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What Design Thinking Means for Your Sales Team

The concept of design thinking has become a popular among some of the world’s most dominant corporations, including Apple, Uber, Netflix and Google. These organizations have made design thinking a core function of their business models.

Though the theory was developed to fine-tune how products are designed and manufactured, its usefulness extends far beyond this one initial purpose and is critical for businesses that want to grow in today’s economy. As Tony Wallace, Founder of Diverse Automation, explains: “Design thinking is the answer. It’s disruptive thinking—to build the next best system—that will then build the next best mousetrap.”

This is why 79 percent of business leaders rate design thinking as one of the most important trends in the workplace, according to a Deloitte survey. Experts at Deloitte explain:

“The more importance an organization places on design thinking and the [readier] it is to embrace it, the faster the organization grows. Companies growing by 10% or more per year are more than twice as likely to report they are ready to incorporate design thinking, compared to their counterparts that [experience] stagnant levels of growth.”

The good news is, even if your company doesn’t implement design thinking as a cultural value, you can bring it to your team. Consider, for example, how you can bring this to Sales Enablement, even as a team leader. Simply innovating how your team manages, shares and uses information to drive more sales requires little more than a change in thinking.

Get familiar with design thinking and how you can bring it to your workplace.

How Design Thinking Works

The Interaction Design Foundation (IDF) has outlined a five-phase method to practice design thinking as a team. The phases, IDF stresses, do not have to be implemented in an exact, sequential order. Rather, they’re meant to be nonlinear and adjustable—they “can often occur in parallel and repeat iteratively,” based on how each brainstorming session unfolds.

Here is a quick outline of these five phases and what they entail:

  1. Empathize: Understand the needs, motivations, priorities and behaviors of your target consumer.
  2. Define: Identify the current barriers and problems this consumer faces in having their needs met.
  3. Ideate: Challenge the established norms or legacy systems in order to make room for new, creative ideas.
  4. Prototype: Experiment with how these ideas can be honed and distilled into an actionable solution.
  5. Test: Perform a trial run of the solution you create to determine its ability to meet the consumer needs.

In addition to helping your team brainstorm and execute innovative solutions, design thinking also promotes cohesion, trust, shared vision and common ground. Instead of disputes over what should be accomplished, design thinking shifts the team focus to how it can be accomplished, states Nielsen Norman Group. This then leads to a more collaborative and cross-disciplinary team. The more your team works together, the more effective you can be on a daily basis.

Weave this thinking into team brainstorming sessions and even sales training. Empower your team to determine what their challenges are and then uncover solutions using the five phases.

How to Practice Design Thinking

To practice design thinking with your team, return to the five phases from IDF. Use this deeper  dive into the phases, from Rikke Dam and Teo Siang, IDF’s editor-in-chief and visual designer respectively, to figure out how to move through each phase as a team.


Before you can address the problems of your customer, you first have to recognize who that customer is. You can also replace customer with “challenge” or “problem,” making it more applicable to your team’s various needs.

The first step of design thinking simply requires you and your team to: “set aside their own assumptions about the world in order to gain insight into users and their needs,” suggest Dam and Siang. For sales, this means gaining insights into current and future customer characteristics and needs.

To empathize with the target consumer is to analyze their experiences and motivations in real time. To do this, your team needs to get cross-departmental. Talk with other internal teams and gather information. To take it a step further, consult with outside data and experts.


Once you have collected both observational and experiential data on the consumer or challenge, your next step is to define this issue in the simplest and most basic terms possible, so it’s easy for the team to connect with.

For example, instead of “We need to increase our food-product market share among teenage girls by 5 percent,” reframe it as, “Teenage girls need to eat nutritious food in order to thrive, be healthy and grow,” suggests Dam and Siang. A clearly defined problem is manageable to solve. Your sales team is likely familiar with the needs of your customers, so this is a great exercise in re-defining what they think they know and getting innovative.


Now that a simplified core problem has been identified, your team can start asking the question, “How should we encourage teenage girls to perform an action that benefits them and also involves [our] company’s food-product or service?”

This is the ideate phase, in which the team brainstorms together to find both a creative and workable solution. All ideas are welcome at this stage, even if they seem unconventional. The goal is to “stimulate free thinking” and incrementally scale it down to the ideas with potential.


After your team agrees on the idea that you want to develop into a solution, experimentation begins. In this phase, you will create a prototype for how you plan to achieve the outcome. The prototype is then “investigated and either accepted, improved and re-examined, or rejected on the basis of the users’ experiences,” says Dam and Siang.

In terms of a physical product solution, this generates a “clearer view of how real users would behave, think and feel when interacting with the end product.” In terms of working on a non-product challenge, like within your sales team, test the prototype in whichever environment it will be used: within the team, between teams, etc.


The final step in design thinking is to test what you learned from the prototype model to determine whether your solution is in fact efficient, successful and innovative. In the testing phase is when you make changes based on what you find and get even closer to the solution as to refine it. While this is the last phase, remember that the process is fluid, so your team can revisit earlier phases to troubleshoot as needed.

Bring Design Thinking to Your Team

Now it’s your turn to identify opportunities for design thinking and then walk your team through the phases. Give the process time to work and you may be surprised at what you come up with.

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