It Matters How You Think: Tips From Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute Of Design

Sep 17, 2013 1 Min Read

Need fresh thinking in your organisation? Design thinking could be what you’re looking for. The process, formalised by Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design – more commonly known as the d.School – has been drawing students and top executives from all disciplines with a lure that goes a whole lot deeper than a tick from a prestigious academic institition. The course seems far from the conventional information-flooding, text-heavy courses that university papers bring to mind.

Instead, “it is a user-based process used to teach students and executives to routinely innovate,” says Perry Klebahn, consulting professor and director of executive education at the d.School. Klebahn also happens to be the inventor of the modern snowshoe, founder and former CEO of Atlas Snowshoes and former CEO of Timbuk2. The mission of the school, according to its “d.Manifesto” is to “prepare future innovators to be breakthrough thinkers and doers”.

As Klebahn clarifies, the focus lies more on grooming the innovators, rather than on the innovations themselves. This is done by equipping them with the right tools and mindsets to lead change and innovation, no matter what field they are in.

Design thinking defined

The d.School defines design thinking as “a human-centred, prototype-driven process for innovation that can be applied to product, service, and business design”. The process itself seems remarkably simple. The starting point focuses on understanding the issue through empathising with stakeholders. As Jeremy Utley, lecturer and also a director of executive education with the d.School, explains, this can’t be done within the four walls of a discussion room. Individuals are encouraged to physically “get out there” to get the perspectives of stakeholders.

“So if there’s a problem with recycling,” says Klebahn, “interview users and find out how they feel about the issue. Then develop the problem statement as a team”. Then comes the next bit: rapidly coming up with solutions and testing them, or as they call it “low resolution prototyping”. In the recycling example, this would entail coming up with prototypes and testing them on the stakeholders you met earlier, getting their feedback on the proposed solution. This continues until a satisfying solution is found. The steps are straightforward, but carry along with them two big lessons for us all:

1 Get out there and use your emotions

Rather than trying to understand an issue purely through internal discussion or data from reports, physically moving ourselves and reaching out directly to users and stakeholders who are experiencing the problem moves us from just having some knowledge of an issue, to actually “feeling” the problem. Direct contact with these key people also ensures accurate understanding of the problem at hand. “There is only so much you can accomplish by burying your head in the papers. You need to look up and think more about empathising and experimenting as a way to advance your project. Literally get out of the building,” says Utley.

2 Resist the need to perfect early on

Rapid low-resolution prototyping, fancy a term as it is, prevents us from getting hung up on an idea for too long. As Daniel Cheng, a student of the d.School doing a Masters in Engineering explains, it means “being ok with failing so that you can move on and make more progress.” For perfectionists, this is a hard, but necessary call. “If you’re getting out and putting things in front of real people before you feel like they should be seeing them, you’re in a good place.

If you’re waiting until it’s ready, you’ve been waiting too long,” explains Utley. In that respect, d.School is a mind training centre more than anything, conditioning individuals to think and courageously reach for ideas. One of its core missions is to increase creative confidence.

“It’s a tragedy that creativity has been so tightly associated with the arts,” says Utley, graduate of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business who earlier worked as a consultant for the Boston Consulting Group. “The arts aren’t the only way of creative expression. We’d like to see healthcare providers designing the patient care experience, which can be as creative as writing a play.

Yet only those who can sketch well are told that they’re creative. They can bring the other half of their brain to the problems that they’re facing.” The d.School setting also operates as a safe place for students to try different styles and personas.

“So at the end of it, have a better sense of your own style, a network you can leverage on in uncomfortable situations, be more confident, and know what techniques you can use.” In addition, individuals work in multidisciplinary teams so “design thinking allows for radical collaboration between disciplines,” adds Utley. Lawyers and architects, who habitually operate in completely separate frameworks, are able to come together and approach a problem in the same manner.

This also allows for each subject matter expert to lend their strengths to the problem-solving exercise. It is a “language for inter-disciplinary collaboration that amplifies the efforts of each of their own individual expertise and disciplinary depths,” he explains.

Lighting the spark

Once students have gone through boot camps and are familiar with design thinking techniques, they are exposed to different organisations where they have to drive innovation. The best individuals, say Klebahn and Utley, work their way out of the catalyst role. “The good leaders that use design process raise other leaders,” says Klebahn. “They try to work themselves out of the innovation role. As they play the role of the catalyst, they try to find other catalysts and spark something greater.” Students are graded on how successful they have been in igniting this “spark”. The final presentation isn’t done by the student, but by the organisation they have partnered with.

So if the student has not succeeded in sparking a change, it will be obvious. As to application of design thinking in various contexts, Utley explains that it should influence methods more than the substance itself. For teachers in schools, for instance, Utley says that design thinking isn’t a “what to teach” but a “how to teach”. It can be implemented into everyday teaching by infusing a level of creativity and mindfulness into the learning experience.

It could be as simple as encouraging experimentation and getting students to actively engage with what they are learning. Klebahn gives a simple example for rapid-prototyping. For an assignment, get them to write a summary in pencil in five minutes, then they have to critique each other’s work. “This is a principle of good design thinking,” says Klebahn.

What is design thinking? Design thinking has helped many an organisation, from P&G and SAP in their organisational strategy and product development, to Apple in its product innovation. GE Healthcare used it to help reduce anxiety in sick children who have to go for MRI scans. It has also helped create portable incubators for developing nations reducing the mortality rate for new born babies without access to hospital incubators. The great news is that learning the principles of design thinking is within the reach of Malaysians. The HPI School of Design Thinking @ Genovasi, the only Design Thinking School in Malaysia, offers the course. Called the Innovation Ambassador Development Programme (IADP), it is fully sponsored by Agensi Innovasi Malaysia for qualified Malaysians. The HPI School of Design Thinking @ Genovasi is the the regional partner for the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) School of Design Thinking at Potsdam University Germany. The HPI School of Design Thinking is a sister institute of the at Stanford University.   Visit for more details on the IADP. Klebahn and Utley were in Malaysia recently for the Design Thinking Bootcamp that will be held annually at HPI School of Design Thinking @ Genovasi. 

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Lily Cheah is a former head of Enterprise at Leaderonomics. Prior to that role, she was editor of (Ldotcom) and also was part of a special projects team in Leaderonomics. She believes that small details play a big part in huge successes, including always explaining “why”. She is a senior leader in HR today.

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