Design Thinking in Coaching and Life - International Coaching Federation

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Design Thinking in Coaching and Life

Posted by Manisha Dhawan, ACC | March 31, 2021 | Comments (1)

Design thinking is a human-centered, iterative and powerful approach to problem-solving.  This methodology has been used for decades (some might argue centuries) and was popularized by the global design agency IDEO. Design thinking has been used to develop products, like the Apple mouse, and tackle some of the most complex challenges across climate change, poverty, health care and education.  Companies like Apple, GoogleNike and Airbnb weave design thinking principles into the fabric of their organizations and drive innovation by placing the user at the center of design.    

By the same token, we acoaches can tap into the power of design thinking in our coaching practices and even offer it as a tool to our clients.  

Here are the key phases of design thinking and how they can be applied to professional coaching: 

  1. Empathy: Observe, ask questionsunderstand and acknowledge from another person’s frame of reference. Empathetic coaches can foster understanding and create a safe space for clients to explore and grow (It makes sense that you feel frustrated”).  
  2. Define the Problem:  In this phase, we get laser-focused on the problem we are trying to solveWe can restate the problem into a how might statement, such as, How might we create a coaching program that helps mid-career professionals elevate their leadership skills and build confidence?
  3. Ideate: Brainstorm and encourage wild ideafrom a place of non-judgment and inclusivity.
  4. Prototype: Create a low fidelity mock-up for one or more of the ideasIn the example above, this could mean storyboarding or developing a sample program schedule.
  5. Test: Test the idea, gather feedback from real users, and iterate based on learningsFor example, distribute a feedback survey after a pilot program and incorporate feedback into the next round.

These phases are non-lineaand not always sequential. For instancetest results from a prototype might spark further ideation.   

Before implementing this approachit’s critical to understand mindsets that form the underpinnings of design thinking. It starts by having a beginner’s mindset, so we can approach a problem as if it’s the first time we’re experiencing it.  Rather than thinking, “I’ve done this a hundred times before and already have a solution,” it’s more effective to take a step back, empathize and understand our client’s pain points. Adopting a beginner’s mindset also means showing up with compassion and curiosity, which can help us be more present with our clients

Other design thinking mindsets include: 

  • Creative Confidence
    We tend to be more creatively confident as children, and as we venture into adulthood, our confidence diminishesThis may be because we associate creativity with artistic skillslose our sense of playor doubt our abilities.  However, creativity is simply about seeing things from a new perspective.   
  • Being Comfortable with Ambiguity
    For many of us, ambiguity feels uncomfortable. Embracing ambiguity reinforces a trusttheprocess approach and normalizes not having all the answers.  So, when we encounter change or uncertainty, we feel more grounded and understand the tides will eventually turn.  

    As coaches, we help our clients find clarity. It’s also important for our clients to sit with ambiguity where a lot of deep learning can occur.  As they feel into the murkiness, they can start to uncover what’s real, what’s not, and what matters to them. 

  • Optimism
    Embracing possibilities can facilitate a positive outlook. We may not have all the answers, but we can feel optimistic the answers will reveal themselves over time.  And if not, try to let go and accept what is. Optimism can serve as an anchor when we feel adrift. 
  • Iterate
    We can iterate our programs by developing prototypes, testing them in the market, gathering feedback and making adjustments.

    Iterating paves the way for us to create new and improved versions of our services. Although we may want to fast forward and deliver the “best version” as soon as possible, waiting for nearperfect means delaying sharing our gifts with the world. It also could mean additional costly rework that could be avoided if we test and refine along the way.   
  • Safe to Fail
    By reframing failure as continual learning, we give ourselves permission to fail.  We are more compassionate with ourselves and make bolder moves in the spirit of learning. safetofail mindset allows us to look at our progress and setbacks as series of experiments.  Similarly, providing a safety net for our clients and having them redefine failure can shift their perspectives.    
  • Make It 
    This mindset entails putting something out in the world, even if it’s just a scrappy prototype. To get a pulse on an idea, move from visioning to execution and create something tangible.  Design thinking favors action over contemplation. 

    There are many practical applications for design thinking. How can you adopt one of these empowering mindsets and embrace the unknown and the unfinished? Evaluate how you can harness the power of design thinking in your coaching practice to innovate and develop more client-centric experiences.   

© 2021 Manisha Dhawan  

Headshot of author Manisha Dhawan, ACC

Manisha Dhawan, ACC

Manisha Dhawan, ACCis the founder and CEO of MPath Coaching, as well as leadership coach, career strategist and design thinking expertShe holds an MBA and Bachelor of Science  in Chemistry from the University of California Irvineand a Certificate in Professional Coaching (CPC) from iPECWith two decades of corporate and management consulting experience, Manisha has led global digital transformation and change management initiatives across multiple industriesVisit her website at to learn more about her passion for driving innovation forward and empowering leadership potential.  

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (1)

  1. Armond says:

    I started my morning off reading this and love the examples and information shared.

    Made me think immediately of The Lean Startup.

    Thank you for sharing!!

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