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An Introduction to Design Thinking


Have you or your worshipping community ever encountered a tough problem and found yourselves unable to come up with a solution? Then design thinking might be able to help! Design thinking is being used every day by global companies, top universities and people around the world to help solve big challenges.

Typically in problem-solving, the problem and solution are defined within concrete confines — for example, in innovation, we look for the ideal overlap of viability, feasibility and desirability. Design thinking enters the innovation process to help expand the options and imagination into the abstract before coming back down to finalize or define the concrete solution.

Design thinking can also help break down large, complex problems into more discrete yet interconnected segments.

“Great!” you say? Then, let’s get to it. What is design thinking?

Design Thinking: An Overview

Design Thinking Overview
Source: Stanford d.School,
Design Thinking Bootleg.” Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Design thinking is a method for creative problem-solving that works on an understanding that the best solutions and problem-solving involve the perspectives of those who will use the design — “the user” (ex. customer, member, constituent). By gaining a deep understanding of the user first, design thinking considers whether the problem is a problem at all, helps to uncover assumptions and explores the implications of a potential solution.

To better understand the problem, the users and potential solutions, there are five “modes” within design thinking. While there are many ways to explore these phases, here is how the Stanford d.School (Stanford Design School) defines the five modes:

  • Empathize: Empathy is the foundation of user-centered design. The problems you’re trying to solve are rarely your own; they’re those of particular users. Build empathy for your users by learning their values.
  • Define: The define mode is when you unpack your empathy findings into needs and insights and scope a meaningful challenge. Based on your understanding of users and their environments, come up with an actionable problem statement: your Point of View. Understanding the meaningful challenge at hand and the user insights you can leverage is fundamental to creating a successful solution.
  • Ideate: Ideate is the mode in which you generate radical design alternatives. Ideation is a process of “going wide” in terms of concepts and outcomes — a mode of “flaring” instead of “focus.” The goal of ideation is to explore a wide solution space — both a large quantity and a broad diversity of ideas. From this vast repository of ideas, you can build prototypes to test with users.
  • Prototype: Prototyping gets ideas out of your head and into the world. A prototype can be anything that takes a physical form — a wall of Post-it notes, a role-playing activity, an object. In the early stages, keep prototypes inexpensive and low-resolution to learn quickly and explore possibilities.
  • Test: Testing is your chance to gather feedback, refine solutions and continue to learn about your users. The test mode is an iterative mode in which you place low-resolution prototypes in the appropriate context of your user’s life. Prototype as if you know you’re right, but test as if you know you’re wrong.

Design thinking is an iterative problem-solving process, meaning that the five phases are not sequential. For example, after prototyping, you might want to go back to empathize with users to understand whether a potential solution will work.

Design thinking also opens up the opportunity to think from different perspectives and in alternative ways to reach a better solution. To explore further, check out the Stanford d.School’s “Design Thinking Bootleg” or IDEO’s design thinking introduction and related resources.

What’s next?

While design thinking often follows or uses the five “modes” outlined above, even this innovative field continues to evolve. Look out for part two of this design thinking story, which will focus on equity design!

References and Other Resources

IDEO, “Design Thinking.”

Stanford d.School, “Design Thinking Bootleg.” Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Rikke Friis Dam and Teo Yu Siang, “What Is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular?,” Interaction Design Foundation, July 2020.

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17th Sunday After Pentecost: The Marshmallow Challenge

The ELCA Innovation Lab is partnering with the fall intensive of “Leadership On the Way.” Leadership On the Way (LOTW) seeks to offer creative space and supportive relationships for early-career leaders as they learn, innovate and adapt to their unique settings. This past session, the LOTW cohort focused on design-thinking and equity-centered design, and LOTW coach Pastor Bradley Schmeling, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church (St. Paul, Minnesota) found himself exploring the connections. In his own words, “The whole design conversation became a way for me to explore the gospel text in a new way.” Check out Pastor Schmeling’s sermon below and on the Gloria Dei website. 

Matthew 21:23-32

Maybe you’ve heard about the marshmallow design challenge. It’s a teamwork and design exercise. Groups are given 20 pieces of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The goal is to build the tallest structure you can in the time allotted. The only rule is that the marshmallow must go on the top and must be in one piece.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that all usually goes well until the last minute. With the clock ticking, the group adds the marshmallow. Very often, the whole structure collapses. It can’t handle the weight. You may also not be surprised to learn that recent graduates of an MBA program, and probably seminaries, have some of the worst track records. The best?


Why do kindergartners perform better than adults? The adults jockey for power, spend a lot of time talking about process, try to get around the rules, or just cheat. The kindergartners succeed because usually none of them is trying to be the CEO. They share equally in the task. But mostly, it’s because they start with the marshmallow. They build under it, and when something doesn’t work, they dismantle and start over. The marshmallow is always on top in their project.[1]

Marshmallow Challenge
“Marshmallow Challenge 6” by MTa Learning
is licensed under
CC BY 2.0

I sometimes wonder if Jesus would have had a more supportive team had he invited twelve kindergartners to join on the way to Jerusalem. A group willing to be closer to the ground than scraping the sky; a group that values each member of the team and knows that God’s wisdom is always collaborative.

