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Solving public sector problems with Design Thinking

8 November 2022

News and media


Image of Jeanne Liedtka

Design Thinking (DT) may have begun as a set of tools for innovation in the private sector, but it has even greater potential as a ‘social technology’ to help governments create and implement better solutions, says Professor Jeanne M. Liedtka. 

Its principles of focusing on the people who use government services, bringing stakeholders and other collaborators together in a structured process to innovate, and focusing on experimentation and small-scale testing of ideas before adopting them more broadly, can lead to more effective services at lowered cost. It can increase engagement with stakeholders and improve assessment of their needs, while encouraging innovation by mitigating the effects of bureaucratic hierarchies and processes. 

Professor Liedtka presented the Design Thinking for Innovative Problem Solving masterclass, part of ANZSOG’s Public Leadership Masterclass series, to give public leaders a better understanding of the tools of Design Thinking and its potential application to their problems. Professor Liedtka is the UTC Professor Business at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and a former chief learning officer at United Technologies Corporation, where she was responsible for overseeing all activities associated with corporate learning and development for the Fortune 500 corporation. Her work includes a focus on design-led innovation in the government and social sector, which she published in her book, Designing for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector. 

She said that the same DT tools that businesses use to build more efficient organisations to sell products and services can – in fact already are – being used by the government sector to materially improve people’s lives.  

“The problems that the social sector, especially the government sector, deals with are complex. They have multiple stakeholders that need to be satisfied simultaneously. Design Thinking provides a social technology that allows people to work together across difference. That’s valuable in any sector, but in government where there are competing pressures from different groups – citizens, legislators, funders or whatever – these tools can really make a difference,” she said. 

“Firstly, DT is essentially human-centric. It starts with the human beings involved, not with policy objectives, and aims to develop a deep understanding of their current situations and unmet needs. Only with that as a starting point do we proceed to generating ideas. In areas like health care and social services, where we’ve had technical experts making decisions for a long time, there is often tremendous value potential in shifting that lens from the policy maker to the citizen, or from the doctor to the patient. 

She used the example of Good Kitchen organisation in Denmark, which provided meals to the elderly, but found that many of its clients were still malnourished. They used design thinking to understand the deeper issues that the elderly faced and which impacted their appetites and their ability to accept this food. Through relatively minor alterations in how they reached out to people and arranged and offered the food, they were able to dramatically improve the way that nutritional needs were met. 

“Secondly, DT is possibility driven. Government organisations tend to be constraint-driven – they face budget constraints, time constraints, competency constraints, or constraints on different kinds of resources. When you start a solution search with the constraints already in mind, you end up with solutions that look like the ones you’ve already got,” she said. 

“What Design Thinking does is to ask us to set aside these constraints early in the process and to ask instead ‘What if anything were possible?’ What would we provide?’ Having that possibility in mind motivates you to think more creatively – not just about ideas themselves –  but about how to bring the idea to life in the complex world we are working in.” 

“The final thing is that Design Thinking has a focus on experimentation. Our aim is to create a portfolio of ideas and test them with the people we have designed them for, not just people who agree with us. 

“How do we assess whether in practice our ideas do what we think they are going to do? We need to conduct small and simple experiments with prototypes (as simple as storyboard and posters). These can be very valuable and shift the evaluation conversation. With Design Thinking we are talking about a consensus driven way of deciding what ideas are best-suited to what we are trying to accomplish.”  

Applying Design Thinking to your work

Professor Liedtka suggests that public leaders who want to adopt Design Thinking should start with problems which are manageable, but significant, and within their field of control. 

“There’s is a lot of talk about using Design Thinking to solve wicked problems or overwhelming issues, such as poverty or global warming. But when you are learning, it makes more sense to pick something that is doable and in your control. 

“So, start small with a problem, identify relevant stakeholders, and invite them into DT’s structured process. That process is important, because we know from a lot of academic research that diversity of perspectives has the potential to produce more creative solutions. Unfortunately, when you put people who think differently together, they may debate each other – and leave the room upset – rather than collaborating to reach a solution. That’s why you need the social technology of Design Thinking. It offers a structured way of having a conversation that lets people surface these differences in the ways that they see the world and use them productively, rather than have them get in the way.” 

One of the advantages of Design Thinking is that it can be done at small scale and at any level of an organisation, but for leaders who wanted to encourage the use of Design Thinking Professor Liedtka suggests actively supporting different activities in different ways: 

“During the first stage, encourage your people to immerse themselves in the actual experience of those they are trying to serve, going into the field to observe and talk to people to get a sense of their lives. That helps you understand that ‘the job to be done’ is both functional and emotional. For example, in Denmark’s Good Kitchen the functional aspect was to get older people to eat better food, but the emotional aspect – to make them feel they had not lost control over their choices – was every bit as important. We’re often not comfortable talking about emotions, so leaders who make it acceptable for people to talk about emotions is important.” 

“Later in the process leaders need insist on experimentation. Ask for evidence of experiments and the data they produced, even if they are small ones with just a handful of the people we are trying to serve. It takes time and effort to test, so senior leadership support (even pressure?) is needed to get people to do it. 

“Culturally, organisations need to develop different notions of what failure means. If you are going to conduct experiments, by definition you are sometimes going to confirm your hypothesis, and sometimes disconfirm it. It is not a failure to find out your idea doesn’t work in advance of spending money on it – in fact that is a success. Being supportive of failures that come from learning is one of the changes that leaders need to make.” 

Professor Liedtka explained that the two-hour PLM masterclass gave participants an introduction to Design Thinking and its tools and offered them a chance to assess whether the concepts were potentially useful enough for them to invest more time learning. 

She also noted that even just familiarity with some Design Thinking tools can be valuable, even if people cannot commit the time to follow the entire process: “Everyone has the ability to use these tools in their own part of the world that they can influence to make lives better. And you can begin doing it in fairly low key, low-resource intensive way. As you begin to succeed you can do more with more resources.” 

“If you are dealing with other human beings whose behaviours you are trying to change, your technical work can be correct – but to the extent that someone needs to behave differently to make it happen in the real world – whether that is delivering health care services, or filing an application for benefits, or changing behaviours around recycling – Design Thinking can materially enhance both the quality of the solution itself as well as the likelihood that you will actually successfully implement it.” 

For more of Professor Liedtka’s insights, read her recent article The Use of Design Thinking in the US Federal government, in Public Performance & Management Review.


Design Thinking for Innovative Problem Solving was delivered on Wednesday 30 November, and repeated on Tuesday, 28 March 2023 as part of ANZSOG’s 2022/23 Public Leadership Masterclass series (PLM). The series is designed to expose emerging and current public leaders to fresh ideas relevant to their work. The eleven PLM masterclasses cover a range of themes and provide an invaluable opportunity for self-reflection and professional growth for individuals and teams. PLM is a ‘choose-your-own adventure’ style series which puts you in control of your online learning experience and organisations can choose from a range of pricing packages.