This article was written by Alexander Lau, VP Venture Building of ST Engineering Ventures, and was first published by The OD App, a Self-directed Journey towards Organisational Development Mastery.

Part I – How I got into Design Thinking

I have been doing Design Thinking throughout my entire 30-year professional career, but I was blissfully unaware of the term Design Thinking for the first 20 years. Trained in Industrial Design, I spent the first 20 years of my professional life practising design and running my own design firms. We created products, brands, and services that are still encountered by millions of Singaporeans in their daily lives today. It was only around the late 2000s that ‘Design Thinking’ started to creep into the awareness of the Singapore Design community. I attended a Design Thinking workshop organised by the DesignSingapore Council, and remember vividly that my team at the workshop came up with a concept for ‘GoToo’, a ride-sharing platform like Uber or Grab, way before those companies came into existence. Alas, we did not have the technical chops to bring the concept to reality. Since that workshop, I realised the power of being able to structure our design process into simple steps that can be taught easily to others. I used it to guide interns at my firm and saw great improvements to their work. I also found it easier to describe to my parents what I really do for a living, rather than just pointing them to the products that I have designed.

After I sold my design business, I went to set up a Design Thinking course at a technical institute. The only reference materials available at that time were from international universities, of which Stanford University had easily accessible materials, but they were pegged at university level. I created simplified and gamified versions of the materials and taught them to my students. The gamified materials gave my non-academically-inclined students a structure and voice to express themselves and communicate their creative ideas. I used the same materials for adult education, and because the materials were designed for extreme users (the technical students), the courses were very popular and effective for adults as well.

Part II – What is Design Thinking?
Since its boom in the late 2000s, there are many definitions for Design Thinking. Many describe it as an iterative process for problem solving, centred around human needs. Being neither academically nor theoretically inclined, I am happy to go with such descriptions. However, if one were to look into the history of Design Thinking, John E. Arnold was one of the first authors to use the term Design Thinking as an approach for Creative Problem Solving in his book Creative Engineering (1959). Arnold proposed that Design Thinking can lead to:

  • novel functionality – solutions that satisfy a new need, or solutions that satisfy an old need in a new way;
  • higher performance levels for a given solution;
  • lower costs; and
  • improved sales

For more current discussions about the definitions of Design Thinking, I find the work of GK VanPatter of and author of several books including Rethinking Design Thinking: Making Sense of the Future that has already arrived; and Innovation Methods Mapping: Demystifying 80+ Years of Innovation Process Design (co-authored by Elizabeth Pastor) – both strong in academic rigour and thought-provoking for future applications. He describes the evolution of Design Thinking in four shifts:

  1. Design Thinking 1.0 – Small-scale challenges (e.g., design of logos, posters, packagings, etc.);
  2. Design Thinking 2.0 – Medium-scale challenges (e.g., design of product, service, experience, etc.);
  3. Design Thinking 3.0 – Large-scale challenges (e.g., design of organisations, systems, industries, etc.); and
  4. Design Thinking 4.0 – Giant-scale challenges (e.g., design for communities, countries, the planet, etc.).

VanPatter calls the challenges at 3.0 and 4.0 ‘Wicked Problems’ that involve multiple interconnected stakeholders and systems, with no distinct solution pathways.

An easy-to-understand ‘Double Diamond’ framework to describe Design Thinking was put forth by the UK’s Design Council.

The first diamond signifies a divergent Discover phase, where one conducts user research and gathers data about a given problem space; followed by a convergent Define phase, where one makes sense of the data gathered to uncover deep insights and to reframe the original challenge.

This is followed by a second diamond which has a divergent Develop phase, where one generates as many ideas as possible to tackle the reframed problem; followed by a convergent Deliver phase where the ideas are turned into prototypes or pilots for testing and selection.

While these descriptions and processes sound and look linear it is important to remember that, in practice, these processes are meant to be iterative – it is a way for designers to keep moving forward with imperfect information at hand. For example, we may Discover and Define interesting insights through user research, but when we Develop and Deliver on ideas, we may find that our hypothesis may be wrong. We then repeat the process, but this time we are better informed with learnings generated from the first round.

It is also important to note that this process is abductive in nature. Instead of learning and analysing everything about a problem before deriving ideas for solving the problem, the Design Thinking process encourages understanding the problem and jumping to proposed solutions in parallel. This way of working allows for abductive ideas to be generated and tested quickly, leading to expansive exploration and higher chances of creative solutions.

