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Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship (issue #5) — On design thinking as a panacea

Every week, Mark Storm shares some observations and insights on innovation and intrapreneurship. His motto: don’t just ‘do’ innovation, ‘are’ innovation.


On design thinking as a panacea

“The next generation will need to be more and more comfortable with problems of dizzying complexity.” True, I immediately thought when I read this on FasctCoDesign. But then it said, “And design thinking can teach them that.” Can it, really?

According to Trung Le in Teaching Kids Design Thinking, So They Can Solve The World’s Biggest Problems, “our children must master systems thinking to envision multiple methods for addressing complex challenges like renewable energy, world hunger, climate change, and ultimately, the design of a better world.”

Le, who is a principal education designer at Cannon Design, is absolutely right when he argues we can only address today’s complex issues — these ‘wicked problems’ — from a holistic, non-linear perspective. And there’s also nothing wrong with his comment that children, and, may I add, adults too, must “possess the compassion to recognize the rising human population and create a world that is inclusive, rather than exclusive.” But to me, seeing design thinking as the solution (to everything) — as the ultimate panacea — sounds farfetched. Somewhat naive, even.

Le tells us about a Prototype Design Camp for students from public and private schools, and a career-technical high school. They had to “collaborate in an intense design challenge to address real world problems.” Mentors worked with mixed groups of students, allowing them to learn through behavior modeling and collaboration rather than information consumption. According to Le, “the results were a creative array of news networks, school designs, and student movements, but the most compelling outcome was the student experience itself. Reflections at the end of the conference from students included tremendous gratitude, a deep interest in the design process, and most importantly, a motivation to thoroughly create change.”

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Two from 30 high school students from 14 different schools in Ohio who “trekked their ways through the snow and ice to participate in the first Prototype Design Camp.”

It all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it. So how can one possibly argue against it?

Of course, I haven’t seen the actual results of this Prototype Design Camp. Maybe they did solve one of our many ‘wicked problems.’ But I very much doubt it. And the reason for this is not that I believe design thinking isn’t any good. It’s a great framework or methodology for pivoting your way from idea to solution. But more importantly, it’s a way of thinking, or so it should be — of looking at the world from different perspectives. Unfortunately, when people talk about design thinking, they mostly refer to the doing part. That is, at least, my experience with the many companies and organizations I have helped, or something tried to help to no avail, in getting better at innovation.

Too often, I have seen people going through the motions of design thinking, ending up with ‘more of the same.’ Design thinking can only fully work when done by people with an unstoppable curiosity and eagerness to learn. By people who are willing and able to challenge their assumptions and change their beliefs. By people who have “a particular attention to what is neglected,” like the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. By people who “think like contrarians,” such as designer, artist and architect Sam Stubblefield. Of course, you could argue that all this, and more, is at the heart of design thinking. In theory, probabaly yes, but in practice, this is hardly the case.

“If you learn only methods, you’ll be tied to your methods, but if you learn principles you can devise your own methods.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

For business decision makers, typically non-designers, principles must translate into methodologies to become actionable. Thus, the design thinking principle, defined by Tim Brown, the CEO of innovation and design firm IDEO, as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success” has been repackaged into the now famous ‘empathize-define-ideate-prototype-test-and-iterate’ mantra to get past the corporate doors.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson beautifully nailed it: “If you learn only methods, you’ll be tied to your methods, but if you learn principles you can devise your own methods.” Grabbing the essence of a principle, experimenting in order to understand its implications, and putting it in practice can prove itself to be a difficult task, especially in the case of an emergent principle such as design thinking. This will quickly challenge many of your assumptions about how work gets done and of your mental models. On the other side, sliding from principles to methods will only get you as far as you already know you can go. In many cases, methods act as a prescription, as a how-to approach that will lead you to tweak the context and prune particularities to fit ready-made models. By restricting design thinking to a method, however brilliant, conceived as a tool for non-designers, its evangelists have seeded the conditions for failure, as the Stanford d.school itself recognized.

Besides, does anyone really believe we can design think ourselves out of climate change?

