How design thinking can save workplace learning

How design thinking main

The core problem I see with workplace learning is that we are not developing new approaches.

The nature of the problems we're trying to solve in workplaces is changing. They are becoming more complex. The solution is not just about needing to adopt new technologies.

Projects often begin with the mindset that some kind of training is needed, which frames that conversation in a certain way from the outset. Learning and development is getting better at challenging these requests and we're beginning to engage in conversations that drill down into the real problems and create new solutions.

We all have our filters. For instance, if you're focused on mobile learning you will probably lean towards a mobile approach, and if you're a virtual classroom expert you would naturally suggest a series of virtual classrooms. Learning and development often searches for strategies that worked elsewhere to see if they can be copied. The problem is, we haven't paused to really look at the problem and design the right solution for the learners, nor for the business.

What we really need are holistic, creative, practical approaches that are learner and business focused.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the disruption of industries by new startups. The cause of the disruption is not their size, nor how they’re using new technologies, but is instead that these new players are beginning to think in new ways. They are applying ‘design thinking’ to develop a deep empathic understanding of the market, and then they are rapidly designing and implementing new approaches.

Design thinking is about applying the same principles that designers use to business processes and practices. It's a process and mindset that allows learning and development people to remove their filters and move away from past ways of working, and generate new approaches. Design thinking is a mixture of analytic thinking and creative thinking. It focuses on empathy, creativity, collaboration and action.

The right solution is often found by prototyping.

Design thinking approaches are already being used by the product and service design areas in many organisations. The language and practice of design thinking is becoming more prevalent. This is something that learning and development can harness.

Design thinking is both a process and a mindset. At Sprout Labs, the way we talk about the process is like this:


design thinking process




During this phase an understanding of the needs of the business and its employees, and what is possible in the context, is developed. The focus is on developing a deep empathy for the world view of the employees.



During the exploration stage a series of possible solutions that can be prototyped and tested are invented.



One or more of the ideas from the exploration phase are then prototyped.



The prototypes are tested to see if they will meet the needs that were defined in the understanding phase. Often the exploration, prototyping and testing phase merge together.



Once an approach has been designed and implemented it’s important to reinvent constantly and improve relentlessly. This often means using the same tools from the testing phase to monitor, check and understand. 


The focus of design thinking is often just on the process, but what we’re finding is that the design thinking mindset is just as important. The table below is a summary of how design thinking is different to the traditional ways we think about learning and development.

Traditional learning and design approaches

Design thinking

Learner is seen as a stakeholder

Learner centred – the learner pathway is put at the centre

Process is premised on developing a course or other intervention

Process doesn’t define an outcome

Good at solving well-defined problems

Solves ill-defined problems

Imports approaches from other organisations

Builds new approaches that solve problems in new ways


Creative and analytic

Cycles, e.g. beta, pilot, implementation

Iterative, with the bias towards action and prototyping

Focus on approving and reviewing content

Collaborative, solutions are co-designed

Event and content driven

Process driven

A single solution is piloted

Experimentation and testing and data defines the best solution


Design thinking provides learning and development with a means of working that is collaborative and innovative. It helps to remove filters, and outdated approaches, and allows us to generate new approaches and deliver stronger business results.




Download the Design thinking and learning eBook

To go along with the Learning While Working podcast series on design thinking and L&D, we have released an eBook with all transcripts of the interviews.  

The interviews are: