Design Thinking —
Not the Be All and End All
Mining gemstones is only the beginning.
It's the cut, polish and sale that creates the impact. Delivering flawless change requires many facets.
I've been part of the design thinking community for 10 years or more. Like a squabbling dysfunctional family, it's evolution has been bumpy and you would hardly call it a cohesive community. I think its relevance and usefulness will continue to rise provided it's rooted in much more clear thinking on what it is.
At present, it seems threatened by a growing demand for more clarity almost in fear it will be found out,
as very basic common sense. “Isn't this what human centred design is about after all, the product works, I love it somebody figured me out, end of story.” CEOs are currently threatened by the confusing language by the many industry experts offering so often jargon loaded cookie-cutter approaches.
Mistake number one has been to disconnect design thinking from design and the design community.
My personal view after many years is that design isn't a process, but rather an approach to solving problems. The challenge is to build the big idea together with the client from the customer's perspective. Easier said than done in life, dealing with entrenched views and traditional market approaches.
The highly analytical consultant does well at the front end of the design thinking process, but when the problem is beautifully defined they invariably lack the skill to join the dots in an innovative way, so you end up with iterative change, safe and of course more measurable, but nothing which will grow your market share dramatically or margin. Inherent in the solution must be the creativity to find that absolute gem that will transform a business.
I feel with the professional services firms currently making deep inroads into design thinking, that unless they can shed their inherently conservative cultures the gems they promised to find and cut will simply be left in the rough. Counter of course is an equally entrenched designer, who begins with the aesthetic, and pays lip service to the problem.
Design thinking has cut a swathe through management theory and overdressed itself as a cure all where many of its zealots are so erudite in their convictions it's almost an illness.
The major blind spot in design thinking
There is so much focus on identifying user needs and coming up with clever solutions that it's easy to overlook the basic question of whether the problem's worth solving in the first place.
There needs to be a strong internal compass which helps to protect an idea and keep it true to the original vision, ultimately leading to better design. Communicating the story of the product or service and the problem being solved needs to be well executed to inspire and build support. I have observed so many wonderful ideas left on the bench for want of a constructive argument from a financial and technical perspective. People doing this work tend to spend far too much time at the front end which of course is the sexy bit, leaving the practicalities to disinterested others.
The zealots in the boardroom on design thinking are dangerous characters,
they back decision-makers into corners with this “cool user” rhetoric delivering it with anecdotes like the evening news. Most organisations desire creativity but have difficulty in accepting the fuzziness, messiness, abstractness and obscurity that come along with it. They live in the world of logic and systematic process, for them unpredictability is not measurable.
Implementing design thinking to become a mainstay culture of an organisation is one of the dreams the process hopes to offer. In my experience, internal labs unless championed by the CEO and well-resourced with top multi-sire talents simply wither out on some remote limb as a token gesture. Creating any internal ecosystem requires several elements; a customised modular innovation process, the right senior leadership that advocates from the top down, sponsorship and prioritising projects and acclimatising design thinking. Integral to success is to empower from the ground up employees best led by a process champion middle manager with a great track record and respect.
The end of the design thinking process is to prototype and launch pilots to learn from the target stakeholders about the implemented concepts. As there is a start and end to the process, design thinking doesn't provide what is more essential towards the reality of the business world: business modelling and business planning. Without integrating these two, buy in from the senior leadership and especially sceptics can so often be insurmountable.