The ultimate method for solving problems and developing strategies for success

In today’s lesson I’m going to introduce you to the single, most powerful way to analyze, strategize, troubleshoot and solve problems.  What’s more, it is the “go-to” and innovative approach to creatively improving:

  • Strategic analysis/research
  • Decision-making
  • Strategy planning & design
  • Business modelling
  • Sales & marketing
  • Product development
  • Strategic branding
  • Relationships & culture
  • Human performance
  • Health, wellness and fitness

This “strategizing on steroids” approach is used by business leaders at global companies, and is taught at top business schools. However, chances are you don’t use this approach enough when performing any of the above activities.

What am I referring to?  Specifically, it is applying the skill of design thinking.  “What’s design thinking?” you may be asking. Let me explain.


Design thinking is a design-based approach to developing strategies, solving problems and improving performance. It applies “whole brain” thinking that integrates creativity and ideation with analytical thinking processes. The result? Design thinking combines art and science to create innovative concepts, strategies and solutions.

Historically, the concept of design thinking traces its roots back to the 1960s, and the term has been attributed to L. Bruce Archer, who was a professor of Design Research at the Royal College of Art, London.  Archer was a driving force behind the establishment of design as an academic discipline,  stating in 1965 that design was “not merely a craft-based skill but should be considered a knowledge-based discipline in its own right, with rigorous methodology and research principles incorporated into the design process.” (From Systematic Method for Designers. Council of Industrial Design, H.M.S.O., 1965)

In the 70s and 80s design thinking principles were applied to the fields of design engineering, architecture and education.  And in 1991, David Kelly, a professor at Stanford University, founded IDEO, the world’s first design thinking firm, which applies design thinking principles and practices to business.

In the early 2000s design thinking’s popularity grew enormously, highlighted by Daniel Pink’s best-selling book, A Whole New Mind, which was published in 2005:

“The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind— computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”

Also in 2005, Stanford University created the world’s first design thinking school, the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design.

Moving forward to today, and design thinking is taught worldwide at universities including Harvard, Yale and Cambridge. Large companies that use design thinking include Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Google and Coca Cola.

Passionate practitioners of design thinking and its associated tools include Indra Nooyi, Global CEO of PepsiCo…as was Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. In fact, they’re also used by top military leaders and sports coaches. Championship-winning NFL (gridiron) coach John Madden used these methods extensively in his coaching career…and continued using them frequently in his post-coaching career as a TV sports commentator and analyst.

On a personal level, in 1994 I attended my first ever design thinking course.  It was a course on accelerated planning, and introduced visual planning techniques used by NASA in its space programme.  Since then I’ve made research and application of design and visual thinking principles a central component of my work and personal life.

Design thinking, the brain and our thinking style

One of the areas of focus for me has been researching the neuroscientific and psychological aspects of design thinking and indeed thinking in general.  Why?  Well, the fact is design thinking is a brain-based discipline that incorporates our personality and thinking style.  Therefore, we cannot get the full benefits of design thinking without first fully understanding how our brains are wired and how we think.

As the visual above illustrates, design thinking integrates the four thinking styles.  It is a “whole brain” approach that produces solutions that are innovative, yet are supported by sound analysis and logic.  Design thinking is led by the strategic thinking style, which is associated with creativity, intuition and ideation.

One of the most influential people in the field of personality type and thinking was Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist. Jung was regarded as an innovator in the field of personality research and in 1921 his pioneering book on personality, called Psychological Types, was published.

According to Jung, each of us has four thinking functions, which are:

  • sensation—perception by means of immediate apprehension of the visible relationship between subject and object
  • intuition—perception of processes in the background; e.g. unconscious drives and/or motivations of other people
  • thinking—function of intellectual cognition; the forming of logical conclusions
  • feeling—function of subjective estimation, value oriented thinking

Of these four functions, Jung proposed that each of us has a lead function, which is that thinking style that dominates our thinking.  In Jung’s view our preferred function is part of our genetic makeup.  In fact, according to Jung our natural lead function is a result of a neuro-chemical- physiological fact that each person has one area which is 100 times more efficient than their remaining three functions.

Jung’s theories came to prominent attention when Isabel Myers published a book in 1962 called The Myers Briggs Type Indicator.  This book presented her theories of personality type and outlined a personality test which she had developed, along with her mother Kathryn Briggs, called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI.  Myers’ book became a best-seller and the MBTI is regarded as one of the world’s leading personality tests.

