8 Design Thinking Skills for Leadership Development

Let’s explore what design thinking as a leadership skill means and how to equip leaders with top design thinking skills.

What is design thinking?

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” – Tim Brown, Executive Chair of Ideo

What is a design thinking leader? Why is it important?

According to Gartner, design thinking is the number one emerging soft skill (cognitive and social skills) for C-Suite executives. As organisations become increasingly flat and agile, leaders need to understand how to cultivate a psychologically safe environment, lead with empathy, and think in a user-centered way. Design thinking allows us to view leadership in new ways. It offers a good range of practical tools as well as an ideology that links up well with other leadership development approaches.

Top Skills for Developing as a Design Thinking Leader

So what does design thinking mean in the context of leadership development?

1. Empathy

Simon Sinek states that Empathy is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox. It is about caring for the wellbeing of human beings beyond the business deliverables. In design thinking, empathy is the key to understanding your users, be it your customers or colleagues.

2. Systems Thinking

The ability to connect the dots and see the forest from the trees is what systems thinking is about. Mastering systems thinking allows leaders to understand different parts of a system, how they interact and how delays play a part in most systems.

Have you ever turned on the hot water tap and instead of waiting for it to get warm, impatiently turning on more heat? You end up with boiling hot water and adjusting the tap furiously cooler. Sometimes waiting is the smartest action.

Inforgraphic: 8 Skills and Traits to Develop Yourself as a Design Thinking Leader

This infographic illustrates 8 design thinking skills for leaders and HR professionals. Click to enlarge…

3. Feedback and Continuous Improvement

A design thinking process always includes an active testing and feedback loop. Feedback is an essential tool to constantly iterate and improve. Impactful feedback leads an inquiry into what happened and what impact it had on the outcome.

4. Questioning Mindset

Design Thinking leaders can see situations with an open, questioning mindset. Asking ”Why?” and “What if?” creates focus and inspires change.  Understanding the purpose and seeing the direction clearly is vital in a turbulent business landscape.

5. Collaboration and Facilitation

Design thinking is not a solo skill. To enable teams to do their best work, design thinking leaders facilitate dialogue, ideation and decision-making and can do that whether face to face or online.

6. Customer Centricity

If you are not serving the customer, make sure that you are serving someone who is. Design thinking leaders advance a customer-centric culture in the organisation. Buurtzorg is a great example of a self-organised, lean company, which is completely organized around the customer.

7. Coaching

Design Thinking leaders foster growth in individuals and in teams.  A leader as a coach cultivates crucial conversations, powerful questions and removes barriers to success. Coaching involves enabling people to find their own answers in a safe environment.

8. Change Management

The capacity to advocate for learning and innovation and at the same time ensure that something happens on the ground is the mark of a great design thinking leader. Using Rapid Prototyping and starting with the “low-hanging fruit” are great approaches for taking ideas into action. What is the smallest subset of our idea or a concrete action we can take right now?

Learning More

To learn how to introduce design thinking to managers and leaders in an engaging, experiential workshop (online or face to face), take a look at our Unlimited Design Thinking workshop. A sneak peek below.


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Design Thinking

Introduce Design Thinking to your leaders in a collaborative and experiential workshop – online or face to face.

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