Guide: Practice innovation with design thinking


In addition to building a culture that fosters innovation, there are different methods for tapping into a team's collective creativity. Design thinking is one approach that combines creativity and structure to solve big problems.

Originally used by architects like Bryan Lawson, engineers like L. Bruce Archer, and even political scientists like Herbert Simon, “design thinking” has come to be a process that can be applied to any complex problem. Stanford Professors Rolf Faste and David Kelley, who later founded the design consultancy IDEO, were among the first to broadly teach and apply this design approach to problem solving. This approach has been used to brainstorm solutions for societal issues like getting kids to eat healthy school lunches as well as to help well-established companies redefine their place in a fast-changing industry. Today, design thinking is taught as a formal course at places like Stanford’s, the HPI School of Design Thinking, and Harvard University.

Google uses design thinking as one method to teach teams and individuals to think creatively, an important step in the process of innovation.

Guide: Practice innovation with design thinking

Understand the context

Core to design thinking is the belief that ideas can come from anywhere and anyone can innovate. The generation of ideas is an important part of the innovation process, and while different descriptions of the overall innovation process exist, researchers Jill E. Perry-Smith and Pier Vittorio Mannucci usefully break it down into four phases:

  1. Generate ideas: This phase is all about quantity, not quality. The more ideas you have, the better. It’s not about coming up with the perfect solution — instead, think about your problem from all angles and try to think of several possible solutions. The more perspectives you have, the better, as new ideas tend to arise when you combine information that hasn’t been combined before.
  2. Prototype and experiment: Once you have your long list of ideas, you need a systematic way to narrow down your list. The challenge is that it’s very hard to tell a good idea from a great one. Prototyping, or building an early-stage version of your idea and testing it out on a small group, can be a great way to see what actually works. Learn from failures and iterate. Emotional support and constructive feedback are important at this stage to keep the process moving forward and to improve upon the original idea.
  3. Champion: Even if you have a great idea, you need support and resources to scale it up. Innovators need to persuade decision makers that they have the ability to successfully implement an idea, and it helps to have data from early experiments to back up that claim.
  4. Implement: At this point, the idea is turned into something tangible, like a finished product or a service. But success isn’t measured by production alone; a successful innovation needs to have impact. It needs to be adopted within the organization.

Design thinking helps individuals build the skills they need to effectively generate ideas and test them out — the first two stages of the innovation process. By encouraging your teams to learn about design thinking, you’ll reinforce innovative values in your culture, give people a common language to talk about innovation, and make innovation something that’s accessible to everyone.

Guide: Practice innovation with design thinking

Build your creative capacity

Google’s Creative Skills for Innovation Lab, or CSI:Lab, teaches teams and individuals to think creatively and innovate using design thinking. This program is one of the ways we support an innovative environment at Google and is our adaptation of the design thinking process.

The CSI:Lab focuses on building three core creative abilities:

  1. Empathy (“know the user”): Empathy is an intentional effort to understand people’s aspirations about how they live, work, and play. Increasingly, researchers recognize that actively taking the perspective of others “encourages employees to develop ideas that are useful as well as novel.” With empathy, you can find inspiration in real human needs and motivations to create meaningful products and solutions that meet those needs. One of the most important aspects of the CSI:Lab design thinking exercise is the focus on users. Every CSI:Lab exercise starts with a discussion about the people who will use the product or service.
  2. Expansive thinking (“think 10x”): Idea generation is another important step in the innovation process. The goal of brainstorming is quantity, not quality — most of the ideas generated aren’t useful. Research shows that the productivity of brainstorming sessions tends to decrease when groups are too large, sessions are monitored or recorded, or when people can’t work independently first. Challenge the group to come up with ideas not just 10% better but 10x better than the status quo. Thinking of a problem in terms of how you can be 10x more impactful can steer you toward radical new possibilities.
  3. Experimentation (“be prototype-driven”): Experimentation is a way of building your way towards solutions. Test out ideas in this phase and get real data about whether or not it makes sense to move it forward, kill it, or tweak it. For example, Google tests its products internally before releasing them to the public, a process that Googlers call “Dogfooding.” Google also sometimes releases a new service in beta to get feedback from people outside of the company before a wide release. Consider how you could pilot an idea to gather feedback.

Google has used design thinking to approach challenges throughout the organization. In HR, for example, CSI:Labs have focused on improving the internal transfer experience, enhancing the candidate experience, and making it easier for recruiters to keep job candidates updated.

build Tool: Run a CSI:Lab on design thinking

Design thinking builds the capacity to problem solve creatively. The process is focused on developing people, not products, and teaches skills that can lead to increased innovation within an organization. For example, practicing empathy can help your people better understand the user perspective and what problems are most important to solve. When Google’s researchers spent more time with a subset of Android users who were visually impaired, they learned that many needed help setting up their devices. As a result, Google added the ability to enlarge fonts, increase magnification, and turn on screen reading during the activation process.

Google’s CSI:Lab is part of the larger Googlers-to-Googlers (g2g) program, which offers opportunities for all employees to share their knowledge and learn from their peers. As part of orientation, new Googlers on their second day of work participates in a CSI:Lab focused on solving critical business challenges for the company. All CSI:Lab participants are encouraged to share what they’ve learned with others and to run their own CSI:Labs. With a base of nearly 250 facilitators, the CSI:Lab helps Google continue to build a vibrant community of innovators.

Keep in mind that the innovation process looks different for every organization. Ultimately, it’s about finding a process that works for your people and your culture. Make the message stick by using existing language that your organization already uses. For example, Google’s CSI:Lab uses existing Google phrases such as “focus on the user,” “think 10x,” and “be prototype-driven” to reinforce the general steps to the innovation process.

Take a closer look at Google’s CSI:Lab course materials and the accompanying facilitator guide below and customize it for your organization. Whatever method you use to get people thinking about innovation, build your design thinking process around your people in a way that works best for your organization.

CSI:Lab Lesson Plan & Facilitator Guide

The CSI:Lab (Creative Skills for Innovation) workshop gives people the mindset, process and tools to accelerate innovation and to find out what it takes to get from ill-defined problems to well-designed solutions. Attendees work through a complex challenge to come up with new approaches and potential solutions. After the session, participants will also have the resources to apply their innovation skills to future projects and challenges.

CSI:Lab Slides

Use these slides with the CSI:Lab Lesson Plan & Facilitator Guide to deliver your own CSI:Lab.

build Tool: Consider a design sprint

One way to apply the skills developed through design thinking is with a design sprint. A design sprint is a specific process used to test out ideas for a product, service, or process, whereas a design thinking process focuses on building people’s capacity to innovate. A sprint is deliberately fast-paced; the team goes through several phases of prototypes and testing in just a few days. The focus could be a physical or virtual product or an intangible business solution, such as a new tool or internal process.

The purpose of the design sprint is to reduce the risk associated with launching a new idea. The Google design sprint framework was created in 2010, drawing from work done at places like IDEO and Stanford and developed over the years by GV (formerly known as Google Ventures). The design sprint methods are organized into five phases:

  1. Understand: Map out the problem and get the whole team on the same page.
  2. Sketch: Generate a broad range of ideas and narrow down to a select group.
  3. Decide: As a team, decide what idea to test.
  4. Prototype: Build only what you need to validate your ideas in a very short time frame.
  5. Validate: See live users interact with your team’s ideas and hear direct feedback from your target audience.

Check out Google’s Design Sprint Kit to learn more about the design sprint phases, methods, and for examples of how people have used this process.