In today’s gospel text, we hear the final conflict between two design processes. By the end of the week, Jesus will be lynched and buried. He just entered Jerusalem, to great acclaim and the waving of palm branches. He overturned the tables in the temple, a pretty clear symbol of what he’s about. And now this is the first argument with the authorities, likely with the police who were sent to disburse the protesters.

On one side: Jesus’ project to build a structure that beats with God’s heart. On the other side: the institution, political and religious, that resists change, silences dissent, and rewards the wealthy and powerful. [Let me be clear about one thing: The temple doesn’t represent Judaism, as if Christianity is somehow the real spiritual project that gets rid of some rigid Jewish system.]

Here the temple represents the world that we’ve all been schooled to believe is the real one, or, at least, the only practical one. If you want to hear what the temple-reality looks like today, get on Twitter or turn on the TV or open the newspaper. You’ll find it on just about every page. I like to call it “an accumulation system”; an endless, frantic, and finally murderous race to have more and more. It’s literally a dead-end.

The entire gospel text for today turns around the question of what kind of authority will re-make the future. In Matthew’s gospel, this a moment of crisis, a turning point. In fact, even the way he tells this story, compels the reader to choose a side. Do you want to end up like the leaders, the ones who have everything but really nothing, or the prostitutes and the tax collectors, the judged and despised, but are open to discovering the deepest truth? Will you be the child that nods their head at the request but never does anything about it? Or the one, who may not get it at first, even arguing with the authority, but tackles the work, anyway?

I can’t help but think that Jesus overturning those tables and now confronting the authorities is an iconic image for the time we’re living in right now.

Part of building the world that God intends means we have to work at dismantling another one. Maybe that’s what it means to be the faithful child, the one trying to follow the guide: to be constantly deconstructing those things that kill the least among us, and building something that brings good and deep life for those same people.

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda says that if God is the creator, we have become the “un-creators” in our destructive and unstainable use of the earth. When I first heard the term in a talk about Jesus, I misunderstood.  I thought they said that Jesus was an un-creator, overturning the systems that we have built, by initiating his own design process to heal, and feed, and welcome; building a community that has a wide-generosity of heart and energy.[2]

Maybe that misunderstanding was a little inspiration. (Don’t tell the preachers that often it’s a good idea only to half-listen what they’re saying!) In the work of creation, God designed a spirit of un-creation, to keep death from having the last word. Maybe Lutherans hear it as reformation. Maybe on the streets today, we hear it as protest or breaking down privilege. Maybe it’s a growing awareness of the need to make reparations for centuries of injustice. Maybe it’s just the old church term is repentance and making amends. Or the Christ pattern of dying and rising.

The kindergartners knew this, breaking apart a little bit of their work in order to keep it moving taller, always keeping the marshmallow—that sweet and beautiful goal—at the very center of their task.

This time feels like a big design project that we’ve been all been given in order to learn something about collaboration and design and truth. It’s the pandemic challenge; the white supremacy challenge; the getting-through-until-tomorrow challenge. Name your own marshmallow!

The gospel news is that the Christ who stood in the temple is the one standing among us, sending us out into this field. We’ve been given some tools, a few directions, a lot of grace to make it up with our friends, and one sweet vision of love and mercy and justice that will crown it all.

It’s also gospel news to remember that the conflict in the temple didn’t end on Friday, but on a Sunday.

In the name of the Creator, the Un-Creator, and the Wisdom to Build, Christ is risen!  Alleluia!

[2] Thank you to Mikka McCracken, Director of Innovation, at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for pointing me to Dr. Moe-Lobeda’s work.

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Innovation Insights: Collective Genius Innovation + Lutheran Theological Thinking

This post builds on concepts introduced in its sibling post, “The ELCA Innovation Lab: An Origin Story.”

You might know it as a remix, mashup, medley or cover, but some of my favorite songs come from the process of adding or rearranging the original tune to include something new or different. Sometimes a fresh take on an old classic brings new inspiration.

As the ELCA Innovation Lab has begun to imagine ways to help the church reclaim relevancy, we have tapped into our deep reformation roots. After all, Lutheranism is a tradition founded on the new and useful ideas of Martin Luther that changed not only the church, but much of western society.

This post features three innovation insights presented as a “remix” of Lutheran theological concepts and Dr. Linda Hill’s work on collective genius innovation.

Insight 1 – Vocation and the priesthood of all believers

Innovation (something new and useful) is not about solo genius but focuses on building the culture and context for collective genius. For Hill and associates, each individual person has a unique slice of genius – their ideas, experience and way of seeing the world. To build an innovation culture, each person’s individual slice of genius must be unleashed and harnessed as part of the “collective.”

For Lutherans, this individual slice of genius might be likened to understanding vocation — the call  to faithful expression of the one’s God-given gifts poured out for the well-being of the neighbor. And so, the collective for Lutherans might be akin to the body of Christ and priesthood of all believers. In the collective Body, all members have varying gifts and equitable share and responsibility.

