Using Design Thinking As A Leader: A Practical Approach

In the 1930’s there was a young boy who had become addicted to and obsessed with eating sugar. His mother decided to get help and took the long and hot journey with her son walking many miles and hours under the scorching sun. 

She finally reached Gandhi and asked him to tell her son to stop eating sugar, it wasn’t good for his health. Gandhi replied, “I cannot tell him that. But you may bring him back in a few weeks and then I will talk to him.” The mother was confused and upset and took the boy home.

Two weeks later she came back. This time Gandhi looked directly at the boy and said “”Boy, you should stop eating sugar. It is not good for your health.” The boy nodded his head and promised he wouldn’t. The boy’s mother was puzzled. She asked “Why didn’t you tell him that two weeks ago when I brought him here to see you?”

Gandhi smiled and said “Mother, two weeks ago I was eating a lot of sugar myself.”

Leading By Example

Often when I work with schools around empowering learners, innovative teaching and learning practices, and moving towards authentic project-based learning experiences there will be a moment that everything else hinges on.

When making any type of change, it is completely normal to feel overwhelmed, or fearful, or skeptical that the change will help us progress to a better learning experience for students (our end goal).

This becomes even more fearful, overwhelming, or skeptical when we feel like we are on an island, doing things by ourselves.

The simple act of a leader, leading by example, is often the tipping point to whether or not change can happen.

It is the shared experience of doing things differently together, navigating the ups and downs as a team, and feeling like there are many people to talk to and guide along the way.

When I speak with school leaders eager to move from pockets of innovation to a culture of innovation, I always ask these four questions:

  1. What are you allowing for (and what are you not allowing for)?
  2. What are you currently making time for (and what are you not making time for)?
  3. What are you openly supporting and modeling (and what are you not modeling)?
  4. What are you celebrating and assessing/measuring (and what are you failing to celebrate)?

How leaders respond to these questions is critical. Do we see our blind spots? Are we open to others sharing those blind spots?

Remember, blind spots are there for a reason. We only have a partial perspective of any situation, so when a blind spot emerges, we have three options.

Option A: Never ask for feedback.

Option B: Ask for feedback but don’t learn from it.

Option C: Actively seeks out feedback and tries to get better.

Option C is hard. I struggle with it immensely as a leader. Mostly, because I feel my intentions are good, so when I hear feedback that rails against a decision I made, I get defensive.

“They don’t know the whole reason we made that decision. We made the best with the situation we were put in…”

However, Option C doesn’t necessarily mean that all feedback is valid. It means that all feedback is VALUED.

Here is where Design Thinking can work as a framework for leaders to lead by example in practical ways, especially when making changes and moving an organization forward.

Design thinking is a framework that VALUES listening, feedback, empathy, and iteration.

When we use this as a model for not only making decisions but also understanding how those decisions impact others inside (and outside) the organization, we begin to allow for new approaches, support different perspectives, make time to model changes we want to see, and celebrate various types of actions.

Design Thinking Is the Process

Design thinking provides a way to think about creative work and problem-solving. It starts with empathy, working to really understand the problems people are facing before attempting to come up with ideas and create solutions.

It provides a framework for leaders to listen, learn, and then lead.

It’s a bit of a debate where design thinking originated. Some claim that it started in the sixties with The Sciences of the ArtificialOthers point to Design Thinkingwhich focussed more on urban planning and architecture. Still, others point to Robert McKim’s work in Experiences in Visual ThinkingLike all great ideas, it has been an evolution, influenced by thousands of people. We know that our work around Design Thinking has been influenced by people like Tom and David Kelley, Tim Brown, John Maeda, Peter Rowe (as well as organizations like Stanford and IDEO).

There are a number of different interpretations of the phases in Design Thinking.

Here are the phases of Design Thinking as described in IDEO’s “Design Thinking for Educators” toolkit (an awesome resource):

Design Thinking for Educators by IDEO

Here are the phases of Design Thinking as shared by Stanford (and they again have fantastic resources):

Design Thinking Phases for Stanford

And there are other models, frameworks, and descriptions of the design thinking phases from various organizations and universities:


I began to use the design thinking process as a teacher during 20% time and Genius Hour projects. I helped other teachers structure their inquiry projects filled with choice around the design thinking process. I saw the process as a new way to develop lessons, units, projects, and curriculum.

