The Call for Design Thinking Facilitators


Design Thinking is the latest competitive advantage for businesses across a wide range of industries: tech, education, retail and even aerospace. Design Thinking (DT) has received extensive coverage in major publications like Harvard Business Review and the New York Times. Relatively old stalwarts in the area like IDEO and Frog focus on design as a consultancy service. Companies like General Assembly offer training to everyone from large foundations to Fortune 500s. Other large corporations, like Capital One and Fidelity, are building in-house design teams that can both design and teach others throughout the organization to design.

Facilitators make Design Thinking work more productive

All of this emphasis on design training often leads to the assumption that the people working at your company, from business development reps to product designers to VPs, can learn to be design thinkers and apply design thinking practices alongside their existing jobs. What I’ve learned from teaching enterprise-level design workshops to Fortune 500s is that, for design thinking to function best inside an organization, a new role of “Design Facilitator” is needed.

As an instructor, I’ve often seen people apply Design Thinking very productively when they are being guided through its practice in a facilitated workshop but struggle to continue making forward progress the following week back in their regular jobs. The more I thought about it, this struggle makes intuitive sense. We wouldn’t expect anyone who spent 8 hours practicing a new skill to be able to apply it flawlessly the very next day. So why is Design Thinking any different?

Let’s make this concrete with an example: a key moment in the Design Thinking process comes between an exploration phase, when the team is learning as much as possible about the user, and the understanding phase, when the team will try and draw insights from their user interactions. In true Design Thinking fashion, this frequently involves a small team standing around a large poster board with post-its and sharpies generating ideas. Without a Design Facilitator, this process won’t happen, which means one of the members of the team has to play that role. That has two results: first, that team member is now removed from actively participating in the exercise, because it is quite difficult to do both things simultaneously. And second, while a good ideation session requires good facilitation, this step-in facilitator often has limited to no experience in the role, so is forced to learn on the job. These two challenges make it much more likely the team will follow the same habits they always have and won’t generate good results from following the Design Thinking methods and mindsets.

Facilitators generate superior results for teams

A team that has a well-trained design facilitator can come to a drastically different outcome. This individual understands what it takes to have a good ideation session, and comes prepared to the meeting to make it happen. She ups the energy level in the room with a “stoke”, a short exercise that gets the team members’ brains and bodies moving. She lays out the ground rules for the session and makes sure everyone has the proper tools. She guides the participants through the exercise, moving things along when idea creation slows down and picking out moments to slow down when she sees certain team members’ processing an idea. She also knows when to call the session to a close and to move onto the next phase in the design thinking process.

This last item is important because it is often where novice teams get stuck. Perhaps the most common question I hear in Design Thinking classes is some combination of where do I start, when do I finish, and how do I know what to do next. Students aren’t sure if now is the right time to interview a user, generate new ideas, filter through existing ideas, or put prototypes in front of a customer to generate user feedback. A design facilitator will always know exactly where the team is at and what it should do next to keep the process moving forward, towards the end goal of innovating to create value for the user.

A design facilitator can contribute to her team beyond applying Design Thinking skills. She can help provide live feedback to participants, making each team member stronger in their own Design Thinking practice. She can communicate and enforce mindsets, which are the higher level ways of approaching business problems with a Design Thinking perspective, such as flaring before focusing and designing for the human first. She helps prioritize tasks and makes sure Design Thinking fits well with other frameworks an organization is following, such as Agile. She can assist with documentation to make sure the learnings generated from a Design Thinking process are captured and disseminated to the team and the organization as whole.

Facilitators enable design thinking evangelists

All of these different skills that make up a Design Facilitator’s practice can be taught in a manner similar to how General Assembly approaches teaching Design Thinking in the first place: through applied practice with feedback from an experienced instructor. These individuals can then take the skills they learn in the facilitation workshop back to their company and apply them during the design thinking process. At the core, the workshop participants will learn how to facilitate Design Thinking methods like preparing for an interview, leading a brainstorm session and creating experiential prototypes. They will also learn basic tools for prioritizing learning goals and documenting the outcomes of the Design Thinking process.

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Disclaimer: General Assembly referred to their Bootcamps and Short Courses as “Immersive” and “Part-time” courses respectfully and you may see that reference in posts prior to 2023.