An Echelon Media Company
Friday February 23rd, 2024

Design Thinking – Charting New Futures for the Digital Era

Ramesh Shanmuganathan Executive Vice President and CIO at John Keells Holdings

Ramesh Shanmuganathan explains why there needs to be a change in the way we solve problems or create solutions and a shift brought about by a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know was possible. This is fast becoming a human-centred approach to innovation which is used by many organisations to identify, create and build new futures for themselves.

Design Thinking is an iterative process through which one can better understand the context, the user needs and expectations, points of friction, opportunities, challenges, assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding.

It also provides a solution-based approach to solving problems that revolve around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom we’re designing the products or services. It further helps us observe and develop empathy with the target user groups and can be extremely useful in tackling problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing.

Why DESIGN as a lever to drive TRANSFORMATION?

Design affects much more than appearances and can help develop innovative solutions for just about any problem. Thinking like a designer helps you become aware of issues in a way that isn’t very natural to other disciplines, and this can be especially helpful when users are involved too. Design both helps you understand issues in a new context, and figure out how solutions will work in real-time and test them out iteratively. Design helps you,

  • Define and redefine a problem: It helps you better comprehend the real problem, beyond the symptom of a larger problem.
  • Make the process collaborative: It creates a positive environment for experimenting and growth and eliminates the fear of failure since it’s an iterative process.
  • It helps solve a problem in new ways: The approach of divergent thinking generates new possibilities that otherwise will not be explored It puts the customer/user first: User-centric approach helps clarify and define the problem well and in creating solutions that will yield value rather than just features.
  • It leads to simpler and more effective solutions: This yields the most optimal solution due to the convergent approach in validating the solution with the opportunity to iteratively improve on it.

Design is a process; and when you think of it that way, it becomes less about appearances and more about discovering new opportunities to meet and exceed a customer’s or user’s expectations. It helps you develop a mindset focused on customers and solutions built to evolve with their growing needs thus propelling great philosophy to build great businesses fueled by innovation. Today, when everyone is looking to reimagine and remodel themselves to stay relevant find solutions that relate to the users takes higher precedence than ever before and that’s why design takes the center stage.

What’s is the crux of DESIGN THINKING? How has it gained popularity as a method in solving problems across the board?

Design thinking is both an ideology and a process, concerned with solving complex problems in a highly user-centric way. It’s an approach to understanding and solving complex problems. It is rooted in people, in place, and in a process that unlocks the insights and creative collaboration needed to generate innovation. Further, it is also now a widely-used term to describe the creation of solutions to challenges using what is often called ‘a human-based approach’. The term human-centred means placing users and their needs as the starting point of developing any new product, service or solution.

There are key reasoning patterns in design in dealing with open and complex problems and this has gained wider adoption in other fields of late due to the framework, processes, and tools which helps you to look at a problem in a broader light and through the lens of the customer/user. The heart of design thinking can be described as basic reasoning patterns that humans use in problem-solving by comparing different ‘settings’ of the knowns and unknowns in the equation:

What (Thing) + How (Working Principles) = Results (Observation)

When one applies the rule of “Deduction” to a design problem to determine “RESULTS” it becomes predictive.

What (Thing) + How( Working Principles) = ???? (Observation)

When one applies the rule of “induction” to a design problem to determine the “HOW” it becomes creative.

What (Thing) + ????? (Working Principles) = Results (Outcome)

When one applies the role of “Abduction” to a design problem to determine the “WHAT” it becomes productive.

?????? (Thing) + How (Working Principles) = Results (Outcome)

In Design Thinking, you apply all these three principles to create value through deduction, induction as well as abduction to find out WHAT and HOW to create sustainable VALUE.

What (Thing) + How(Working Principles) = Value (Aspired)

Today the intensity of hyper-connectivity, globalization, hyper-competition, platform economy, ecosystems thinking, etc. is increasingly making it more and more difficult for you to predict the future and figure out where to go next as a business. Further, it is also becoming harder to anticipate what is likely to happen and prepare yourself for it, similar to the pandemic. This has perplexed some of the greatest businesses of our times and intrigued many minds as to what’s next. Design Thinking has earned a name for itself as a more credible and pragmatic means of finding answers to these problems iteratively whilst balancing the aspirations of all stakeholders and more importantly that of the customer/user.

How does one distinguish between DESIGN and DESIGN THINKING?

We all make the mistake of thinking design is what something looks like and creative designers are mandated with making things look good. But on the contrary, Design is not just what it looks like and feels like, but rather how it works. Design thinking is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is practically feasible; viable as a business strategy in creating customer value and market opportunity.

Most often than not thinking like a designer brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is feasible and viable. It also allows people who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges. Design thinking draws on logic, imagination, intuition and systemic reasoning to explore the possibilities of what could be and to create desired outcomes that benefit the customer/user.

A design mindset is not problem-focused, it’s solution-focused and action-oriented. It involves both analysis and imagination and is linked to creating an improved future and seeks to build ideas up – unlike critical thinking, which breaks them down. Problem-solving is making something go away. Creating is bringing something into being. Design thinking informs human-centred innovation and begins with developing an understanding of customers’ or users’ unmet or unarticulated needs. The purpose of design, ultimately to improve the quality of life for everyone.

How does DESIGN THINKING help to solve real-world problems?

Most often when you are facing uncertainty, it’s essential to have a structured thinking process to guide your journey. Design thinking offers a structured framework for understanding complexity and pursuing innovation, which is part scientific inquiry and part art.

