Today’s business environment has transformed from one of scale, predictability, and rigidity to one of speed, agility, and fluidity. To survive, approaches to business management need to adapt—fast. Enter design thinking as an effective framework for problem-solving uniquely modern business challenges.

There’s a reason why design thinking is such a buzzword: it works. Leading brands like Apple, IBM, Toyota, and Intuit have successfully integrated design thinking into their company culture, embracing a creative and truly customer-centric approach to product innovation. 

However, while design thinking is an attractive concept, it’s often misunderstood, oversimplified, and misused.

So, what IS design thinking?

Design thinking—literally—means thinking like a designer. It involves using creative thinking tools to approach common and complex problems holistically and from different angles. It is the definition of thinking outside of the box.

Design thinking is a human-centered, collaborative, and iterative approach to problem-solving. It strongly emphasizes empathizing with end-users when defining problem areas, then ideating innovative solutions, prototyping concepts, and testing these solutions in real-world scenarios. 

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem-solving that involves a structured process of understanding the underlying needs of a particular target audience and then ideating and creating impactful solutions for implementation.

This approach is characterized by its iterative and explorative nature, as it often involves multiple cycles to refine and improve the solutions continually. 

The process 

The design thinking process is made up of several stages, each of which plays a role in arriving at innovative, viable business ideas. First, it involves putting yourself in your customer’s place to understand their problem. Next, you map your customer’s problem or unmet needs with possible solutions and develop those solutions by exploring and collecting insights through things like prototyping and user testing. 

Effective design thinking requires creativity, experimentation, collaboration, and rigorous hypothesis testing to refine and redefine solutions.

While it’s a non-linear methodology, it’s often broken down into five fundamental steps:

  1. Empathize: Identify and understand the needs, emotions, and experiences of your target customers through immersive research and interaction.
  2. Define: Observe and define the core problem areas, unmet needs, or opportunities, based on insights you gathered during the empathy phase.
  3. Ideate: Generate a wide range of creative ideas and potential solutions through brainstorming, sketching, and ideation sessions.
  4. Prototype: Build real-world representations of your proposed solutions to test and refine concepts quickly, in a low-risk environment.
  5. Test: Gather feedback, conduct user testing, and refine prototypes to validate the effectiveness of your solutions.


Test out a design thinking exercise: The 5 whys

Repeatedly asking “why” in response to a problem is one design thinking technique you can use to try to seek out the root cause of a customer problem, uncovering layers of complexity and the underlying unmet need (and, therefore, opportunity). 

It’s a very useful exercise in the initial stages of exploring a problem.

Here’s an example from ZipCar, when Hult students were challenged by their Head of Strategy and me to come up with compelling solutions to their pressing problems:


The apparent problem: the car won’t start


The battery is dead.


The lights were on.


The last user left the lights on.


They didn’t notice or didn’t care.


Busy people do crazy things, so we need to make sure this solution is in place…


This method—one of many in the design thinking toolkit—aids in unraveling complex problems and identifying fundamental issues that require resolution. It’s a powerful tool and often used by business professionals and consultants to get to the root cause of an issue quickly. 


Design thinking defined: A student’s perspective

Design thinking is an integral part of the postgraduate curriculum at Hult, with “Design Thinking for Innovation” one of the core courses I teach for our Master’s in International Business candidates. 

Maria Camila Aguirre Giraldo was among the most recent cohort of MIB students at Hult Boston to complete this course in fall 2023. Here’s how she now defines design thinking:

‘I think of design thinking like turning on a lightbulb when you’re stuck in a dark tunnel of problems. It helps us not only to find a way out, but also to understand our customers better. 

Instead of just fixing a problem, it is about putting ourselves in their shoes, feeling what they feel, and then coming up with solutions that really hit the mark for them. 

Design thinking goes beyond brainstorming ideas; it’s about getting creative, trying out different stuff, and not being afraid to fail—because that’s how we learn what works best. 

It’s not just about solving one problem; it’s about seeing the bigger picture and making things better in the long run. Design thinking is like having a superpower that helps us see the world through our customers’ eyes and make magic happen for them.

One of my biggest takeaways from that course is that one should use creativity not just to create a profitable business, but also one that gives back to the community. It’s important to fall in love with the problem to truly understand what people need and want, and then utilize creative thinking to develop solutions that address those needs.’


Why does it matter?

21st-century business success hinges on the ability to define the right problem, understand stakeholders, and develop relevant and value-creating solutions. 

Business leaders must have the vision and insight to create solutions that matter to their stakeholders and be able to sell these solutions emotionally and intellectually. I always start my executive education modules and postgraduate classes by quoting my great-grandfather, who founded his company in 1905 and became a successful self-made entrepreneur. The quote is as timely as ever:

A business leader is a servant of the community
who earns a pay for being able to create something
new, respectable, and durable,
which everyone needs.

— H.J. Helkama, founder of the Helkama Family of Companies


Why design thinking is a compulsory skill for business graduates

The integration of design thinking into the business curriculum at Hult is not merely a response to a passing trend—it’s a strategic imperative that cultivates an essential skill for navigating the complexities of modern business challenges.

We aim for every student who walks through the doors of Hult to graduate equipped with the mindsets and skillsets to tackle these complex problems and drive innovative solutions as tomorrow’s business leaders. 

By weaving design thinking into the fabric of our master’s programs, our students are not only equipped to navigate such challenges, but also to harness creativity, empathy, and innovative thinking. 

By embracing design thinking principles, our students are empowered to tackle the multifaceted challenges of today’s business environment and drive meaningful change to make a lasting impact.