Part III – Competencies and Mindsets for an effective Design Thinking Practitioner
My career in design has allowed me to apply Design Thinking in a myriad of situations. I experienced Design Thinking 1.0 through to Design Thinking 4.0 in VanPatter’s model. I started off designing brands and products, then moved on to design services and experiences. I then designed how to teach design when I set up the curriculum for my Design Thinking course. And in the past seven years of my career, I have been applying Design Thinking in the context of government – designing public services and policies in citisen-centric ways. Throughout all these projects, the process is identical. We always start with understanding real users and stakeholders, to reframe the problem. Then we experiment with divergent ideas to select the best directions. Then we implement and track our solutions and refine when necessary. The whole process is always iterative and non-linear, and we always approach projects with curiosity and readiness to pivot when new evidence requires us to do so.

To run the above process effectively, the following competencies are necessary for different levels of practitioners:

ActionCompetencies for different levels of Practitioner
Basic (e.g., Beginner Practitioner)Intermediate (e.g., Project Lead)Advanced (e.g., Consultant/ Mentor/Coach)
Contract with Project Sponsors-Accept requirements from project sponsors and explain to the project teamNegotiate requirements with sponsors based on understanding of the overall objectives
Define Project ScopeUnderstand project objectives, boundaries, and timelineDefine project objectives, boundaries, and timeline for the project team based on sponsors’ requirementsUnderstand sponsors’ needs, influence scoping of project objectives, boundaries, and timeline
Conduct Background ResearchConduct desktop research based on directions set by project leadDefine relevant areas of research to gain deeper understanding of project topicPropose thematic areas of research to gain deeper understanding of the problem space
Analyse DataUse data uncovered to define relevant themes or identify end users to engageWork with experts to analyse data and organise them into themes or end-user groupsProvide guidance on what data and end-user groups to look at and why they may be relevant
Engage End usersConduct deep-dive interviews and observe relevant end user to uncover latent needs and insightsEnsure project team treats end users not just as bearers of the problem statement, but also as part of the solutionCreate opportunities for senior sponsors to engage and empathise with end users on the ground
Map User JourneysMap detailed step-by-step journeys of all relevant end users, highlight the context around each major pain pointUnderstand the interactions across different end-user journeys to uncover potential areas for interventionReview the journey maps with a systemic view to identify opportunities for uncovering deeper insights
Sense-make FindingsOrganise and cluster unstructured data from interviews, observations, and user journeys into meaningful patterns or themesProbe into the insights to uncover behavioural biases of end users or even blind spots within the project teamStep back for a systemic view of the insights and identify relevant levels of the system to intervene at
Reframe Challenges to Inspire IdeasUncover the root issues behind key pain points or identify the real ‘jobs-to-be-done’Reframe ‘jobs-to-be-done’ into an inspiring ‘How might we.…’ challenge statement, along with a set of Guiding Principles, to encourage generative ideationFacilitate conversations to gain support from senior sponsors for the Reframed Challenge Statement and Guiding Principles
Scan FuturesConduct desktop research based on directions set by project leadLead research on Future Trends, Environmental Scan, Emergent Themes, etc. to inspire future-oriented ideationPropose thematic areas for Futures research to get potential inspiration for solutioning
Generate IdeasEngage in divergent thinking to explore a multitude of innovative solutionsFacilitate brainstorming sessions amongst project team and relevant stakeholders to ensure co-creation of solutionsSet ambitious vision based on the Reframed Challenge Statement to inspire forward-looking and generative ideas
Run ExperimentsBuild prototypes and set up experiments to test ideas with real end users; document outcomesSelect ideas, define experiment objectives, guide project team to develop relevant prototypes, set up experiments so that the correct set of metrics are testedProvide guidance on the sponsors and stakeholders to involve, on how to create a safe environment for the experiments, and on the assessment metrics
Learn from FailuresUnderstand why experiments fail and document learnings; refine ideas and try againEncourage resilience amongst project team to learn from failed experiments to improveProvide assurance and guidance to the project team, sponsors, and stakeholders to accept failures and pivot when necessary
Create Implementation PlanProvide detailed plans/visuals/step-by-step storyboard based on the tested and selected idea to explain the roles of all stakeholders involved in executing the final ideaGuide project team on the development of the Implementation PlanEnsure that considerations for People, Process, Tool/Tech and Policy interventions are included in the Implementation Plan to create cohesive and comprehensive solutions
Evaluate OutcomesTrack outcome measures with stakeholdersCreate outcome measures with stakeholders to regularly track, refine and/or terminate the solutionEngage sponsors and key stakeholders to ensure that the solution is on track to meet agreed objectives; influence sponsors to pivot or terminate the project where necessary

(For a better viewing experience, please access this article via a desktop browser).

