Have you incorporated design thinking principles into your workshops?

I’ve been facilitating workshops and team events for many years, but a recent request to incorporate design thinking into an IT team’s action planning workshop left me wondering if I was up to speed. A quick foray into Google and YouTube for some pointers were enlightening, and I wanted to share with you what I’d come across.

This HBR Article ‘Design for Action: How to use design thinking to make great things actually happen’ gives a good history. Originating with design for great physical products, the principles of good design were then used in other areas like user experience, and finally design for complex solutions like organisational systems and culture. So, design thinking can be used as a methodology to help achieve the aims of your workshop or team session.

Design thinking encompasses a set of core principles, which include the following:

Using empathy to understand customer goals

Design thinking starts with empathy. If your workshop is a problem-solving session, then you want to get your participants to put themselves in the shoes of whoever the problem is affecting, eg their customers or clients. I used a broad approach to this recently, using a LEGO exercise, where small groups had to create a visual depiction of the main challenges they were facing. By doing so, they naturally stepped into the role of thinking about their customers by creating 3-D models that put themselves 100% in their customers shoes.

Define the problem

Once your participants have gained an understanding of the customer/team/user needs, they can define the problem they are trying to solve. The aim is to define the problem they want to solve in one sentence. This problem could be a specific challenge the participants (or their customers/colleagues) are facing or a broader topic they want to explore. Defining the problem clearly will help your participants focus on creating a solution(s) that address the relevant needs.

This problem could be a specific challenge the participants are facing or a broader topic they want to learn about. Defining the problem will help the facilitator focus on creating a workshop that addresses the participants’ needs. If the group are struggling to come up with a problem statement in one sentence: Try the four W’s: Who, What, where and why?


Ideation is the process of generating ideas. This could include brainstorming or using techniques such as mind mapping or the six thinking hats to generate ideas. The goal of ideation is to come up with a range of ideas that could be used to solve the problem outlined in the problem statement.


Prototyping involves creating a rough version of the solution to test out the ideas generated in the ideation phase. This could involve creating a model, doing a pilot, or testing the idea with the customers/users. Prototyping allows ideas to be tested before there is a full commitment and time or other investment. Product prototypes usually involve either a physical or digital mock-up. You may have to be creative to prototype within a workshop setting but see what you can come up with. Taking the time on this stage can be helpful, even for the design of a solution or service rather than a physical product. Asking questions like what will it look like, what will experiencing this feel like, can help.

Test and iterate

Testing and iterating involve trying out the prototype and gathering feedback. This feedback can be used to improve thesolution in a later workshop. Testing and iterating are essential because they help the team or group make improvements to the solutions proposed.

By using these principles of design thinking, workshop facilitators can have a more structured approach to problem-solving or action planning with teams.

Here are some specific techniques that facilitators can use to apply design thinking in their workshop design:

User Personas

User personas are fictional representations of the targeted customer/user. Using user personas can help understand their needs – by literally putting yourself into their shoes. User personas can include information such as their goals, challenges, and motivations.

Empathy Maps

Empathy maps are visual representations of the users’ thoughts and feelings. Facilitators can use empathy maps to understand the users needs and emotions. Empathy maps can be used to identify areas where the product/service could be improved to meet the participants’ needs.

Design Sprints

Design sprints are a framework for quickly prototyping and testing ideas. Participants can use design sprints to create a rough version of the solution and test it. Design sprints can be done in a single day or over several days.


Storyboarding is a technique that is often used in the film industry. Participants can use storyboarding to create a visual representation of their proposed solution(s).

Want to know more on how you can implement design thinking?

I came across some handy YouTube videos on running workshops with a design thinking focus:

Lightning Decision Jam

This video shows how you can run a 1-hour workshop to define problems, generate and prioritise ideas, and take action on solutions without discussion. A useful structure which of course you can scale up or down according to group size and the time-frame that you have.

Classic Design Thinking Workshop

This Youtube video shows a more traditional design thinking workshop structure (experienced facilitators can skip the first bit on venue, refreshments etc). The latter section covers interviews, empathy maps, point of view statements, the ‘how might we’ statement, ideation, sketching, and prototyping.

Design Thinking with Lego

As I was planning to run a workshop using LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®, I was curious to know if this was something that would ‘fit’ with a design thinking approach. I found this useful video on design thinking with Lego, and specifically LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®, which although it was a bit theoretical, of course building something out can fit with many design thinking elements, whether icebreakers and empathy building, to ideation on topics like culture, to prototyping.

Strategic Planning with design thinking

Working on a strategic plan? This Forbes article gives an overview on how you can use design thinking to build a strategy that is more suited to your company’s priorities.

Tools to help plan your events with a design approach

In my quest to learn more about design thinking for events, I came across the Event Design Handbook. This comes with  a free 100-page download available including details on the Event Canvas. This is a tool that creates a visual process overview that is easy to share and allows you to involve, include, or inform others by simply taking them through a clear process.


In summary, design thinking is a useful methodology for workshop facilitators. By applying the principles of design thinking, facilitators can create engaging and productive learning experiences. Of course, some elements won’t feel completely new to seasoned facilitators, elements such as empathy feel like a ‘given’ if you’re used to icebreakers and ‘reading the room’ to check a group’s engagement level. For the many experienced facilitators out there, of course there’s not an off-the-shelf workshop model from the design thinking world or anywhere. It always comes back to your objectives and purpose, and designing for that, with your audience needs in mind. But can adding some design thinking approaches add to your repertoire – of course.


At Talentstorm we love supporting teams to achieve their goals through facilitated sessions. We’ve done team development days, sessions on team effectiveness and leadership, strategy sessions and action planning using a variety of techniques, some including LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®. If you’re in the Eindhoven area and need some expert workshop facilitation, a team day or event support, get in touch at rachel@talentstorm.co.uk!

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