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Learning to use design thinking tools for successful innovation

Jeanne Liedtka (Professor at the Darden School at the University of Virginia)

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 6 September 2011




Design thinking is a process of continuously redesigning a business to achieve both product and process innovation. The purpose of this paper is to present a this case study of two managers – both highly capable and committed, both seeking to innovate – a design thinking approach with a set of four tools which enables one to succeed with his initiative while the other struggles.


The author demonstrates the use of four tools routinely practiced by successful innovation firms: Journey Mapping – the ethnographic technique to follow the customer home to explore their problems in life; Assumption Testing – a prototyping technique long practiced within any firm's R&D area; Co‐creation – the surest way to de‐risk a new offering is to involve your value chain partners in the innovation's small initial experiments; and Rapid Prototyping – making small bets fast is nothing more than good old hypothesis generating and testing. Many managers have become so analysis focused that they have forgotten that the best data in an uncertain environment come from real world trials, not extrapolation of history. A tool like assumption testing, that structures the process, is essential.


The paper finds that learning only occurs when we step away from the familiar and accept the uncertainty that inevitably accompanies new experiences. Innovation means moving into uncertainty.

Research limitations/implications

The cases are drawn from direct experience working with large US corporations.

Practical implications

These are tools that any manager can use to execute an innovation initiative.


The paper reveals that it is important to have customer intimacy with a deep and personal empathy with customers as people, rather than as demographic or marketing categories. A focus on improving their lives (not just selling them products), allows perception of new opportunities (unarticulated needs) that others miss. It also highlights the importance of a low‐risk approach. One can expect to make mistakes and therefore adopt a portfolio‐based, experimental approach, in which multiple small experiments are done to test the ideas in action. Reduce risk whenever possible and increase learning by partnering with suppliers, giving them skin in the game. It also reveals that one should not bet on analysis alone; one should not seek the one right “answer” nor look only for “big” wins at the outset, or to be able to “prove” the value of the idea before moving into the marketplace. All of these beliefs are fatally flawed in the context of the uncertainty surrounding growth.



Liedtka, J. (2011), "Learning to use design thinking tools for successful innovation", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 39 No. 5, pp. 13-19.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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