“I really need some outside-the-box thinking.” How often have those in business heard this from clients, supervisors and colleagues? Sounds like a good thing, but how easy is it to do? Oftentimes fear gets in the way and the tendency to fall back on a solution that’s already been tested overwhelms any new thinking. Some of the most successful companies, however, resist this fear. Instead they use design thinking and create environments where new ideas can grow and thrive.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem solving and innovation that is based on the creative strategies designers use when designing. It’s a set of principles that can be utilized not just by designers, but cross-functionally at all levels of a company. Depending on what resource you reference, design thinking can encompass a variety of different stages, but there are essentially four at its core: empathy, ideation, experimentation and delivery.

Empathy is when the human element of the equation is brought to the forefront. During this stage, a team seeks to gain an understanding of what an end-user or customer wants and needs from a particular product or service. Rather than assuming they know what the customer wants, they seek it out by immersing themselves, conducting research, consulting experts and learning what issues and challenges exist. Skipping this step can result in frustrated customers and failed products.

During this initial stage of design thinking, cross-functional teams are helpful because it avoids one department or team focusing on what they think a solution should be based on their particular function alone. This is exemplified in the story of a semi that became lodged under a bridge that was too low for it to travel under. As emergency crews from various departments came up with possible ways to dislodge the truck, a passerby suggested letting the air out of the tires. Eureka! It’s a great example of why relying on one department to solve a challenge can limit your scope of imagination.

After using empathy to gain a solid understanding of the customers’ unmet wants and needs, and defining the core challenge, design thinking moves on to ideation. Applying what’s been learned, a cross-functional team can begin to identify new solutions that will meet the challenge. At this point, brainstorming techniques can be helpful. There are any number of effective brainstorming methods, from coming up with the bad ideas first to listing words related to the challenge to breaking ideas into smaller portions and creating something new.

New ideas are exciting. You want to run out and implement them right away. But there’s one more step to design thinking that shouldn’t be skipped: experimentation. During experimentation, new ideas are given room to grow without the fear of making mistakes. It’s where ideas can be tested and concepts can be refined before being fully implemented. Companies often do this by using methods such as market research, A/B testing and focus groups. Based on the data received from experimentation, an idea might go through multiple rounds of testing to land on the right solution for the challenge. Once an idea has been tested, it’s time to deliver or launch it, then evaluate its performance.

Design is no longer just the act of creating a product, ad, website or any number of other deliverables. Design is a mindset that changes the way companies ideate and innovate. Combining empathy, ideation, experimentation and delivery, design thinking improves the likelihood of innovating something completely original and on-target. Design-led brands like Apple and Nike are some of the most successful in the world. They understand their customers and stakeholders, and they think big, fail early and scale fast.

Research conducted by Adobe in 2016, revealed, “Companies hoping to drive customer loyalty and stand out in an increasingly competitive landscape filled with a growing number of digital touch points and rising customer expectations must put design at the core of their business.” Because design-led companies take the time to understand their customers’ needs (empathy stage), they tend to be more connected with customers on an emotional level…and that pays off. A Harvard Business review article stated, “Fully connected customers are 52% more valuable, on average, than those who are just highly satisfied.”

Design thinking creates a culture in which new ideas can flourish. The method designers use when innovating and creating solutions to challenges has applications in every part of a business. It removes the fear and clears the path for the most inspired thinking that is driven first and foremost by the customer. It’s a proven recipe for innovative, inspired thinking.