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Design Thinking, Systems Thinking, Strategic Thinking: All the same?

Thinking is very trendy these days.  There are multiple articles promoting design thinking, the value of systems thinking and the need for greater strategic thinking skills, but are these all the same thing? No, not really.


Design Thinking is a form of creative problem-solving that centers around deeply understanding the needs of the people with the problem you are striving to resolve.  This creative process is used for primarily designing new or enhancing existing products or services, but it can be applied to resolving business or team management issues too.  The first step in design thinking is to empathize with an individual user/consumer/employee/stakeholder and then use ideation and experimentation to design the best solution/option.

Systems Thinking is an approach to problem-solving that comes from systems theory.  It is the orientation to or awareness of the whole rather than a singular event or activity.  Groups using systems thinking seek to understand the patterns, cycles, or structures an event or activity exists within as a starting place for examining how to improve an event or activity or resolve a problem.  

Strategic Thinking is the ability to focus on the ultimate goal and work backward to ensure alignment of action to this goal as one plans or resolves problems.  Strategic thinking disrupts the incremental pattern of traditional problem-solving to open a space for new thinking to thrive.  By orienting thinking to longer-terms goals, strategic thinkers ensure the deeper exploration of stakeholders, new alternatives and possibly reexamination of options previously dismissed.  

Are these complementary or redundant to one another?

These constructs are extremely complementary to one another, and when used correctly, can create a true competitive advantage.

  • Design thinking helps creative teams stay true to the needs of the individuals they are striving to serve rather than allowing ideas to develop within an echo chamber of a team’s brilliant ideas.
  • Systems thinking can be used by teams engaged in design thinking as they seek to understand and empathize with the user of their design. It is also used in strategic thinking to fully explore the context of long-range goals and to build more comprehensive plans.
  • Strategic thinking incorporates both design thinking and systems thinking to develop comprehensive strategic plans.

How do you leverage them for your success?

Each of these approaches to planning and problem-solving require more time and potentially additional resources than the classic problem-solving approaches used most frequently by teams. They are more robust disciplines to use for high stakes or important decisions.

Design thinking requires a clear definition of who you are designing for and will need the time and research budget to fully explore, experiment and test alternatives. 

Systems thinking, much like design thinking, requires the time and possibly research budget to fully explore the structures, patterns and cycles to create a system map or hypothesis.

Strategic thinking requires that a long-range view of success is defined and can be shared broadly and deeply across the organization.  Strategic thinking requires a strategic plan.

Learn more about strategic planning.

what is strategic planning

Post Tags: Strategic Thinking

CECILIA LYNCH, Author, Founder and Chief Strategist


As the leading authority on strategic thinking, Cecilia Lynch is the founder and chief strategist at Focused Momentum® and creator of Strategy Class®. Her first book, “Strategic Focus: The Art of Strategic Thinking” a groundbreaking work that demystifies the overwhelming task of beginning strategy development.  READ MORE...

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