Any new solution or business concept derived from observing customers is actually a hypothesis – a well-informed guess about what customers desire and what they will value. Rapid prototyping provides the means to place small bets on a hypothesis and test it out before investing in it. In Design Thinking, you employ design concepts to pull together what’s desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows those who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges and/or problems. It’s about embracing simple mindset shifts and tackling problems from a new direction action and understanding the problem by asking the right questions such as,

  • Who are we trying to solve a problem for?
  • What’s the problem?
  • Have we understood the problem correctly?
  • What are the broader parameters within which we wish to solve this problem?
  • Desirability
  • Viability
  • Feasibility

It further helps you to iteratively improve on the solution to,

  • Better understand the real-world problem with real-world synthesis
  • Frame the problem better by comprehending the issues/problems faced by the user to elicit hidden or latent demands of the users for whom you are trying to solve the problem
  • Take a balanced approach and mitigate any risk associated when you try new ideas, products, solutions or services
  • Generate a broader spectrum of solutions beyond the specific problem for which you intended to find a solution hence creating the opportunity for new futures as much solving problems of today
  • Embrace innovation in the most optimal fashion since it lets you learn and iterate on the solutions in an incremental manner which gives you the flexibility, opportunity as well as agility to create a blue ocean and create that point of inflexion for your product or service

How does one adapt DESIGN THINKING in organizations to drive INNOVATION and NEW FUTURES?

The biggest challenge today is getting people to change and embrace new ways of doing things and that’s where a design-centric approach fundamentally changes the whole game by placing the HUMAN at the centre in finding solutions and/or answers. Anytime you’re trying to change people’s behaviour, it’s best to start with a lot of structure so it becomes intuitive since a lot of what they do is habitual and it’s hard to change those habits. So, by having very clear guard rails, you can help people to change their habits.

The framework for Creativity is critical for Design Thinking since it integrates design thinking principles with classic creative problem-solving techniques. Further, design thinking is an iterative and non-linear cycle that involves developing a deep understanding of customers’ or users’ unmet needs within the context of a particular situation, making sense of data and discovering insights, questioning assumptions, exploring different perspectives, reframing problems into opportunities, generating creative ideas, critiquing and choosing ideas, testing through prototyping and experimentation, refining solutions, and finally implementing your innovation.

It’s easy to embrace this practice by adopting embracing the following steps but bearing in mind that this is a journey and a discovery. It is a method that gives to the ability to strategise whilst designing your solution as well.

  • Start with the basics of how to be a design thinker/ doer from a seasoned practitioner.
  • Explore and look for ways to add quality/value to your products, services and offerings.
  • Build your creative confidence by conducting low-risk experiments, such as designing a meeting with your team. Explore a few problem statements and practice the method.
  • Learn how to coach and facilitate creativity – co-creation, collaboration and co-innovation. This is crucial for creating a safe space for conceptual risk-taking and leveraging others capability in developing break-through ideas as well.
  • Stay focused on the users’ experience as a primal driver at all times.
  • Give the team the space to unlock provocative insights, reframe existing problems, and generate ideas in response to your research.
  • Encourage multiple perspectives. Reframe constraints into opportunities and check assumptions.
  • Setup Digital and/or Innovation Labs as well as Open/Co-innovation programs to drive this as scale.

It’s also helpful to develop these practices which will help you institutionalize same within your own organizations,

  1. Development of a deep empathic understanding of user needs and context
  2. Formation of heterogeneous, cross-functional teams
  3. Facilitation of dialogue-based conversations
  4. Generation of multiple solutions winnowed through experimentation
  5. Use of a structured and facilitated process.

What are key CRITICAL SUCCESS FACTORS that the leadership should identify and nurture in embracing DESIGN THINKING in their respective organizations?

Design thinking works because it is a collaborative, co-creative process grounded in engagement, dialogue, and learning. The key is to get your customers and/or stakeholders in the process of defining the problem and in developing solutions, you have a much better chance of gaining commitment for change, and getting buy-in for your innovation as an organization.

The key CSFs that leadership should focus on should be,

  1. Leadership: The design thinking initiatives of your organization must be linked to your strategic goals. Provide executive sponsorships, direction, resources, budgets, commitment and an environment for experimentation.


  1. People: The people must be empowered to break traditional moulds and ways of doing things. They should be enabled to lead the change through sponsored lighthouse projects. Design Thinking must be a key competency that must be mapped and developed within the organization by building a Center of Excellence internally for Design Thinking to establish and drive the best and next practices as well as to share learnings.


  1. Process: Leverage established frameworks rather than reinvent the wheel, but evolve the method and tools as appropriate once you mature and align to the organization’s objectives.


  1. Environment: Develop and create collaborative workspaces across the organization where it’s easier to work across departments and functions and even beyond the organization. Leverage the opportunity to drive co-innovation and open innovation together with your customers, suppliers, financial institutions, partners, etc.


DESIGN Thinking is a method that can truly unleash your true potential, but we must acknowledge that we are not there yet. Design thinking is our best tool for sense-making, meaning-making, simplifying processes, and improving customer experiences whilst minimizing your risks, reducing your costs, improving your time to market as well as giving your employees a more dynamic workplace.

Design thinking provides the organizations and its leadership a broader framework to address complex human-centred challenges and make the best possible decisions across the board from redefining value; reinventing business models; shifting markets and behaviours; organisational culture change; complex societal challenges such as health, education, food, water and climate change or problems affecting diverse stakeholders and multiple systems.

Finally, bear in mind that the main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for and Leadership is exactly the same thing – building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to guide and develop.