to be given the opportunity to succeed in any organisation. These roadblocks need to be considered and remedied to ensure successful implementation. 

So you ran a Design Thinking Course. What’s next?

After teams are upskilled in the design thinking process, management gets hungry for immediate results but are unwilling to invest further until they see them. These factors contribute to a lack of change in organisations and unfortunately a slow death for the design thinking journey.

Luckily, there are ways that you can ensure the journey continues

Here are four ways that your organisation can start to embed design thinking after a design thinking workshop and get on the path to seeing results.

1. Run a design sprint

Take your learnings and get moving!

Start to actually apply what you have learned in a focused environment. Get teams together and spend 1-5 days tackling a real business problem using the end to end design thinking methodology (Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test).

Important note: Make sure you don’t get sucked into business as usual during the design sprint.

A design sprint will allow employees to get hands-on experience with tools and techniques and allow them to build out a solution that can be pitched to leadership. Much like when startups pitch to investors, employees need to approach management like they are pitching their own start-up. Often times getting buy-in for your idea is just as important as having one.

2. Change your old school kpis

In parallel to setting measures, it is essential to hold employees accountable for driving the change.

Adjust KPIs to promote innovation and creativity. For example, one of our clients implemented a KPI to ensure employees demonstrated each month how they were applying  design thinking in their role. Surprise surprise - this organisation is still applying design thinking to this very day.

A change in KPIs also means there is support from leadership (they are the ones that have the power to set KPIs) and employees that are ‘blocking’ the implementation of design thinking will be pulled up for not supporting the movement - the blockers. For instance, in every organisation there is the “that’s impossible” person.  The longer an employee has been around, the more likely their thinking will be influenced by the past. Budget constraints, legacy systems and traditional financial metrics all impact the way this person thinks and behaves. Rather than embracing ambiguity and creative problem solving, this person shuts down any ideas from colleagues that challenge the status quo.

3. Turn old processes into relevant processes

Organisations tend to get comfortable in their ways and fail to change processes that need updating. Doing the same thing all the time doesn’t make it the right thing.

Take a step back and understand how your company does its work. Some questions to consider:

  • Does your company use traditional business cases?
  • Are there silo’d departments across the organisation?
  • Does your organisation talk to customers before investing in solutions?

A good place to start is to incorporate customer insights gathering to your processes. Prior to investing money and resources on a big project, ensure that employees identify the actual problem they are solving first. Michael Hendrix, IDEO Partner, said it best, design thinking “can bring powerful ideas to an organisation, but it can just die if there’s not a willingness to take it and develop it in a way that’s effective.''

4. Team up for design challenges

Design Challenges are similar to design sprints but rather than focusing on the problem for 1-5 days, design challenges are spread across a longer time period. Teams should spend about 2 hours a week across a 6-8 week period and apply design thinking to a problem area of the business. Spreading the workload is key!

The teams will start by directly engaging with customers to better understand the way they think and the values they hold. While the Design Challenge will end with bringing each element of the program into one clear and concise pitch that can be delivered to management.

The eight weeks could look something like this:

Week 1 - Understanding your customer

Week 2 - Exploration and Insights

Week 3 - Defining the problem

Week 4 - Ideation

Week 5 - Prototyping

Week 6 - Testing

Week 7 - Updating Prototypes

Week 8 - Pitching

Final Thoughts

Management is often looking for fast ways to achieve objectives - in other words they end up cutting corners. You can’t cut corners with innovation. It is clear that organisations see the value of the human-centred approach, but the challenge faced is actually being able to embed the mindset in the organisation and gain buy-in from management post training workshops.

Design thinking needs to be given the opportunity to succeed in any organisation. Transforming into a design-centric company is a long journey, but a necessary one if you want innovation to thrive within your organisation.

Workflow Podcast

The WorkFlow podcast is hosted by Steve Glaveski with a mission to help you unlock your potential to do more great work in far less time, whether you're working as part of a team or flying solo, and to set you up for a richer life.


Stop talking. Start making.

This guide provides an overview of the five key stages of design thinking, from empathy through to test. Find out how to apply the approach and start innovating at your organisation.



To help you avoid stepping into these all too common pitfalls, we’ve reflected on our five years as an organization working on corporate innovation programs across the globe, and have prepared 100 DOs and DON’Ts.


Stop talking, Start making: A guide to design thinking

This guide provides an overview of the five key stages of design thinking, from empathy through to test. Find out how to apply the approach and start innovating at your organisation.


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Shay Namdarian

Shay is the General Manager of Customer Strategy at Collective Campus. He has over 10 years of experience working across a wide range of projects focusing on customer experience, design thinking, innovation and digital transformation. He has gained his experience across several consulting firms including Ernst & Young, Capgemini and Accenture.

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