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Design Thinking leveraging diversity of thought

Case study, September 2012

Design Thinking leveraging diversity of thoughtIntellectual discourse on ‘thinking’ is flourishing. A quick search of books with ‘thinking’ in the title revealed 44,797 results on, while ‘how to think’ tracked 451,009!  Neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, artists, philosophers, and business leaders alike are all sharing what they think about thinking. But why has the subject captured our imagination? Why now? What’s going on?  Maureen Thurston, our Design Thinking subject matter expert in Deloitte Australia, shares her views.

We’re living in a moment in history where the canons of business are changing in ways that have never been seen before. The well-oiled tools, theories and practices that proved their worthiness over the last 100 years no longer suffice. Competitors are feistier. Customers are increasingly unpredictable. Commoditization is commonplace. The ideals of ‘reliability and predictability’ to mitigate risk have been swept up in a tornado of uncertainty.

The world has turned upside-down. So we have to rely on our wits, our thinking, to survive and thrive. This is not to suggest critical analysis is not important, it is just no longer enough. Navigating the floodwaters of unprecedented change requires a more agile, creative instrument - a new kind of compass to guide our thinking. Thinking differently is the key to thriving in this competitive market.

Design Thinking and diversity of thought are the new currency.

Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a way of thinking about problems. A mind-set that doesn’t get flustered by ambiguity but finds inspiration within it.  It is a process of diverging and converging, an ongoing quest for what’s possible – discovering the best solution that challenges the status quo. Like ‘systems thinking’, Design Thinking takes a holistic approach to understanding the problem from multiple angles and personal perspectives. It’s a belief system that, if you explore the shadows you’ll uncover the underserved need, the unique opportunity.

Design Thinkers have a propensity to want to grapple with ‘wicked problems’ – issues so dense, messy and seemingly impossible that any reasonable, rational MBA would have the good sense to shy away.

Design Thinking is a creative ‘human-centred’ process of discovery. This process includes iterative cycles of prototyping, testing and refinement. It differs from analytical thinking in that, design thinking is characterised by the ability to combine empathy, creativity and rationality to meet users’ needs. In particular, the process that brings Design Thinking to life takes participants through four phases, the first focuses on empathy through observation techniques such as ethnography, the second phase focuses on insight and idea generation through reframing the problem, for example according to a two by two matrix, the third phase focuses on the synthesis of ideas following a period of participant divergence and convergence. The aim of this third phase is to generate ideas to prototype, which will be selected and communicated in the fourth concrete phase.

Diversity of thought

Whilst  ‘diversity ‘ is often seen through the lens of visible differences (e.g. age and race), a  ‘diversity of thinking ‘ frame of reference focuses on aspects of individual differences that lie deep within each person. The core tenant of diversity of thought is that each person approaches a problem from a unique perspective. This uniqueness is usually driven by educational frame (e.g. law, engineering, commerce, medicine) and/or a significant life experience (e.g. living in multiple countries, carer responsibilities).

Within a workplace, diversity of thought occurs when individuals with different perspectives come together, leveraging those unique perspectives to generate creative solutions. Professor Scott Page tested this idea in ‘The difference’ (2007). Page found that, in general, teams with diverse thinkers had greater problem solving abilities than homogenous teams, even when those homogenous teams were comprised of  ‘smart ‘ thinkers. This is not to say that homogenous teams cannot solve problems collectively, rather than diverse teams have the edge.  ‘Imagine homogeneity of thought as leaders talking in an ideological echo chamber. Whilst there may be debate and discussion, it has limited range (Working in an ideological echo chamber, Deloitte 2011) ‘.

So how do ‘Design thinking’ and ‘diversity of thought’ come together?

As described above, Design Thinking is the creative process used to address those ‘wicked problems’ or challenges in your organisation. Diversity of thought relates to the ‘raw materials’ that you put into that process. Alone, both concepts are powerful in their own right, but when the two are combined, organisations can unleash a superior decision-making mechanism that accelerates insights and drives unique, innovative and different solutions.

Everyone has the capacity to become a Design Thinker and leverage diversity of thought. However, there are important hurdles that must be overcome first:

Design thinking:

  1. Clinging to rigid habits of thinking and default behaviours: the only way to see past the processes you picked up in business school is through further education and project-based application of design principles
  2. Rushing to decision making: taking the time to ‘stop and think’ is critical. It is not a luxury; it is a necessity and a core tenet of Design Thinking.

Diversity of thought:

  1. Not knowing your team: to understand the unique perspectives and experiences in your team, you must first become aware of them. This requires managers to explore and celebrate differences within their organisation
  2. Applying traditional team structures: typically problem solving falls to a management team (created based on level in the organisation). In this situation, seniority is the criteria for selection. Diversity of thought requires us to rethink the validity of the assumption that seniority will give us the best outcome. We must create deliberate diverse decision-making teams that are made up of multiple perspectives and life experiences.

How might this work in practice? Case study in AMP Capital

Louise Mason, Managing Director, Office & Industrial Property, AMP Capital is using Design Thinking and diversity of thought to solve a wicked problem.  We are trying to imagine the Workplace of Future so that we can better anticipate the needs of our building lease holders. Obviously, it’s a complex issue with multiple and intersecting factors. For example, we are thinking about the relationship between space and macro trends that impact workers such as cloud technology, the rise of Asia and the ageing population. Even shaping the questions to ask about what creates a high performing workplace now, and whether those questions will be relevant in 2050, is a challenge.

We have found that intentionally bringing people together with diverse points of view (and not based on their titles) and using a design thinking approach has enabled us to develop insights in an accelerated and engaging way. Following a workshop, which comprised diverse thinkers and leveraged a design thinking process (with points of convergence and divergence) Louise commented, “I expected that the process would be more labour intensive, but surprisingly I found that after two hours we had much greater clarity on our next steps”.

Where to from here?

In the pursuit of top-line growth, envisioning what the future may hold and how to best proceed across a shifting competitive landscape isn’t easy. We cannot predict the future. However, we do know that if we design our future with diverse ingredients, we will be better placed to profit.

To find out more about Design Thinking please contact Maureen Thurston at


1 G. Grant, Center for Design and Innovation, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen Scotland, viewed on 17 September 2012

2 J. Liedtka, Designing for Growth: A design thinking tool kit for managers, viewed on 17 September 2012


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