When I got into a conversation about design thinking with John Spencer (who was also using the process as a classroom teacher), we both agreed that the biggest struggle we had when using design thinking and sharing the process with other educators was it’s implications for K-12 students.

What did we do about this problem? We began to try and solve it using the design thinking process.

We looked at the terminology used, the sample exercises and activities available, and how teachers and students responded to the different phases. We talked with teachers using design thinking in their classrooms and met with those that wanted a framework for creative work. Then we started to design and build out an idea. We highlighted what worked and kept on revising.

The end result was “The LAUNCH Cycle”, a K-12 framework for design thinking:

Using Design Thinking as a Leader

The LAUNCH Cycle is not a formula. It is not a step-by-step guide to being innovative, creative and solving problems.

However, I’ve seen the LAUNCH Cycle framework used to help leaders both structure and support innovation, creativity, and unique problem-solving in many different districts, organizations, and companies.

The LAUNCH Cycle outlines creative and innovative work from start to finish.

From listening and learning to navigating ideas, to highlighting what works, design thinking builds capacity and clarity for leaders who are looking to value feedback and lead by example.

Follow along as I provide some practical step-by-step instructions of how you might use design thinking with your leadership team:

L: Look, Listen, and Learn
In the first phase, we want to spend some time to look, listen, and learn. The goal here is awareness. For our purposes, we want to grow our pockets of innovation into a culture of innovation.

It’s good to start with an idea of what this looks like from an organizational perspective.

Organizational Image via Sam Ovens

The top right quadrant is what we would like to achieve as a goal: High alignment and high autonomy/ownership.

The problem is that small organizations tend to lean bottom right (High Autonomy, Low Alignment) and big organizations tend to lean top left (High Alignment, Low Autonomy).

How do we know we are heading in the right direction? And what changes can we make to move towards High alignment and high autonomy/ownership?

Three ways we can look, listen, and learn:

  1. Send out a mostly open-ended survey. When we provide answers, we limit the feedback. Tools like ThoughtExchange work really well for this approach and provide very different types of responses than a typical multiple-choice survey.
  2. Meet with every employee and/or stakeholder. Yes, that’s right. Instead of doing the “committee approach”, it would be better to meet face-to-face with every employee. Spend 15 minutes in small groups talking about their responses, asking follow up questions, and letting them talk through some of what they are seeing and working through.
  3. Be present, participate, and take notes. Get into different rooms, environments, classes, trainings, meetings in your organization. You don’t need to take an active role, but just be present, listening and learning how these different types of decisions are made and what they look like rolled out.

A: Ask Tons of Questions
Sparked by curiosity from the first phase, leaders can move to the second phase, where they ask tons of questions. They can share these questions with colleagues, teachers, mentors, and the world.

The types of questions we ask of ourselves and others matter? Using our goal of a more innovative culture, we can ask questions that has the goal in mind:

Why do we make every employee do _______, instead of giving them a choice in _______? Would that autonomy lead to a more innovative approach?

When we respond to __________, how does it make _______ feel? Would they feel more/less empowered if we responded differently?

Who is impacted by our decision to __________? How has their work changed since that decision? What ways are we measuring the growth? 

What if we looked at ROI in ____________ instead of _____________? How would that change our culture? 

Three types of questions we can ask:

  1. The first type of question we can ask is about WHY we do things the way we currently do them. This ultimately leads to whether or not we have a vision, mission, and driving principles problem in our organization. It helps to find where the holes are in the process.
  2. The second type of question we can ask is about HOW we do things. What does the process look like? Is it different for different groups? How does the process impact our culture of decision making?
  3. The third type of question we can ask is tricky. It is a combination of WHO/WHAT/WHEN. Usually, these three happen together in conjunction. The timing of a decision or change is often just as important as the WHY or HOW. Also, who is making it and what it means for all involved. These types of questions often get personal and should be used in a bigger context.

U: Understanding the Process and/or Problem
This leads to understanding the process or problem through an authentic research experience. Here we might conduct interviews or needs assessments, research articles, watch videos, or analyze data. During this phase, leaders are constantly putting their work out for others to look at and give feedback.

If during the first two phases you begin to realize that although your goal is to be a Top Right organization, you may still be lacking in different areas that are more aligned to less autonomy and less alignment.

Here’s where we take research off-road.

