How Google, Stanford University and yours truly use design thinking to solve problems and build winning strategies

In my last lesson I introduced you to design thinking, a powerful approach to developing creative solutions to complex problems.  As I explained, design thinking is taught at major universities such as Harvard, and practiced at global companies like Google, Apple and PepsiCo.  To refresh your memory, here is a recap:


In today’s lesson I will share with you several design thinking processes.  These are generic frameworks that can be applied in a number of ways including strategic planning, branding projects, product development, personal goal setting and much more.

The first is the Google Design Sprint model developed – as the name suggests – by the smart folks at Google, Inc.  Google has been a major force behind the development of design thinking as a method for creating innovative products and solutions to problems.

Next is the Stanford model, which is one of the original design thinking models from Stanford University.   Stanford is recognised for establishing the world’s first design thinking school.

The final model is my 7 Phase Design Thinking Process.  Like both the Stanford and Google models, mine is a generic model, which can be used for a variety of purposes.

My model is similar to the others, but for two major and crucial steps that I’ve added.  I’ll explain what these steps are and why they are so important after I’ve introduced the three models.

First up is the Google Design Sprint Kit Model

Source: Google Design Sprint Model

Next is the Stanford Model

Stanford University Design Thinking Model

And here is my 7 phase process model.

All three models emphasise design and creativity as the foundation and building block to creating innovative solutions.  This is the essence of design thinking.  Where my model differs is in the addition of two key steps:

  1. Spark, as in the mind of one individual sparking the process
  2. Team, as in building a strong design thinking team

Let me expand on these two steps.


Design thinking is a thought process, which starts with what I call the spark phase.  This is when the mind of a single individual sparks an idea.

Bernard Gittelson, a pioneer in the field of product development and the author of How to Make Your Own Luck, proposed that all luck starts with an idea, and that ideas are explosive.  He further added in his book that, “The kind of fixed idea, or ambition, that propels us toward a goal can perhaps best be called a dream”  and that the best ideas “solve problems.”  These are the sparks that kick off the design thinking process.  Stated differently,  a spark can be:

  • An idea
  • A goal
  • An ambition
  • A dream or vision
  • A solution to a problem

Martin Luther King ignited the US civil rights movement when he sparked the concept of “I have a dream.”  Howard Schultz sparked the Starbucks cafe concept when he noted the large number of coffee bars in Italy when visiting there in 1983.  And tiki-taka, the highly successful style of football used by the likes of Barcelona and the Spanish national team, was sparked by Johan Cruyff.  Cruyff , a Dutch national, is regarded as one of the world’s greatest coaches and players of his era.

In his famous Harvard Business Review article, Planning on the Left, Managing on the Right, Henry Mintzberg, highlighted the role that an individual plays in sparking and formulating an idea.  He stated that:

“If the organization wishes to have a creative, integrated strategy which can be called a “gestalt strategy,” such as Volkswagen’s one in the 1950s, then I suggest the organization will rely largely on one individual to conceptualize its strategy, to synthesize a “vision” of how the organization will respond to its environment. In other words, scratch an interesting strategy, and you will probably find a single strategy formulator beneath it. Creative, integrated strategies seem to be the products of single brains, perhaps of single right hemispheres.”


One person sparks the design thinking process.  One brain sparks the design thinking process.  This kicks the whole process into gear, leading onto step two.


Although design thinking starts off in the mind of an individual, if the process is to be successful, it requires a team approach.  So, in my process, building a strong team is step two in the process.

What makes a strong design thinking team?  For starters, the team as a whole and individuals within it must have the right mindset.  They must be mentally in-tune to the process of developing the idea sparked in step one.

In addition, the team needs to comprise members who have complementary thinking styles.  Although design thinking is design-led, it must not be overloaded with creative thinkers.   In this instance you run the risk of generating lots of wild and crazy ideas, but little in the way of analytical balance.

Likewise, the team must not be overloaded with analytical thinkers.  The risk here is a lack of creative and innovative thought.  Overall, there must be a creatively-dominant team make up, with a balance of analytical thinkers – metaphorically called “left-brainers” – as part of the team.

Members of the team must have domain and technical expertise.  For example, if you are doing product development, it is crucial that members of the team have product development expertise and experience.

Next, there must be a high-level of emotional intelligence in the team.  There is no room for prima donnas, assholes, and individuals with an axe to grind, who engage in petty politics, or have personal agendas to pursue. These types of individuals have no place in a high performance team.

Allied to the need for high emotional intelligence is the need to take a collaborative approach. Together Everyone Achieves More is the mantra to abide by.

Finally, related to expertise is the team to have access to a variety of techniques, models and tools.  These are part and parcel of the design thinker’s toolkit, not unlike a box of tools that a builder or electrician owns.

The high performance team.  The secret sauce to design thinking success.

Yes indeed, the high performance team is the secret sauce to design thinking success.  Which is why it should – in my view – be a key component of all design thinking models and processes.

So there you have it.  Three design thinking models and processes.  And two key steps I believe should be a part of any design thinking model.