In practising Design Thinking, besides the above competencies needed to run the process effectively, it is also critical to embrace the mindsets that enable Design Thinking to maximise its potential. To me, the four Design Thinking mindsets that helped me in my journey were: Empathetic, Collaborative, Experimental, and Expansive Mindsets.

An Empathetic Mindset is about seeking out the real people interacting with a service/product/issue and striving to understand deeply what they were trying to achieve from the interaction. Through such deep empathy work, we can uncover or reframe the right problem to tackle, instead of solving the superficial pain points that led us to the challenge in the first place.

A Collaborative Mindset refers to the humility to know that we may not have all the answers. We must also recognise that every individual comes with their own inherent biases. We should work with experts on the ground, diverse teammates, real users, and key stakeholders to learn quickly about the challenge, check one another’s blind spots, and co-create the solution. When running my design consultancy, the traditional way was for me, as the consultant, to advise/nudge the client towards a solution that I thought was optimal. However, in tackling complex challenges, with multiple stakeholders, I have learned that it is always more effective to embrace a collaborative mindset to co-create solutions.

When we are talking about generating new ideas and new value propositions, it is impossible to know, from the get-go, if the ideas are going to work. Hence, it is crucial to experiment with small ideas quickly, learn from them, refine, and iterate towards workable solutions. An Experimental Mindset allows us to get evidence-based validation of our ideas.

And finally, but most critically, we need an Expansive Mindset to practise Design Thinking effectively. Many practitioners may get overly constrained by the challenge they are presented with. For example, if a designer is told to design a cup, they may come up with various creative shapes and configurations for a cup. But if they were to put aside all assumptions and ask, ‘Why do we need a cup?’, they may reframe the challenge to ‘A way for helping humans to ingest liquids’. Getting to the root of an issue helps us to identify the right problem to solve and greatly expands the solution space. This expansive approach changes the entire context of the challenge and opens lots of avenues for exploration into potential solutions.

To apply Design Thinking successfully, it not only requires us to know the process well and to understand the objectives behind each step, but it also requires us to embrace the four mindsets to find the best solutions. We must remember that we are only as good as our next project – not all the past glories which may have been achieved before it.

Part IV - Adapting Design Thinking for Public Sector Innovation

It is during my tenure in government that I encountered other disciplines that influenced my Design Thinking practice greatly. Behavioural Insights (BI), which is about understanding how and why people respond to various situations, is tremendously helpful in our understanding of users’ biases and behaviours. The rigour behind Randomised Control Trials in BI is also very useful in making sure our experiments provide the evidence needed to guide policymaking. I also discovered Organisation Development (OD), which influenced everything about how I work with sponsors, set up project teams, engage stakeholders, manage change, manage polarities, facilitate conversations, design structures to support co-created solutions and, most importantly, diving introspectively to bring my best self into various situations.

From what we have learned, my team created a framework for Public Service Innovation. It is a process that is anchored on Design Thinking but that draws heavily from OD, BI, and other disciplines like Futures Thinking, Business Process Re-engineering, Systems Thinking and even Data Analytics. The framework dispensed with the titles behind each discipline, but it got practitioners to focus on using ‘what works’ and knowing which tool to apply for which situation.

Our Public Service Innovation Process is made up of three key iterative phases: Understand, Experiment, and Implement. It is based on the UK Design Council’s Double Diamond, but we felt that it was important to emphasise a third diamond on implementation. Many practitioners of the Double Diamond process end up with interesting ideas and prototypes but do not take the most important step to implement their ideas. An unimplemented idea cannot be counted as innovation since no one actually reaps any tangible value from the idea.

The Understand phase is about making sure the project is scoped properly with sponsors, within the team, and with the relevant stakeholders. We list key users on both sides of demand and supply and seek to deeply understand their processes, actions, pain points, goals, and motivations, etc. Given the context behind every action and the associated reaction from the user, we synthesise insights and uncover deeper root issues to reframe the challenge.