Three ways we can get a better understanding of the process/problem:

  1. We can visit other organizations that may be a model for where we’d like to head. This can be in the same or different field and both have immense value in terms of perspective.
  2. We can do book studies or watch videos/documentaries that can help us frame the change differently.
  3. We understand how new research impacts our culture and move to innovative approaches. Or how other types of organizations may have pieces to the puzzle that we can learn from.

N: Navigate Ideas
Leaders can now apply their newly acquired knowledge to potential solutions. In this phase, they navigate ideas. Here they not only brainstorm, but they also analyze ideas, combine ideas, and generate a concept for what they will create.

Think of this as a time for the team to bring all of their understanding, feedback and learning from the first phases to now start to think about solutions.

If you know where you are headed (towards an innovative culture), it’s time to create a solution from where you are currently at (depending on what was said, experienced, and shared in the first three phases) to where you’d like to go (your goal).

Three ways to navigate better ideas from John Spencer:

  1. Start with quiet ideation before leading to a group brainstorm. This allows every person to have a voice and allows the group to specifically avoid groupthink. I will often ask team members to find trends and then see if they can brainstorm solutions that are opposite of those trends. Here the goal is to purposely think differently than what they already assume to be true.
  2. Experiment with formatting. For example, a round robin brainstorm might allow the entire team to get a chance to share ideas. Here, each team member moves clockwise, one at a time, and shares an idea. Another formatting method might be to have each team member copy and paste the ideas into one shared document, followed by a period of reading the ideas and then adding more as a group.
  3. Move team members to new groups in order to change up the perspective, avoid groupthink and offer a divergent perspective.

C: Create a Prototype
In this next phase, they create a prototype. It might be a digital work or a tangible product, a work of art or something they engineer. It might even be an action or an event or a system.

In our purposes, a prototype often involves a plan, strategy, series of events, or actions that the overall leadership team will have to take.

However, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a huge undertaking. Take, for instance, my friend Jimmy Casas.

When I first met Jimmy, he was the Principal at Bettendorf High School. His school was doing all kinds of great things, but in Jimmy’s mind not enough people knew about it, and the innovative work needed to be shared.

He wanted his teachers tweeting out the work their students were doing, blogging about their process, and sharing the creative approaches with an authentic audience.

How might he do this? How might he and his team lead this?

Jimmy didn’t just sit on his hands, in fact, when I first met him it was at the ISTE Leadership Forum in Indianapolis in 2012.

Jimmy was there leading his team to learn from other leaders and schools that were doing innovative work (look, listen and learn phase).

He was in my “Blogging in the Classroom” Session and didn’t stop asking questions (ask questions phase).

That night, he spent time learning from George Couros and Patrick Larkin. Both were Principals doing the work and sharing through Twitter and on their Blogs (understanding the process/problem).

The next day, Jimmy started throwing around ideas (navigating ideas) and seeing how people would respond. By the end of the Leadership Forum, he had started Tweeting and launched a Blog to the world (creating a prototype).

His prototype was tweeting regularly and blogging regularly. He was modeling the work he hoped to see in the rest of his team and staff.

Oh, and it worked! Jimmy is someone I learn from all of the time, as his books like Culturize have helped me as I grew into various leadership roles. His constant modeling was actually a model for me as well on what it looked like to lead by example.

H: Highlight and Fix
Next, they begin to highlight what’s working and fix what’s failing. The goal here is to view this revision process as an experiment full of iterations, where every mistake takes them closer to success. As they share what they’ve made, the feedback they receive will be key to the revision process.

Let’s keep it going with Jimmy for just one more minute. The next time I saw him was at a large conference where he was not only presenting but also supporting various members of his team and staff that were presenting to hundreds of educators.

The conference allowed them to get together, see what others were doing, and continue to improve and highlight the innovative work they were doing as an organization. Ultimately when they actually took their work and Launched to an Audience, it propelled them back into the cycle of looking, listening, and learning from the feedback they received online, in person and from both inside and outside the organization.

Start Small

In order to use Design Thinking as a leader, you don’t need to start big. Start small. Start with a problem or situation that you currently have as a team.

Here’s an example of how our leadership team started small, using design thinking as an approach to creative problem solving:

At my previous district, we’ve had started doing learning walks the past two years to focus on instructional practice in the classroom. Learning walks have teachers going into their colleagues classroom for a lesson, to learn, observe, and eventually reflect on the type of instruction and pedagogy that took place.

