Design Thinking

Alicia Burson

Experiential Learning:  Pathway to Better Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a systematic problem-solving process, originally conceived to emulate how creative artists think and work.  Traditional business training focuses on the pursuit of objective and quantifiable “correct answers” based on rational logic, spreadsheets, planning and calculations.  In contrast, Design Thinking is a customer-centered, iterative, flexible, collaborative, and creative process for developing novel solutions that customers love.  It is not surprising to see practitioners widely adopting Design Thinking as a better way to grow their business.

There are many links between Design Thinking and the Kolb Experiential Learning Framework.  According to researcher Jeanne Liedtka, Design Thinking can be described as a cyclical process composed of four key stages: What is? What if? What wows? and What works?

“What is?” grounds the creator in current reality.  “What if?” puts the creator into a mindset of exploring possibilities.  “What wows?” helps the designer focus on what is most exciting to the audience (customer).  “What works?”  pushes the designer to experiment and try things.  Nowhere in this process is the Design Thinking manager looking for an answer somewhere on a spreadsheet – this is a human centered, creative activity.

Designing is a learning process, so it is no surprise to see how Kolb Experiential Learning framework closely mirrors the Design Thinking model (see diagram below).

“What is?” is situated at the top of the Kolb model in the Experiencing learning space, where learners seek to understand the true nature of their situation and the problem at hand.  “What if” taps the Imagining and Reflecting learning spaces, where learners consider a range of possible solutions, unbounded by critical analysis.  “What wows?” taps into the Analyzing/Thinking/Deciding learning space, where the designer makes choices about solutions to try first.  Finally, “What works?” is solidly in the Acting and Initiating learning space where the designer tries out their idea.  Design Thinking (like Experiential Learning) alternates between divergent (ideation) and convergent (deciding/trying) thinking.

How can Experiential Learning help you become a better Design Thinker? Research has shown that we are more comfortable in certain regions of the Experiential Learning space.  The learning region we most prefer defines our “learning style” and is measurable via a well-established research instrument, the results of which are summarized in each person’s Kolb Experiential Learning Profile (KELP).  This means that some aspects of Design Thinking will come naturally to each designer, whereas other aspects will be more challenging.  Some learners are also more or less “flexible” in terms of their ability to tap various regions of the learning cycle as needed.  This again is measurable and provided in each Kolb Experiential Learning Profile (KELP) report.

Knowing your learning style will give you the metacognitive self-awareness of how to best manage your Design Thinking activities.  You can also do a Team Learning profile assessment to see how well your team spans the various learning space regions.  You may have gaps on your team in terms of learning cognition diversity that could be ideally filled by adding new and diverse team members.

By Bob Gemmell

IFEL is your source for the Kolb Learning Style Inventory, Team Learning Profile Bundle and other products to help you and your team become more effective Design Learners.  Contact us to learn more!