Observing my student’s innovation project presentations yesterday, I was once again suprised how powerful Design Thinking actually is in spawning innovative solutions. Even if it’s only applied to such seemingly mundane problems as the “improvements to brewing tea from tea bags in take-out situations”.

However, especially when applied by novice practitioners who still use Design Thinking more as a toolkit or process rather than a mindset, it is not a panacea for every innovation puzzle.

So where does Design Thinking fit best then?
In the well-managed innovation portfolio of a mature enterprise, chances are that on a continuum between “incremental” and “disruptive” innovation, 70-80% of the projects are to the left – incremental – side of the spectrum. While most products do benefit from a clear vision and a human-centered approach, many incremental innovations by definition do not require the extended need-finding and prototyping journey that applying the full Design Thinking process entails. To the contrary, incremental innovations are where the efficiency of the enterprise should come to bear the most.

Therefore it makes sense to at least initially focus on the more disruptive end of the innovation portfolio. Design Thinking really shines where it comes to uncovering and successfully addressing surprise insights into human needs in relation to a problem. Its biggest leverage lies with problems that are wickedly fuzzy and potentially have a strong human component. To help decide which ones that are, here’s a table that I recently drafted for one of my industry clients to help triage:


Applying Design Thinking to the types of problems characterized by the left side of the table improves the probability of breakthrough solutions where traditional analytical methods are likely to yield limited results, if any at all.

With successes and improved method fluency, relevant aspects of Design Thinking can then increasingly find their application to incremental innovations while making sure not to unduly weigh their development down.