Insight 2 – Leadership: The role of co-creators

Leadership today does not seem to be getting any easier. COVID-19 has certainly proven this point.

Gone are the days when a solo leader could look out the front door and see clearly for miles, easily lining up the community in rank and file to march toward a destination. Today’s world is increasingly complex. Solutions to the biggest challenges facing communities are often opaque and unknown. Innovation — the iterative process of rooting down in purpose and moving ahead step by step — becomes the ministry imperative. The type of leader needed, according to Hill’s work, is the co-creator – someone who sets the context for the hard work of innovation and works alongside others to get it done.

Similarly, Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner (The Human Factor) suggests that humans are to be co-creators in the creation God has purposefully brought into being and that humans have freedom to participate in fulfilling God’s purposes in the world. God is Creator, and as humans created in that image.

How might we faithfully lead by walking alongside and cultivating the context for others to do the hard work of developing new and useful things so more people might know the way of Jesus and God’s love?

Insight 3 – The Gift of Paradox

Hill and associates have uncovered six essential “paradoxes” for innovation.


“remix” of Lutheran theological
Source: Harvard Business Review,


For Martin Luther, the paradoxical nature of being both saint and sinner, free and bound, is where the freedom of the Christian lies. As challenges and issues in both church and society become more complex and ambiguous, the presence and expectation of paradox is a theological gift.

In the end, remixes come and they go. But the tunes often continue to ring true. What rings true for you in this remix? What new questions or ideas come to mind?

Mikka McCracken, Executive for Innovation & Director, ELCA Innovation Lab

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The ELCA Innovation Lab: An Origin Story

“The way people hear and receive the gospel is changing at an increasingly rapid rate. The competitors of the gospel are many. The ELCA Innovation Lab is a space to experiment and innovate in real time so more people can know more about Jesus and experience the love of God.”

-Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

In January 2020, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton announced the priority of become an “innovation denomination” and the launch of the ELCA Innovation Lab. But what type of innovation denomination should the ELCA strive to be and what difference will it make anyway?

Innovation is often viewed as a single stroke of individual, inventive genius. But as many excellent resources on adaptive change and innovation in the church have named, a life of faith is often reflected by life in community.

With this in mind, the ELCA’s pursuit of innovation work is grounded in the research on collective genius as outlined by Dr. Linda A. Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration and director of the Leadership Initiative at Harvard Business School, and her associates Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback. In their book Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, Hill and associates define innovation simply as something new and useful. Through their research on innovative businesses and organizations such as Google, Pixar and Volkswagen, the team explore innovation culture and capability – the willingness and ability to innovate time and again.


Church Innovation Origin
Source: Harvard Business Review,


To benchmark the ELCA’s existing willingness and ability to culturally transform and continuously innovate, the ELCA Innovation Lab partnered with Paradox Strategies, Dr. Hill’s leadership consulting firm. In February, through the re:Route™ assessmentnearly 100 ELCA leaders weighed in, including leadership and young adult staff of the churchwide organization, two bishops and two directors for evangelical mission from each of the nine ELCA regions, the vice president of the ELCA and the chair of the conference of bishops. Overall, the data reflects an organization just beginning its innovation journey. Here are some highlights: 

  • 70% are willing to collaborate, but only 30% believe the organization is structured to facilitate that or that people excel at it.  
  • 30% believe it is safe to take the risk to speak their own mind.  
  • An inflexible structure, risk aversion and excessive planning make it nearly impossible to experiment or adjust quickly.  
  • Less than 25% believe the right people at the right level are involved in decision making.  
  • A majority sometimes chose to ignore decisions they don’t like.  

In other words, if the ELCA’s innovation journey could be likened to training for a marathon race, we were looking at a “5k” training plan.  

And then, COVID-19 hit.  

Six months since the pandemic beganthere is no doubt that innovation has been happening across the church and society. Frontline industries have pivoted to ensure the safety of workersmany congregations are still worshiping remotelythose who could began the great work from home experiment, students of all ages are starting classes online or in hybrid mode, entire industries are changing their business modelsAnd yet, for the millions of Americans out of work, innovation might seem like a far-off notion for someone else.  

In such uncertain, unprecedented times, innovation and its sister tools of design thinking and adaptive leadership are more important than ever.  

And so is the church.   

The ELCA Innovation Lab hopes to be a path forward for the church – and the church is at its core – the people. In the end, it is up to you, to usAnd not our own sake, but for the sake of this world God so loves.  

After all, as Luther Seminary professor Terri Martinson Elton writes“The word innovation comes from the Latin word innovare, which means renew. It’s the process of renewing personally and communally, of nurturing life, especially after a crisis or fallow time.”  

Soif you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work, subscribe and follow this blog for more. If you’re not sure yet and just want to follow along, you’re more than welcome, too! Check back for the next post which will explore some of the connections between Lutheran faith and innovation. You may also want to check out other innovation resources, such as Luther Seminary’s Faith+Lead community.  

The ELCA Innovation Lab Blog is new! We’d love to hear what you think. If you’ve got a few minutes, complete this short survey. If you have any additional questions or comments let us know at