Design thinking
5 min read

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a creative process that draws from the designer’s toolkit, to solve problems and make innovation more successful. Design thinkers question assumptions, collaborate and build prototypes as early as possible to test ideas and get feedback. 

It’s a practical, hands-on, action-orientated approach. The old adage that organizations need to put people first can be turned into reality when design thinking is applied to the workplace

The most impactful Facilities managers constantly question how they can enable their colleagues to do their best work. This often comes down to removing barriers that stand in their way. Design thinking processes enable you to uncover ways to create ideal conditions for the people in your organization, serving as a catalyst for behaviour change.

It’s little wonder that one of the most in-demand leadership traits today is emotional intelligence. EQ enables leaders to deeply explore and understand the needs and desires of others. 

This understanding is a vital part of the design thinking process. Facilities leaders who work closely with their people to explore problems, refine concepts and play with prototypes, add tremendous value to their organizations. 

How can design thinking help me as a facilities manager?

Given Facilities Management is faced with evermore complex challenges in engaging and supporting a more agile, flexible workforce, you’ll benefit significantly from adopting a design thinking approach. It can transform the way your organization creates strategies, products, services and processes. 

Back in the day when Facilities was all about physical infrastructure, end-user needs were a relatively small part of the equation. Yes, we needed to provide a safe, secure, reasonably comfortable space for employees to work in. 

Yet these days the workplace – encompassing the needs of team members who work any place – is nothing short of a differentiator. The workplace is a source of competitive advantage. It influences our ability to attract and retain talent. 

It determines whether people collaborate, or operate in silos. It impacts the productivity and success of our organization; its agility, sustainability and longevity. Given the level of responsibility for organizational success that now rests on Facilities’ shoulders, it’s essential we begin to solve problems in new ways. 

As for Design, as a discipline, it traditionally focused on aesthetic style, but in recent years has evolved to focus more heavily on the end user. That’s why you’ll see examples of products that don’t look very ‘designed’ at all, but are highly usable and enormously successful. Google is a prime example.

This means that rather than designers coming up with solutions to problems, the process becomes more nuanced. These days they typically avoid coming up with a solution until they’ve fully explored the problem with the customer. 

They often reframe the problem and consider it from multiple perspectives. They look at a wider gamut of possible solutions, testing out different ideas and eliciting feedback along the way. 

Modern design thinking and facilities management

Modern solution designers in every discipline make fewer assumptions than their traditional counterparts. They expect to try multiple solutions before settling on the optimum way forward. What’s more, design thinkers never see a solution as final. 

Everything can be iterated, improved upon and tinkered with. That way, even age-old problems can be approached with fresh thinking and a renewed desire not to settle. When fully embraced, design thinking means we can say goodbye to static, legacy systems that hang around forever in our organizations, making life perpetually difficult and expensive.

As a Transformational Facilities Manager, it’s likely you’re asking some big questions. How will we respond to the shifting expectations of top talent? How will we improve the agility and responsiveness of our organization? 

How will we introduce Agile Working, enabling people to work however, whenever and wherever they choose? How will we continuously improve productivity? How do we foster collaboration? Design thinking is ideal for contemplating big questions like these, because it’s particularly useful for ‘wicked problems’: those that are ill defined or tricky, where the problem itself is often as unclear as the solution. 

The design thinker’s mindset 

The design thinker’s mindset is playful, curious and inventive. We don our design thinking cap and become explorers and experimenters. We start with crazy ideas and search for ways to test them out. 

We tinker and tweak and prototype. We focus relentlessly on the person/people we’re designing for, deeply exploring and carefully listening to their pains, needs and desires. Listening out for what they don’t say. We stay open-minded and search for insights that validate or shut down our ideas. 

Design thinkers are prepared to fail and create things that don’t work, as an inevitable part of the process. Again, we come back to the ‘fail fast’ mentality of agile thinkers. Negative feedback is often a gift, because it prevents us wasting resource on the wrong thing. 

Using Design Thinking in Facilities Management 

Say you find yourself using design thinking to solve problems as a Facilities professional – how’s about setting your sights even higher? What if you could take it upon yourself to instil a design thinking mindset across your entire organization? That’s what a Transformational Facilities Manager would do, after all! This would not only be an exercise in radical culture change, it’s likely to be a major contributor to your productivity, innovation and collaboration goals. 

Not to mention all your other goals, from talent attraction and retention to cost reduction and sustainability. Teams who use design thinking tend to solve problems faster and more effectively. 

As with all change, there are two levels: personal and organizational. Change always demands that we each have our own individual lightbulb moments; otherwise transformation efforts fizzle out. 

Until people change the way they think and do, your organization as a whole will never change. After all, what is an organization, if it isn’t just a bunch of people? Training your entire organization to embrace design thinking creates these lightbulb moments, both individually and collectively. Therein lies the power.


Hannah Cresswell

Last updated May 8, 2020