Methodologies and Learning & Development

Design Thinking for Thought Leaders


By Jenn Kammerdiener
September 8, 2023

Design Thinking has become a leading innovation process that seeks to deeply understand users—in other words, people. As L&D professionals, people are at the core of all we do.

The methodology works by breaking down preconditioned responses and assumptions. It deconstructs and redefines problems, guiding us toward those pioneering solutions we wished we’d ‘thought of first’. It is non-linear and iterative. And as practice, it can generate a great deal of enthusiasm.

It is the focus on understanding human needs and delivering solutions via human-centric means that sets the method apart. Let’s break that down.

Design thinking puts human emotion first. This is a bold contradiction to the adage that it’s just business, don’t take it personally.  Here, we approach solutions to problems by focusing on and involving the human perspective.

#LearningandDevelopment initiatives empower a business' people. Understanding their point of view is a necessary starting point. Tethering to this truth is a Clearpath tenet and Design Thinking is naturally one of our most widely used methodologies.

There are five basic steps. Some say seven. But you’ve got things to do, so let’s talk about five.

Step One.

Design thinking starts with empathy.

We know—how novel! It asks that we always begin here. All steps forward must be taken from the perspective of an organization’s users—its people.

A decade or so ago a reality TV show Undercover Boss followed executives on “undercover missions to examine the inner workings of their companies.” What reality TV does best (or worst, depending on perspective) is to shine a pleasant white light on human achievement and a blinding fluorescent light on human strife. You can guess the endings of every episode before they begin. After a week in the trenches, the boss came away with a new understanding and perspective. He or she came away with empathy.

What would happen if our industry professionals all took a beat and actively got to understand, and not just know, our clients and their people? And what if this all happened before we entertained offering suggestions and strategic paths forward? Insight. Insight would happen.

It seems obvious. But it’s a step too often skipped. We owe it to our clients to discover the hidden complications and inefficiencies that they most need to solve. These are generally not those that our clients, or even we, ‘think’ are the problems.

Businesses often ask for a resource when what’s really needed is analysis and solution for a business problem.

This means we must ask a lot of questions. It means focused observation. And it means setting aside everything that we ‘think’ we know for a bit.

Step Two.

Once we understand the problem, we need to define it.

If we frame a problem with a tangible question, we articulate the answer we’re trying to find. Once the question becomes part of an equation we start to think of that problem as solvable. And when an answer is positioned as a sum of the parts it becomes a reasonable and accessible exercise. We know what we need to do.

Further, still, if we define the problem from the user’s—the people’s—point of view we boost our empathy. And that’s the name of the game. This is where we start if we’re to motivate, and subsequently empower, our people.

Step Three.

Since our equations are filled with variables, here’s where we ideate.

If you’re requesting a type of guide let’s first look at where you’re looking to go.

We have, as a whole, become preconditioned to look for fast paths. And sometimes the ready path is the best. But more often than not—it’s not. This is where ideation wakes us up.

It’s the energizing point in the process where design thinking asks—with a glint in its eye—that we step back and rethink. It asks us to throw out old ideas in favor of new ways forward. And it reminds us that trodden paths are flat for a reason.

If we pause to determine with certainty what solution is indeed the best solution it might likely be a short moment spent on a complete shift in outcome.

Step Four.

Fresh thinking requires fresh form and so—we prototype.

Creating quick, preliminary devices to apply our ideation lets us test our ideas. If all goes according to plan, we’re assured that we are indeed headed in the right direction early on and without a large investment in time and money. An efficient L&D professional will be able to easily identify good (and bad) signs along the road as ideas become tangible.

This is when we dip our toes in the water. It’s that cautious, initial step forward before we dive in. And still, we must remember to base our findings on what works for others. We’re building for them.

Step Five.

Finally—we test.

It’s not the type of test we all recall from school. This step, too, is iterative.

We gather feedback from the client and their people. We adjust. And we refine. Here’s where we start to see it all make perfect sense. If we’ve put in the work, we’ll have arrived at the best answer, design, and solution.

What began as a journey to understand people ends by proving we do.

Design Thinking is a multi-functional instrument in the L&D toolbox and one we at Clearpath use often. There are, of course, many methods. But each, if used well, promotes one common goal: We help organizations succeed by setting their people up for success.



Jenn Kammerdiener, Founder and CEO, Clearpath Learning Group

Jenn is a Global Learning & Performance Architect with more than 20 years of business strategy and executive consulting experience. She’s led vital initiatives for Fortune 1000 to 100 organizations across industries with a systematic approach to org design, change management, and learning path objectives. In 2009, Jenn launched Clearpath to provide world-class performance solutions and services with a team approach. Under her leadership, Clearpath’s reach has grown to extend beyond 250,000 learners globally.