Jill Thomas, recent CMO of Innisfree Hotels

Three years ago, someone gave me a copy of a book called Change by Design, written by Tim Brown. I read the book, and my brain exploded. I was convinced that everyone I work with would have the same reaction, so I gave a copy of the book to each member of our Executive team as a Christmas present.

In hindsight, I am pretty sure nobody read it, and if they did, they didn’t see how it would help a hotel company thrive. Life is busy in the business world and finding time to deep dive into unfamiliar models for innovation and ideation isn’t always the priority for Christmas vacation. I completely understand.

Fast forward two years, though, and now conversations about how to make Design Thinking integral to our culture and part of our corporate DNA are a top priority. Last month, our corporate leadership team and all of our hotel General Managers, spent two days learning about and practicing Design Thinking concepts and tools in order to generate some innovative ideas to improve the guest experience in our hotels.

I prepared a simple primer to help the team follow up on what they learned at our workshop. First a quick overview:

Design thinking is…

  • A solution-based interdisciplinary planning framework that provides the clarity, direction, and project focus that are vital to sustaining high levels of creative energy.
  • A set of tools that inspires us to refine or rethink our assumptions within practical constraints of a sustainable business model.
  • Human-centered and based on empathy.
  • A framework that starts with a specific goal and then uses multiple stages of nonlinear iterations to solve complex problems.
  • A framework that encourages collective ownership of ideas and enables teams to learn from one another.
  • A toolkit of ideation tactics such as reframing, testing, observation, interviews, brainstorming and prototyping.

Design Thinking can be applied to products, services and processes – anything that needs to be improved. For instance, my team and organization could use it to:

  • Improve guest experience.
  • Build customer loyalty.
  • Improve employee engagement.
  • Increase leadership collaboration.

Here is a simplistic framework you can start using to implement Design Thinking principles within your team and brand:


  • Gain an empathic understanding of the problem you are trying to solve (get down to the customer feelings).
  • Observe, engage, and interview your users/customers.
  • Identify their pain points (feelings, fears).
  • Find out as much as you can about the challenge in order to brainstorm how you might solve it.

Define The Challenge

  • Reframe assumptions: Turn the thought that ‘customers always want the best deal,’ into ‘customers will pay more for a better experience.’
  • Analyze observations gained from research and synthesize core problems.
  • Write your problem statements from a human-centered approach.


  • Start generating ideas and look for alternative ways of viewing the problem.
  • Think big, crazy, insane and impractical! You can leverage these into unexpected workable solutions in surprising ways.
  • Then, combine these brainstorms with rational thoughts and imagination.

A couple of great ways to ideate with your team to create those ‘ah-ha’ moments and stand-out ideas are via brainstorming sessions where all ideas are encouraged, timed braindumping exercises, creating a wall or whiteboard mindmap or web to visualize how to tie solutions together and by writing ideas down on a paper and passing the paper around to build off the person before you (like the telephone game, but for innovative ideas!). To help relieve anxiety and pressure to ‘get it right the first time,’ you can request the worst possible ideas people can think of in order to break the ice and get team rapport going.

The goal here is to create and consider a wide and fresh array of solutions. Then rein it in and look for the ideas with a convergence of feasibility, desirability and viability.


Create a visual storyboard by drawing your idea(s) with simple figures in a series of boxes. Build inexpensive scaled-down versions of the proposed solutions and then begin testing on your users or customers. Be in tune with their feedback and have the resources at the ready to make adjustments based on feedback.

And finally, here are some examples of companies using Design Thinking to solve business problems in amazing ways:

  • Interstate Hotels used it to improve the guest experience in their Food and Beverage operations and make their SOPs more user-friendly organization-wide.
  • IBM used it to transform its customer trade show experiences from spectacles to conversations.
  • Marriott Hotels used it to enhance guest experience at TownePlace Suites.
  • Kraft Foods used it to increase supply chain efficiency.
  • Hyatt Hotels is currently using Design Thinking to transform their guest experience, increase brand loyalty and decrease OTA bookings by “breaking out from the sea of sameness.”
  • Toyota used it to speed up and improve customer service in its California call centers.

If you are looking for more training materials for either yourself or your team, Julian MacQueen, Innisfree’s Founder and CEO, learned Design Thinking via an intense leadership course hosted by the Thnk School for Creative Leadership. You will find lots of great resources on their website, too.