Design Thinking Coaching

Dec 17, 2019

At its essence, Design Thinking, as it is popularized today, is a systemic, outcome-oriented, client-centric process that builds upon most elements of appreciative empathetic coaching. It aligns so closely to coaching that we thought it would be relevant to compare core coaching competencies that coaches live by with Design Thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

According to Interaction Design Foundation, “Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. Design Thinking revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom we’re designing the products or services. It helps us observe and develop empathy with the target user. Design Thinking helps us in the process of questioning: questioning the problem, questioning the assumptions, and questioning the implications. Design Thinking is extremely useful in tackling problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing.”

A lot of this sounds strangely familiar, doesn’t it?

Ethical Mindset

Design Thinking ethics are, as in coaching, about placing the human client at the center of the process with unconditional positive regard, empathy and authenticity. It is a generative process that leads to solutions based on client awareness rather than pre-conceived designer ideas.

Design Thinking Mindset

The mindset of a Design Thinking Coach is empathetic and generative visioning of what can happen for client benefit. This would include optimism, risk-taking, coping with change factors of uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity, working with determination, resilience and commitment.


The process would start with discussions of what the client individually or clients collectively desire. Design Thinking is an ideal systemic process using steps similar to appreciative inquiry. The stages could be Definition, Discovery Dream and Design leading to Delivery or Destiny. These fall in line with Coacharya’s SPEED process in a systemic coaching approach. At the agreement level, which would address Definition of the problem and Discovery of causes and barriers to resolution, some questions could be:

  • What are the pain points?
  • Why, why, why, why, why is it a pain point and needs to be resolved?
  • How would we know when pain is gone?
  • What stops us from getting over the pain?
  • How do we sense, feel and think as we discuss these issues and why?

Safety, Trust and Presence as a Team and with Client

The agreement process as well as subsequent processes of co-dreaming a collective vision, as well as collaborative Design and Delivery, requires a powerful team. The team-building process should align with the Project Aristotle concepts of:

  • Psychological safety, trust and inter-dependability to build the team, and
  • Goals, which are clearly communicated and supported by organizational structure, with an inspiring meta goal that motivates team spirit.

A good Design Thinker Coach would need to be a conscious, servant leader.


Design Thinking is all about empathetic and generative listening and humble and curious inquiry leading to unfettered ideation. Stories, metaphors, clean and non-violent language would be the norm in this co-creative collaborative process. Communication would focus on the final desired outcome through iterative discussions and brainstorming resulting in what may block the needed outcome and awareness of how to overcome these blocks.


As in any coaching and other problem-solving interventions, Design Thinking requires creation of awareness with the individuals, team and the system as to outcome clarity, barriers to solution and awareness of possibilities. A number of other techniques can support this process, such as:

Action to Growth

Design Thinking is about prototyped beta trails before full-fledged action. Many techniques are available, some from the Theory U Lab approach using 3D prototyping. As in any scientific experimentation, prototyped would be tested and repeated, with continuous interaction with the clients, stakeholders and the system, till a final effective successful solution emerges.

All that it takes to be a Design Thinker are these systemic approaches, which are fundamental to any coaching. Don’t be afraid to try, fail and try again till you are successful.

Design Thinking for Coaches Webinar

We conducted a webinar on Design Thinking and it’s similarities to Coaching. Here is the summary and YouTube recording.

Ram Ramanathan, MCC
Ram Ramanathan, MCC


Ram is the Founder and a Principal at Coacharya. As the resident Master and mentor coach, Ram oversees and conducts all aspects of coaching and training services offered under the Coacharya banner.

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