Designer as coach

Design thinking

It seems that design thinking is the new black!  But what is it, and what are its fundamentals?

Design thinking is a discipline and set of practices that link human psychology, the design and execution of artistic creativity, and the science and processes of engineering and manufacturing. The methodology is iterative, ‘messy’ and structured, and built around people and behaviours. Hopefully to enable better futures!

Organisations tend to remain focused on the iterative, rapid prototype product and service design component of design thinking. The bigger stage however is the even more potent element of design thinking: a way of thinking about everything that organisations do and the systems in which they operate. 

At the Graduate School of Business, design thinking IS our way of thinking – our consciousness. And we differentiate between design thinking ‘methodology’ and design thinking ‘consciousness’, the way we do things AND the way we think.

Tim Brown, the current CEO of IDEO, the design firm that helped ‘birth’ the design thinking phenomenon, suggests that the techniques and strategies of design should be embedded in every level of business, and in every business that deals with change and innovation.

The take out here is:

Design thinking must permeate the entire organisation, driven by powerful leaders, and by a strong culture.

What is a coaching culture?

Executive coaching focuses on enabling and supporting leaders and influencers to grow and enhance their leadership capabilities, including seeking truth about self and others.

Robert Kegan, one of the foremost leadership gurus, speaks of the movement from subject to object – the basic process for becoming more complex, and the orders of mind, which are different ways of constructing reality.

This move from subject to object in Kegan’s world enables transformational learning, learning that encompasses a way of thinking that is more open, complex and able to deal with increased demands, and ambiguity.

So what on earth does this have to do with design thinking?

The processes and capabilities that are embedded in design thinking competencies mirror those of a coaching mindset and practice.  In fact, the design thinking processes and practice may be seen as the coaching process made tangible! In Kegan’s 5th stage of his development model, people can ‘see’ patterns that encourage integration rather than ‘difference’ or polarities.

They also develop the ability to deal with paradox and tensions, diverse opinions and ultimately, the realm of multiple possibilities.

In the context of QUT’s Leading Through Coaching and Mentoring programwe associate design thinking consciousness with strategic leadership, and attempt to create environments for learning and the building of effective people and knowledge networks.

By their very nature, together, executive coaching and the practice of design thinking methodology and consciousness contribute to powerful self, team and organisational outcomes.

These five factors help embed a coaching mindset and design thinking as constant practice in organisations:


Build powerful, simple, effective and tangible environments and spaces to encourage and enhance the coaching-design thinking nexus.


Encourage informal social networks. These can disrupt existing structures and boundaries, flatten and remove communication and management layers, enable rapid information flows, and create more positive shared leadership patterns.

Achieving and rewarding success

Recognise and reward success. John Kotter, in his discussions of the ‘accelerators’ of strategic success, highlights the need to celebrate short term successes, and sustaining effort.

Ethical Influence and Persuasion

Develop explicit and shared understanding of how to ethically influence and persuade. The eminent psychologist Robert Cialdini, using his 6 principles of ethical persuasion, has taught us how to harness others to participate and contribute to organisational initiatives.


Expertly develop and leverage power: the power of knowledge, networks, and capabilities. Jeffery Pfeffer the eminent Stanford organisational commentator notes that power and influence skills are essential for getting things done in complex, interdependent systems.

Cognitive capitalism, the concept of a knowledge economy espoused by Yann Moulier Boutang, might be the economy of learning. What better way to learn that the cooperation between brains, leveraging design thinking consciousness and a coaching culture!

If you would like to learn more about design thinking and how it can foster a problem-solving culture, see our upcoming Design Thinking for Improved Service Delivery short course with QUTeX.


Tony is a Corporate Educator for QUT, teaching strategic thinking, strategy implementation, innovation and marketing. He has strong expertise in strategic thinking and business planning, innovation and creative processes, and leadership development. Tony’s research interests include employee loyalty, organisational climates, and corporate reputation.

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