Decision Making — Powered by Design Thinking

Image Credit: Pexels

“When will this finally all be over?” was the rhetorical question posed by an emotionally exhausted Executive after a recent workshop I facilitated on the future of work.

Over the last two years, leaders have had to make a million high stakes decisions, often impacting the livelihoods of others. It’s no wonder many are experiencing decision fatigue.

But I think we all realize by now that this will not be over.

Given this inevitable context, I thought it might be helpful to examine decision making methods and highlight when and how design thinking can aid in solving problems.


Let’s start by defining decision making and how and where it occurs in organizations. I found this textbook explanation very helpful. In it, decision making is defined as “making choices among alternative courses of action — which may also include inaction.”

The article further outlines that inside organizations, decisions can be classified into three categories based on the level at which they occur. Strategic decisions set the course of an organization. Tactical decisions are decisions about how things will get done. Finally, operational decisions refer to decisions that employees make each day to make the organization run.

It goes on to highlight four commonly used decision-making approaches: 1) the rational decision-making model 2) the bounded rationality decision-making model 3) the intuitive decision-making model and 4) the creative decision-making model. It depends on the type of decision which model yields the most desirable result.

The creative decision-making model refers to the use of design thinking for decision making. It is recommended when solutions to the problem are not clear, new solutions need to be generated, and there is time to immerse yourself in the issues.


The Interaction Design Foundation shares a long list of problem areas that make great candidates for design thinking.

When tackling a problem with design thinking, we take considerable time to identify and understand the right problem before we identify solutions. Design thinking shines when applied to complex, ill-defined problems that can be remedied with more than just one correct solution.

To help identify the correct problem, we commonly use the phrase “How might we…” followed by a series of “why” questions. Lewrick/Link/Leifer 2018 (pp. 50) and Lewrick/Link/Leifer 2020 (pp. 49) outline helpful techniques for identifying and defining a well-scoped problem as the starting point for design thinking.


I often get asked by my clients as well as by our students at Northwestern University’s Designing for Organizational Effectiveness Certificate program when and how to use design thinking in the field of Human Resources.

Many problems in HR can be solved with design thinking — they are the kind of complex, wicked, grey area problems that impact the experience of our employees.

I took a stab at sketching a decision model for when to use design thinking in HR:

What do you think? How would you evolve this model? What am I missing?

Let’s apply the model to a few scenarios: Let’s say you want to consider using design thinking to decide what improvements you should make to your HRIS. It will likely get knocked out of consideration after step one. You are better off collecting employee complaints from your case management system and adding solutions to your technology roadmap than using design thinking.

On the flip side, a good candidate for design thinking is anything around hybrid work/the future of work. It’s a complex, ill-defined problem where no current playbook exists. It benefits from new ideas and should be co-created with your employees.

Another opportunity area you might want to tackle with design thinking is the DEI space. It certainly meets the first three criteria. Where you would want to differentiate is when it comes to the compliance question. Let’s say you want to tackle pay equity. Just do it, you don’t need to go through design thinking to fix it. If the opportunity is more around how to create a culture of inclusion, then that would be a candidate to consider design thinking for.

Here is a sample case study: A financial services client conducted a culture and inclusion survey and found that employees perceived a lack of transparency on why and how key decisions are made and a lack of understanding on who is involved in making various decisions. There was also a sentiment that decisions are made without regard or input of those impacted. This impact was felt especially by individual contributors, women, and LGBTQ+ employees. The client decided that this was a space that might benefit from including employees in the solutioning process using a design thinking approach. We guided a cross-functional, diverse group of employees through a three-step design thinking process — from problem definition to concept design. The organizational decision-making scenario the group decided to tackle was the annual organizational planning process scoped as “How might we… create a transparent organizational planning process that ensures alignment at different levels of the organization?” The result was a concept for more participatory annual planning which key decision makers embraced and added to the annual planning process that was just about to kick off.

Note: This article was originally published as part of the Design Thinking for HR LinkedIn Newsletter.


Nicole Dessain is an employee experience consultant, design thinking workshop facilitator, and Northwestern University instructor. Nicole is the host of the Talent Tales podcast, where she interviews HR professionals who have pioneered design thinking in HR.




I am leading a movement that aims to make organizations more people-centric through the power of design thinking via

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium


7 Tips to Capture Perfect Event Photos and Video

Sex Breakfast of champion Graphic T Shirts

Sex Breakfast of champion Graphic T Shirts

Turkish Startup Ecosystem Map [v6.0]

Your Ideas are Endless!

21 Tools to Create Engaging Images for Social Media Posts

Why You Should Do Weekly Reflections

Intro to Keyframing in Adobe After Effects

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Nicole Dessain

Nicole Dessain

I am leading a movement that aims to make organizations more people-centric through the power of design thinking via

More from Medium

Aligning Staff and Stakeholders to Advance Impact Innovation Capacity

My Leadership Philosophy: Part One — Care Deeply

Weeknotes 3 — Say thank you and sorry sooner

Who Should Lead Design Thinking in HR?