Myers’ and Briggs’ work was largely inspired by the work of Jung.    Katharine Briggs first read the English translation of Jung’s book in 1923 and she and her daughter Isabel picked up and further developed the work that Jung had done.

Another person to develop a philosophy similar to that of Jung and Myers-Briggs, was Ned Herrmann.  Herrmann was an American researcher on creativity and brain dominance.  In his brain dominance model, Herrmann identified four different modes of thinking:

  • A. Analytical thinking
Preferred activities : collecting data, analysis, understanding how things work, judging ideas based on facts, criteria and logical reasoning.
  • B. Sequential thinking
Preferred activities : following directions, detail oriented work, step-by-step problem solving, organization and implementation.
  • C. Interpersonal thinking
Preferred activities : listening to and expressing ideas, looking for personal meaning, sensory input, and group interaction.
  • D. Imaginative thinking
Preferred activities : Looking at the big picture, taking initiative, challenging assumptions, visuals, metaphoric thinking, creative problem solving.

As part of his work, Herrmann developed a test called the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), which measures which functions within the brain a person wishes to use the most – or which is their most dominant part. For instance, one could be more dominant in imaginative thinking,  which would mean that they preferred using intuition and strategizing.  Or one may prefer to use interpersonal thinking, which means they would be more empathetic and understanding towards other’s needs.

The HBDI has been in use for more than 35 years and, like the MBTI, has been validated through a number of studies and has even been written about in other books, magazines and journals, including the prestigious Harvard Business Review.

As you can see there are similarities between Herrmann’s whole brain model and the four thinking functions identified by personality type theory.  Other researchers and psychologists, including David Kiersey and Katherine Benziger, have developed similar models. These all complement each other and build upon the pioneering work conducted by Carl Jung.

All in all, it is important to recognise that there are four core thinking styles.  And, as mentioned earlier, each of us has a preference for one of these four styles to assist us in the way we think and make decisions.

Also, understand that design thinking is led by the strategic thinking style, and supported by logical analysis.

Design Thinking Tools & Techniques

Because design thinking is creatively-driven, the practice uses visual tools and techniques such as sketching, matrices, process visuals, infographics, diagrams and prototypes to analyze, spark ideas, convey information, and also to outline plans and strategies.

Studies have shown that when visual tools are used as part of a planning and brainstorming process, the brain’s creative side is engaged more easily. As a result, creativity is enhanced, obstacles can be more clearly seen, these tools allow you to better see the forest from the trees, and ideas are generated more easily.

With these tools you won’t get as caught up in paralysis by analysis and the process of strategy making and idea generation won’t be as frustrating. Most importantly, your whole brain will work together better.  Ultimately, using these tools and techniques give you more good ideas, more often, and include:

  • Visioning
  • Visual planning/goal setting
  • Matrix analysis
  • Storyboarding
  • Business decision mapping
  • Prototyping
  • Process visual analysis
  • Sticky noting
  • Sketching
  • Brainstorming
  • Business model canvassing

For example, one tool we use is the Threats Analysis Matrix, which is a matrix analysis tool in our strategy toolkit.  When used properly it helps avoid and counteract significant and potentially expensive threats to your business.  Here’s the matrix:


As illustrated, the matrix allows you to assess threats to your business on two fronts:

  1. How much of a negative impact the threat will have on your business if it eventuated
  2. The probability of the threat occurring

What you do is go through the list and then plot key threats where you believe they are located on the matrix.

The next step is crucial.  You then need to come up with counter measures, especially for those threats which have a high probability of occurring and which could have a significantly negative impact on your business. i.e those in the top right quadrant.  This is a key step that many business owners fail to address when conducting a threat assessment.

The Threats Analysis Matrix is just one of more than 100 visual tools which I’ve borrowed, developed and invented to help business owners improve their ability to analyze and strategize. I actually began applying visual thinking principles back in about 1995, when the concept of visual planning was still in its embryonic stage.

Otto Beisheim School of Management, a leading German business school, acknowledges the importance of visual thinking in this way:

“Visual skills have become more important in many different business areas such as marketing, business modeling, new product development, sales, distribution, etc…Developing visual thinking skills and a visual strategy also forces participants to think in a very structured and analytic way.”


So as you can appreciate, the uses are many and varied.


The take-home message I want to leave with you is this.  To improve your performance you firstly need to have the right type of thinking.  Further, design thinking – with its whole brain and strategic-led emphasis – helps to formulate the most creative and innovative solutions.

In the next lesson we will look at several processes and models that provide a step-by-step approach to putting design thinking to work.