Design thinking balances reminding us the importance of attentive empathy while creating without boundaries but always with purpose. With process, technology, and people, new methodologies try to enliven the big three in better ways to achieve better results. Design thinking is a methodology, but it brings more humanness to initiatives. Results are essential, however. After all, when people are involved, having the right positive results is what it is all about.

Enter in a new book – Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector by Jeanne Liedtka, Randy Salzman, and Daisy Azer. The methodology highlighted in Design Thinking for the Greater Good is practical and creative. More than the design thinking process, the ten stories bring the value and results of design thinking to life. From Children’s Health to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, design thinking produces positive change and enduring results.

What is Design Thinking?

design thinking for the greater goodAs defined by the authors, design thinking is:

“a problem-solving approach with a unique set of qualities: it is human centered, possibility driven, option focused, and iterative.”

More definition flows from this description, but you grasp the essence of why design thinking is different and successful.

Design Thinking: A Conversation with Salz

Randy Salzman (Salz), one of the authors, is a journalist and former communications professor, and I had an opportunity to ask him a few questions about design thinking and dig deeper into some of the ideas. Our conversation follows.

Jon: I’ve been reading a lot about design thinking over the past several years, and it was interesting to read your case studies and stories on how organizations use design thinking for positive impact.

Salz: The ability to find out, to empathize with stakeholders, the people we are developing something for, is incredibly important. Over 500 years or so, with Western man’s ever greater professionalization, we’ve gradually siloed into ever smaller areas. For the last twenty years, we’re beginning to discover this wonderful concept that the answer is not in the silos; it’s in the edges of the silos, the transitions between the disciplinary areas.

And that is what, in my mind at least, design thinking as a whole is – looking at the overall big picture and the context of the actual humans who will use whatever product or service that they often cannot even articulate but shows up in society. To be qualitative and generating insights and understanding before we’re quantitative and counting specifics. To think possibilities before we think constraints.

Design Thinking on the Edges

Jon: That goes to one of my questions. I agree with what you are saying about the silos and using design thinking to get to the edge because that’s where the change and the information is. But, what also plays a big role is human behavior, and that can be very much of a wild card in making either the design thinking work.

What in your experience helps in getting active, thoughtful participation from people and adjusting their behavior as they are being guided to those edges?

Salz: Well, how you do that is basic communication. However, we humans have gotten deeper into our screens, whether they be television screens, computer screens, or phone screens. With more screen time, the less ability we seem to have to empathize and understand those we are trying to communicate with.

I don’t know that anybody has come up with a way to analyze the change qualitatively even, much less quantitatively, but almost everyone is aware that people are finding it easier to be incredibly aggressive on the internet and can often isolate themselves internally with their phone in a situation which should be very social.

So those kind of silo trends are presenting, in my mind, a great need for businesses, organizations, non-profits, or governments to go back to what used not to have to be taught – interpersonal communication and creative collaboration. Both are immensely important in design thinking.

Jon: Right.

Salz: The ability to communicate with others, mostly face-to-face, and the ability to work as a team and understand that diversity are essential in design thinking. True diversity is not just age, race, or sex. True diversity is about different ways of thinking. When you can combine the different ways of thinking and develop an understanding of a problem, wow, do you have immense humanity that can address and solve problems.

But if you’re stuck in the quantitative culture – which is again for the last 500 years, we’ve gotten more quantitative, more and more specialized – if you get stuck there, you only hear the same voices that are going on in your own head. You don’t step outside and recognize that there are multiple ways to look at any problem, issue, or opportunity. And design thinking is a process – a process for collaborative creativity, which basically takes back the social technology of interpersonal relationships and communication.

Design Thinking: Risk and Creativity

Jon: One of the things I found powerful and fascinating is the four steps of what is, what if, what wows, and what works. Regarding some of the things you just said, it seems like we have become too comfortable, or too stuck, in what is part of our over-segmentation of customers or politics or whatever the case may be. And, the result is we’re not thinking more about the what if or what wows. We’re stuck in trying to keep what is.

