While most of the literature on design thinking has focused on innovation, Thomas Lockwood and Edgar Papke, take a deep dive into the intersection of innovation, design thinking and corporate culture through interviews with some of the most advanced design thinking organizations in the world, including SAP, P&G, and IBM, for their book Innovation by Design (2018). One of the key advantages the organizations in their study have in common is that design thinking offers a platform for the constructive management of diverse thinking and strategies.

A surprising discovery, at least for me, is the use of design thinking as a confrontation tool. I never thought of it that way before, but it makes sense. Lockwood and Papke call this attribute "Curious Confrontation," which they define as "facing differing ideas and mindsets with the desire to investigate and learn."

Five insights about design thinking and curious confrontation

1. Design thinking provides an effective tool for confronting and managing disagreement and conflict.

2. Organizations using design thinking have a belief in and positive mindset about curiosity.

3. People who use design thinking demonstrate better inquiry and listening skills, which is key in managing disagreement and conflict effectively.

4. Because design thinking skills can be applied to dealing with disagreement and conflict, confrontation happens in a more timely and healthier manner, thereby avoiding much of the dysfunction and consequences associated with it.

5. Design thinking is a valued process for confronting disagreements and misalignments among functions, and their leaders, and effectively breaking down unhealthy silos.

How can you better leverage design thinking to manage disagreement and conflict more effectively and move toward greater levels of innovation?

Lockwood and Pabke offer some illuminating insights from Innovation by Design:

  • Keeping a focus on the customer creates a shared understanding and alignment to the intended outcome. Asking "What are we are here for?" and "Why is this important?" reminds everyone involved why the conflict likely exists and what everyone's shared intention is. This can also apply to the management of customers, particularly in a business-to-business relationship.
  • Always critique the work --with a design thinking approach. Design thinking is based on empathy, insight, rapid ideation, and immediate feedback, with a focus on making the process work rather than on criticizing or unfairly questioning someone's contribution. Be aware of a possible disagreement or conflict, and be ready to bring the focus back to the problem that everyone is trying to solve.
  • Ask simple, yet critical questions. Using design thinking as a framework not only increases the capability of people to listen, it also helps develop their inquiry skills. One of the most powerful questions to ask is "What's missing?" Conflict is a signal that a need or desire is going unmet--that there is a gap between what people have and what they want--so this is the most direct and empathetic question to ask. What's missing: for the customer, in our communication, in our relationship, in how we're working, that led to the problem, for you? It can be applied well to virtually any situation.
  • Come from a place of inquiry. Rather than being tellers, design thinkers are explorers. They ask questions and listen fearlessly to the answers they receive. It's important to keep this at the forefront, especially when it comes to disagreement and conflict. Giving one another permission to give and receive feedback is key. Even better is to be able to ask for it and openly receive it. Using the communication skills associated with design thinking not only helps to frame the real problem, it allows for the dialogue necessary to find the right solution.
  • Leaders need to take action. The advantage of design thinking is how empathetic listening and the creation of a shared understanding of differing perspectives set the stage for collaboration and problem-solving.
  • The better trained and skilled people are in use of design thinking, the more they are able to rely on it as an effective conflict management tool. This is likely one of the more hidden benefits of why the organizations in our study have scaled design thinking at the levels they have.

The powerful lesson? Train everyone in design thinking.