Design Thinking for Associations | Part II

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Companies often come to us and ask us to help them become more creative and more innovative. In our experience, creativity and innovation are not achieved by simply adding an eye-catching logo on a product or bringing in a well-known keynote speaker. There is a clear distinction between the design as a superficial destination and design as a state of mind. When it comes to associations, it’s important for program experts to think of design as a way of solving problems. We have an opportunity to help our clients think more creatively about their futures by taking a design-based approach.

As I mentioned in my last post, design thinking is an entirely human-centered approach to problem solving. It’s about creating opportunities to solve problems and meet the needs of people. The skills we need today are less about managing processes and more about collaborating with peers, enhancing peers’ strengths, and navigating uncertainty.

In order to stop ourselves and our teams from continuing down the path of the way things have always been done, we must ask different questions. The first question I always ask myself, the client, or my team is, “How can we think about the work differently?” 

Most people, when presented with the task of solving a problem when the answer is ambiguous, are unsure what step to take first. Design thinking is a set of processes and methods for arriving at an answer. It’s the method we use to get from nothing to something. 

As creative people, we are trying to approach broad challenges with relatively simple solutions.  In effect, the first rule of creative problem solving is to assume that the problem we are presented is not actually the problem we should be solving.

Take a moment to remember the five segments of the design thinking process: Contextualize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test.

Let’s apply them.


We first need to understand what the question is really asking. What are the needs that we’re trying to satisfy with that question? One approach is to reframe the problem; whatever assumptions have been made about the problem are usually seen through one lens.  Despite the altitude or scale at which the problem is brought to us, there is a huge benefit in scaling up or down to change our perspective of how the problem should be contextualized. (Think about viewing a tree from an airplane, on the ground, and then under a microscope). 

When it comes to contextualization, the questions we should be asking are:

  • What role should we be playing in our organization?
  • Are we the providers of a new solution? Or should we be enabling everyone in the organization to better use existing solutions to reach their goals?
  • When do we implement change?
  • How do we implement change?
  • What areas could use innovation more than others?
  • Where have we encountered barriers to transformation?

Depending on which question we ask first, our approaches can vary drastically. 


We should seek to understand who we are serving. When we think of our audience, we have a tendency to target the middle of the classic bell curve. Instead of thinking about what most people do, we want to gain insight and inspiration from the outliers. Extreme users—those who are at the edge of the market—could be advanced users, thought pioneers, or users who are struggling to keep up.

Our Leader Development Coordinator, Rebecca Rhulman, touches on this idea in another Innovatis blog post, Creating a Memorable New Member Experience. [link] If we merely focus on the majority, we fail to recognize the nuance of our entire audience.


This is my favorite step but there is one crucial rule: we cannot say “no” during this phase. All ideas should be met with “yes, and” or “yes, but” responses. Experiment with a range of ideas. Regardless of how far-fetched a solution might seem, there is value in exploring all possibilities.

Prototype & Test

At Innovatis, we make quick models of ideas so we can try them out and seek feedback. We then consolidate the list we made in the Ideate phase until we are left with the top few and eventually the most promising one. Finally, we dedicate ourselves to refining the proposed solution until it’s in its most polished form.

One thing I have learned to recognize is that many people are comfortable with the convergent challenge of making an idea stronger and better until it’s ready, yet uncomfortable with the divergent task of exploring many ideas simultaneously. We tend to have an approach in our world of using our first (usually ineffective) idea until it no longer works. This approach usually exhausts time, energy, and other resources and can be remedied easily by allowing for more effort in the brainstorming period. One of the most valuable skills creative people have is the ability to allow many ideas at once and then exercise discernment to arrive at a refined list of possibilities.

Regardless of your role or experience I challenge you to employ one simple habit: start writing down your observations, thoughts, and questions. Make it a practice. You might surprise yourself by how effortlessly you are able to approach challenges as a result.

Molly Hewitt

Molly Hewitt

Molly is the Senior Education Manager at Innovatis Group. She oversees the strategic direction of our clients' education programs through content development and competency measurement for live and on-demand programming. Her goal is to create a cohesive content strategy that makes our clients the go-to resource for training and education, in effect making membership a necessity. (Fun Fact: Molly coaches middle school girls volleyball.)