Do you see that being a challenge?

Salz: Yes. We are human, and that means we’re homo sapiens, each of us as confused as all the other homo sapiens. Like other homo sapiens on the planet, we have rules of thumb. Those rules of thumb start with us from the moment we’re born, and we develop them as we go forward. So, if you get to be, for example, mid-level management in some large organization, you have the rule of thumb that “The first thing I’ve got to do is to manage the day-to-day, and I’ve got to do these steps to get there. If I don’t do that, I’ll get fired.”

The idea that we should take time to think about new ways of approaching the entire mission of an organization, or the ways that we address that mission, is very difficult for many. If I’m a mid-level manager, first, it seems I have no time to do any real thinking and then, I’ve mastered the existing system. Why, therefore, should I value change? It can only undercut my success.

That can only be challenged and overcome by the clarity and resonance of perceivable future, a future that most likely I want to invent myself and bring forward. Design thinking addresses all of those things.

We have what we call the two basic manager personalities, the George and the Geoffrey. The George is the command and control manager who’s been around for a long time. He comes from a fixed mindset. He has learned that life is a test, and the best way to get through life is not to look stupid.

The other manager is a Geoffrey, and Geoffrey is the person who just likes to be creative. He or she has learned that life is a great journey of learning. The more Geoffrey is doing new things; the more exciting the world is for him. Those two characteristics are dynamic together and destructive opposed.

Design thinking builds the synergy between the Georges and Geoffreys.

Now, let’s look at the four questions of the design thinking methodology. What Is and What If are the areas of the Geoffrey, bringing in the new ideas. Then the What Wows and What Works are the basic ballparks of the Georges, who then go back and say, “We got this good idea, let’s figure out how we can see if it’s going to work before we put a lot of money and time behind it.”

We do that through a variety of processes. The full four question methodology has fifteen steps. But everybody doesn’t have to go through those fifteen steps. It’s just a way to make it easy for people to learn to think collaboratively and creatively, which is what we did when we were kids. It takes the power of the diverse personalities, the Georges and the Geoffreys, and uses them to make the best of both of them, not to fight with each other.

Social Technology and Design Thinking

Jon: Interesting. Another angle to get your perspective on is over-design. Some initiatives can get too focused on the process and over-design the process or over-apply technology. How do you try to get the right tempo between the process design and the technology applied in design thinking initiatives?

Salz: It’s interesting because when we talk to young groups about design thinking, we do a variety of experiential kind of processes and their solutions almost always involve technology. Technology is so much a part of them that they don’t recognize that it’s a part of them. And people my age, and I’m in my sixties, we come up with solutions that are very much directed towards the social mold, and yet we are not considered as social as the younger generations.

I find that is just immensely interesting for what it means for society. The technology of big data is so phenomenal that people can extract minute pieces of information and develop a completely quantitative way of looking at life.

In that process, we might be returning to a time when you could only know what was in our villages, like in a pre-Gutenberg era – before printing. During this time, you could only know the people and the ideas that were generated in your particular village. Then you gradually got narrower and narrower about your particular village until you became the village elder. Maybe we’re seeing that same thing happening with technological villages, not physical ones? It may sound like I am anti-technology, but I am not. The actual technology is absolutely wonderful. It’s what we use technology for, and that includes social technology, which design thinking is a part of.

Coming back to why are we doing this, in design thinking, we try to make life better for human beings. So, you should understand behavioral economics, human psychology, communications, and all of the things that whole lives basically used to teach us.

In design thinking, we try to make life better for human beings.


While providing immense data, technology may not be particularly helpful for corporations or non-profits dealing with truly wicked issues because those wicked issues are usually human centered. The first thing we try to do with design thinking is we try to take that big picture thinking and deeply understand problems before possible solutions. Those are the What Is and What if questions. What Wows and What Works questions are designed to ensure that the Geoffreys and the Georges work together.