With a reframed challenge, we move to the Experiment phase. We encourage uninhibited and divergent idea generation. We figure out solutions to different levels of the system. We create rapid prototypes to quickly make our ideas tangible and put them to the test so that we can validate quickly and pivot, or refine where necessary. We shortlist ideas for implementation.

At the Implement phase, we work with stakeholders to prepare them for any impending change. We set up assessment criteria for evaluating solutions, and we conduct trials to measure them. We collect evidence to support the scaling up of solutions.
The three phases are meant to be iterative and non-linear. One can start anywhere in the process, but we recommend completing at least a couple of cycles. For example, someone may have an inspiration for an idea. They start at the Experiment phase, to test the idea, but find that the intended user is not receptive to it. They then go back to the Understand phase to deep dive into user needs before they generate a new round of ideas.

Throughout the three phases, it is important to consider how we are keeping sponsors, team members and key stakeholders engaged. The red arrow at the bottom of the framework reminds us that the design of the solution must be complemented by deliberate and thoughtful stakeholder engagements.

Part V – Tips for getting started in Design Thinking
To get started in Design Thinking, the quickest way is to sign up for short executive courses together with your teammates. I strongly recommend attending such courses as a team because Design Thinking requires team effort, and it is good that the whole team is familiar with the terminology and process. Stanford University is one of the first to offer executive programmes for Design Thinking, and it is well attended by executives from around the world. Other universities like MIT, Aalto, Virginia, etc., have also been offering popular Design Thinking executive programmes. Thanks in part to the current pandemic, many of such courses have moved online and are even more easily accessible.

However, to be successful in doing Design Thinking, there is only one keyword: Practice. While there are countless courses, both online and physical, claiming to train anyone into a Design Thinker (should such a term even exist?), the real secret to success is simply this: Practice. No amount of courses or theories can make anyone an expert at Design Thinking. It is about constantly and diligently applying all the steps and frameworks and, if possible, working with an experienced practitioner, such as a coach or a mentor to the team. An experienced practitioner is someone who has used the full Design Thinking process to successfully implement solutions. There are many so-called trainers or consultants out there who only know the steps of the process but have never seen a project of their own through to real implementation. Such trainers or consultants will not understand the intricacies behind different projects and will be ineffective in helping the team.

For someone new to Design Thinking who is planning to embark on this journey, I would suggest the following:
1. Attend an executive course on Design Thinking

  • Call me old-fashioned or traditional, but my personal preference is for a physical course, instead of an online one – I think there are nuances in physical interactions that make collaboration more effective in person.
  • Ideally, attend the course together with your teammates to have a common understanding of the process and terminology.
  • Courses range from one day to two or three days, or to several days spread over a few months. One-day courses are good for just a quick overview. Two- or three-day courses usually include a brief hypothetical project to let you experience the process and tools. Courses of a longer duration may require participants to bring along a project to work through during the course.

2. Work on a real project together, guided by an experienced practitioner

  • If there are no experienced practitioners within the organisation, this role may be filled by a qualified external consultant.
  • Agree upfront, with the consultant, to ensure that there is capability transfer built into the contract, so that project members from the organisation are deeply involved in the whole process and are coached by the consultant along the way.

3. After working on a few projects, step up to lead a project that is mentored/coached by an experienced practitioner

  • As stated in the competencies table above, leading a project requires a slightly different set of skills compared to executing the project.
  • With the experience from working on projects, the lead may be more accustomed to the seemingly less-structured qualitative research methods and abductive ideation processes to reassure the project team and facilitate expansive discussions.

4. Follow a project through to implementation While this may not always be possible for every project, it is important to understand how ideas are translated from concept, to prototype, to actual execution.

To Learn how an implementation plan is translated into action for each stakeholder, e.g., development of process flow charts, technical drawings, layout plans, policy papers, and user stories for app development, etc.

5. Review and reflect as a project team, after each phase, to revisit the objectives of each step, the action taken, and the tools/processes applied. Then evaluate if the objectives were met.


Below, I have pulled together a list of courses/programmes by reputable organisations, but I have not attended any of them. It is not an endorsement for any of the courses listed; they are just for the readers’ information and convenience.