Design Thinking: Hire a Facilitator or DIY?

If you're looking to incorporate Design Thinking into your operation, how best to learn and apply the field of skills?

"Why would we bring someone in to help us with our innovation processes? That will just add time and money."

"How will an outsider help us if they don't even know our business or challenges?"

"Are we going to pay to bring in a consultant every time we have hit an obstacle? Why can't we just do it once and have them 'train the trainer?'

"Can't we just do an online course and apply the design thinking process ourselves?"

Those are all good questions, and as frustrating as it may be, the answer is: "It depends." 

It depends on what you're trying to do. It depends how much time and money you have to invest. And it depends on whether you are looking to tackle an individual project or inject the design thinking methodologies and mindset into your ongoing operations.

I've seen four main approaches by which companies engage the design thinking process. There are variations, iterations and combinations of these, but let's go with these for now:

  1. Hire an individual or team to work in-house to guide your team through the process and (maybe) provide training.
  2. Hire and experienced Design Thinking firm for a few short sessions to guide teams through a specific challenge or a few key opportunities.
  3. Hire a Design Thinking firm to train your team members in-depth on the process – think a bootcamp or some deep immersive skills share – and the approaches that are most applicable to your business and team.
  4. Self-train using online courses and apply with in-house personnel.

Each, of course, has its pros and cons.


This is probably the most expensive option for most organizations, but it may make the most sense for big companies that need expertise on a recurring basis and on-demand. Companies such as Capitol One, Facebook and Accenture hae all hired entire formerly independent design thinking firms and brought them in-house to meet their needs. Smaller organizations may go this route as well by hiring a single, dedicated resource, but this is often less satisfactory, as design events often require more than one facilitators and/or may run concurrently for different functions.


This is like an entry-level exposure to the Design Thinking methodology. It enables companies to gain a quality, first-hand experience with the process to tackle a challenge or opportunity. However, it doesn't connect them to the process long-term. This option provides teams with the ability to gain exposure, use the process on one or more of their challenges, reap the benefits, and yet "try before they buy" on an ongoing basis. It also brings the advantage of an outside perspective. This can help innovation teams break through their unrecognized assumptions and move beyond their perceived limitations. And of course, a good facilitator will also leave the Design Thinking participants with an understanding and appreciation for the process, as well as additional tools to tackle future battles.


Once a firm discovers they trust the Design Thinking methodology and want to invest in-house capability, the next step may be to bring someone in to train a set of core team members as the foundation for ongoing use across the organization. This typically involves investing in a boot camp or similar training methodology from an experienced Design Thinking firm to provide tools, methodologies and application approaches to the organization. Depending on how many challenges a company anticipates, the return on investment for this more in-depth training may be greater, and more quickly recouped, than bringing in outside assistance each time.


There are numerous courses and models for Design Thinking available online. So why invest at all in brining someone in to facilitate sessions and train people in a company on the design thinking process?

Online courses can successfully expose teams to the underlying concepts of the Design Thinking process, but good results depend on how well your team can pick up the concepts and apply them. Many people find that the exercises have to be experienced to resonate – on paper (or online) it is often difficult to visualize the group dynamics and stakeholder interplay that are the most powerful aspects of the Design Thinking approach. 

One of my former coworkers (and a brilliant scientist) at Air Force CyberWorkx – the U.S. Air Force cyber innovation center – had a great analogy, which I'll paraphrase slightly: It's like the difference between WebMD and your personal physician. You can look at WebMD and get an understanding of what may be going on based on your genetic systems, but if you really want someone interested in you, and who can assess and deal with more complicated issues, then you probably want to go to your family physician. Experienced design facilitators can sense when the process is getting off track, or when a different Design Thinking tool might work better with a particular group, and then adjust. They can also help teams overcome status-quo thinking by pressing groups to work outside their comfort zones. Still for a small team with a matching budget, self-training may serve to, at least, help apply the most fundamental methods to some challenges. 

What are your thoughts on the role of outside experts in applying Design Thinking?

Joe "Hark" Herold is the CEO of DesignThinkingDenver. He served 28 years in the United States Air Force and now works with organizations of all types to help them achieve their mission and vision … better. This is part of a series Herold is putting together on Design Thinking for ColoradoBiz.

Categories: Management & Leadership