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

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

Interest in thinking is trending. I have read multiple articles promoting design thinking and the value of systems thinking.

We are also seeing strategic thinking skills identified as desired competencies in job postings more than ever. So it is unsurprising that corporate training programs are looking for ways to increase strategic thinking across their organizations.

But, are design thinking,  systems thinking, and strategic thinking phrases for the same concept?

No, not really.

Let's start with some definitions.

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 primarily for designing new or enhancing existing products or services. When pulled into the right planning step, it can also be applied to resolving business or team management issues. The first step in design thinking is to empathize with an individual user or consumer, employee or stakeholder, and then use ideation and experimentation to design the best solution or 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 action aligns with this goal as one plans or resolves problems. It disrupts the incremental pattern of traditional problem-solving processes by opening a space for new thinking to thrive. By orienting thinking to longer-term goals, strategic thinkers ensure the deeper exploration of stakeholders, new alternatives, and possibly reexamining options previously dismissed.  

Are these complementary or redundant to one another?

When used correctly, these disciplines complement each other and, when used appropriately, can create a 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 build more comprehensive plans.

  • Strategic thinking incorporates both design thinking and systems thinking to build strategic plans.

How do you leverage them for your success?

Each of these approaches to planning and problem-solving requires 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 needs the time and budget to research, explore, experiment, and test alternatives fully. 

Systems thinking, 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 defining and sharing broadly a well-understood long-range vision or ultimate goal to be effective and not chaotic. It also requires a strategic plan.

As strategic planning consultants, we are experts at leveraging strategic thinking and its sisters, design thinking and system thinking to produce long-range plans that guide organizations for years. 

Are you looking to bump your strategic thinking to the next level?  

Why not start by exploring how your current planning approach may be failing you?


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