These are very short, often informal, learning opportunities for teacher to learn alongside their colleagues. I’ve said before that learning from each other is often the best way to grow as a teacher. Teachers do learn best from other teachers, and the learning walks have demonstrated a way to open up conversations about instructional practice that might not come up if you did not have that opportunity.

The problem?

It’s hard to get out of the classroom and visit other teachers during the school day. Sometimes it requires loss of prep time, or getting a substitute.

And there are many times where schedules don’t line up and teachers are unable to get into a classroom and see a mini-lesson that they were hoping to check out based on these limitations.

The solution: Virtual reality walkthroughs.

If teachers learn best from observing each other and having follow up conversations, then we need more of these learning walks to take place!

Virtual reality has now made it possible to do this on your own time, when it is convenient and fits the teacher’s schedule.

Here’s how the filming works:

First, you’ll have to get a 360 degree video camera. This allows you to film in 360, so you can watch the entire room (and lesson) as if you were in the classroom in real-time. There are many different types of 360 cameras, and they have all different levels of pricing. One I’d recommend is 360fly HD at $399.

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 6.26.58 AM

Next, you’ll have to mount this 360 camera in the middle of the room (sometimes on a projector works) so that it can film the entire learning scene.

Once the setup is complete, you have to make sure to let the teacher pick the appropriate parts of the lesson that they’d like to film. I think short 10 minute type mini-lessons are perfect for filming. Teachers should try and film multiple lessons and choose the ones they best feel represent the learning they want to share with colleagues.

The filming is simple and afterwards you have a number of different editing options (I’d try to edit as little as possible) before sharing it out with colleagues.

Now for the virtual learning walk:

You are able to share and export the video to all kinds of platforms (including YouTube). However, be sure to keep it as private as possible, and respect student privacy in the classroom. There will be students on the “do not photo” list as well as others who would rather their face not be on Youtube for all to see. Remember this is for learning purposes inside the school, and unless everyone is ok with it being online and shared, you want to keep the videos on a private school-only site.

I’d pick a common time (like an in service, PLC, or department meeting) to watch these lessons. You’ll need a cheap VR headset, like Google Cardboard, to watch in 360 virtual reality.


Depending on how many lessons you have filmed in 360, teachers can plug in their headphones, start the video, and begin to watch a lesson as they look around the classroom…just as they would if they were watching live!

And the follow up:

This is a fantastic way to share best practices. It’s also a smart way to share lessons where teachers and students are taking a learning/making risk, and all may not go as planned. If every lesson you watch is “perfect” you might not learn as much as getting the experience of watching students stumble through trying something new.

Now teachers can reference lessons, moments, and experiences during reflection that they have all witnessed. The learning opportunities are extremely empowering.

Next Steps

The interesting thing about design thinking is that it can be used for entire organization problem-solving or projects in a specific classroom or department.

At Mount Vernon School they’ve embraced design thinking as a way to scale authentic learning in younger grades (K-5) and upper grade levels (6-12):

In 2014, a team of MVIFI (Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation) designers embarked on a design challenge to scale the DEEP methodology into tools for design thinkers to use. Inspired by IDEO and Stanford’s, this playbook has been used all over the country in various industries to inspire people-centered problem solving. We have decided to offer this playbook, which includes a design thinking introduction called a Flashlab, free of charge under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.

At Germantown Academy, Director of Innovation Gaby Russomagno has worked with staff to develop a design thinking mindset, and they’ve brought this work to the entire school in a year-long challenge:

In the Upper School, “Challenge GA” will be implemented as a year-long House competition involving the entire student body and faculty. An issue concerning the GA community as a whole will be presented and each House will be charged with designing and presenting its own solution. Throughout the year, Houses will use House Meetings, occasional assemblies, and outside school time to research, design, and construct viable solutions to the problem. At the end of the year, during a special assembly in April, each House will present its solutions to a panel of professional judges. A winning resolution will be selected, and the GA community will then work to implement the solution.

In each of these examples an entire school, department, or classroom will go through the stages of design thinking to identify and solve problems with unique solutions.

How will you use this process to lead by example?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on design thinking as a way to VALUE all kinds of feedback, see the blind spots, and move organizations forward in meaningful ways.

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