The Geoffreys tell the Georges that you can’t talk about the constraints until they really think about the possibilities, and the Georges tell the Geoffreys, “Well, sorry, but you know it – whatever it is – isn’t going to work in this world right now. Maybe it’s a great idea for some other time or some other situation, but it’s not going to work right now.” If the team does that well, they make themselves better.

A good George and Geoffrey combination brings out the best for the greater good of each other and the greater good of society, and we found ten stories of where design thinking has really addressed some very wicked problems in wonderful and exciting ways. In these stories, we hope to inspire others to address other wicked problems and work to solve more of society’s issues.

Design Thinking for the Generations

Jon: That’s a great transition maybe to a final question. If you look to the next generation that’s here and coming into the workforce – Millennials and then Generation Z, what advice or guidance would you have for them as it relates to design thinking? They will be the ones who will be tackling even bigger issues left behind by the Boomers and Gen Xers.

Salz: First of all, don’t forget that you were a kid.

In Singapore, they do design thinking training with very young elementary school children because they don’t want them to forget that the way they survive as a child is in a small group. For example, you and I can remember building a treehouse. We had to solve the communication problems. We had to solve the logistic problems, and we had to do it together. Don’t forget that being a kid, you make it all work. If you don’t work together, you have no future.

design thinkingIf I wanted to, and I hope I resist this myself, I could go on Facebook or another platform; I could prove to myself that the world basically revolves around me. I could say that I’m talking to Jon today and think that the world really cares about that. If I did that, there would be two or three people who would go on my Facebook page and say, “Congratulations!, I heard you’re talking to Jon today,” as if that is actually important.

The more I do that, the more the world seems to revolve around me; the less willing I am to want to learn. Why? There’s no reason for me to learn anything because the world already revolves around me. The person who has written about this the most powerfully is Mark Bauerlein in a book called The Dumbest Generation. He’s not talking about literally generations; he’s talking about people who use technology just to assure that they are thinking correctly as opposed to challenging their thinking. When we talk about design thinking, we’re talking about collaborative creativity where you want to add diversity; where you explore deeply, empathize constantly, ideate rapidly, prototype simply and iterate constantly; where you’re always challenging your thinking and adapting to that challenge.

For example, in our last question, What Works?, we talk about co-creation. In co-creation, we’re saying, all right you’ve got a prototype of your idea, and you want to find out if that prototype is on the right track. What’s taking place is the “What Wow” – or seems reasonable – is moving into the “What Works” – or quick testing — section. In the What Works, you go out and co-create with the people that you think can use your idea and give them just enough of a story so they can help make your story much more powerful, much better, and therefore improve your product or service.

When we co-create, we tell people “to seek the bad news.” Get the co-creators to tell you what does not work, what seems to be a problem, what they don’t understand, which is really hard for a lot of people, especially the Geoffreys of the world. It seems negative, but it’s only negative in the way it’s often expressed. It’s positive if you look hard to understand what the co-creator is telling you, what you can learn. You, the innovator, can decide to pitch the idea; to shelf it for another time or to iterate towards a better solution.

Design Thinking: Use It

I am grateful for the time Salz spent with me. He brought many ideas behind Design Thinking for the Greater Good to life with his thoughts and passion. More than passion, Salz represents the purpose of design thinking well.

Skeptics may think design thinking is too basic or too creative. Design thinking is for those “other” organizations and businesses. However, the results the book shows can convert the skeptics. More importantly, design thinking creates solutions to change how services are delivered and products developed. If we think about “What Wows” more often, we get a better result between “What If” and “What Works.”

My hope. We take the stories and process highlighted in Design Thinking for the Greater Good and apply it to do more good more often – in our services, products, and solutions. We may not get design thinking right every time. But the more we try to use design thinking, the closer we will get to designing a better future. More than this, we will learn, grow, and build a legacy to continue our offerings.

Design thinking can create a culture that sustains.


Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash
Design thinking is a problem solving way. Design thinking is human centered, possibility driven, and iterative. Greater good rises a theme and a result.