Is Design Thinking a Fairytale? (Aurecon).
Is Design Thinking a Fairytale? (Aurecon).

Even Tim Brown himself wondered how design thinking could still be a competitive advantage when so many companies, including the world’s most valuable one, Apple, place design at the center of everything they do?

“Now that design thinking is everywhere,” Brown writes, “it’s tempting to simply declare it dead — to ordain something new in its place. It’s a methodology always in pursuit of unforeseen innovation, so reinventing itself might seem like the smart way forward. But in practice, design thinking is a set of tools that can grow old with us. And I’d argue that in order to create sustained competitive advantage, businesses must be not just practitioners, but masters of the art. […] Getting to that kind of mastery is our challenge for the next decade.”

I’m not tempted to say design thinking is dead, or should be declared so as from today. On the contrary. I’m merely saying we shouldn’t expect miracles from it. As a methodology, design thinking isn’t, by far, a panacea to help organizations transform themselves. In fact, no methodology will ever be, as they have little more to offer than what organizations are already able to do. Adapting to the uncertain, volatile and complex world in which we now live, requires taking more daring roads, and to relinquish control to be able to experiment with new, maybe disturbing but rewarding, principles without faking.

A bit more …

“We all hear that phrase ‘we need to walk in our customer’s shoes. but do we honestly, even understand what this truly means? Executives often view the world from the safe environment of their office, disconnected from the real world, still reliant on historical data and predetermined views of delivering discrete products or services that get a job done,” Paul Hobcraft writes in Widen the aperture, narrow the focus. “Today businesses just fail to engage with their brand in the way customers do, how can they when most inside organizations are not allowed to use most of the social media sources while at work? Knowing how the customer works, the decision-making process in his or her mind needs engagement, it needs real-time engagement, it needs connecting constantly, prompting and probing, in multiple interactions, not discrete moments to gain a richer holistic insight, to turn into lasting value-adding conversation for all sides involved.”

In an interview with Forbes’ Susan Adams, Clayton Christensen talks about what he got wrong about disruptive innovation. When asked if he had changed his mind about Uber not being a disruptive company, Christensen acknowledges he has changed some ideas as he has learned more. “Uber came in not at the low end of the market where disruption usually comes from,” Christensen explains, “but with a price that was competitive or even higher than taxis. But it had a business model that was almost impossible for taxis to respond to. Taxis have fixed costs and it’s an asset intensive business. They own the taxis and the medallions. They have to have taxis on the road 24/7 in order to get the return they need to be profitable. Uber comes in with a very different business model. They actually don’t have assets because they don’t own the cars and they don’t need medallions. Taxis can’t adopt the Uber model. Uber helped me realize that it isn’t that being at the bottom of the market is the causal mechanism, but that it’s correlated with a business model that is unattractive to its competitor. So yes, it is disruptive.” This doesn’t guarantee Uber’s success, but it helps us understand why taxis can’t go up against them.

In his landmark 1985 book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, famed author and educator Peter Drucker wrote about an entrepreneurial society and its impact on economic development. “Entrepreneurship rests on a theory of economy and society,” he wrote. “The theory sees change as normal and indeed as healthy. And it sees the major task in society — and especially in the economy — as doing something different rather than doing better what is already being done.” What does it mean, then, to live in a society that is becoming more entrepreneurial? On Harvard Business Review, Efosa Ojomo shares 6 signs we’re living in an entrepreneurial society.

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“There’s a compounding dynamic that’s being set in motion as we begin this transition to an entrepreneurial society. The more successful we are in generating entrepreneurs in our society, the more dynamic our world will likely become, and the faster it will change, creating a need for even more entrepreneurs. Those who remain wedded to the outmoded practices of the employee society will suffer,” John Hagel argues in We Need to Expand Our Definition of Entrepreneurship. “The accelerating pace of change and growing uncertainty has spawned a backlash by established interests, who, in a quest for stability, seek to confine and constrain entrepreneurs into small corners, where they pose little threat to large, established institutions. But this is ultimately a futile effort. Make no mistake about it: We’re on the cusp of a Big Shift from an employee society to an entrepreneurial one, as Peter Drucker so perceptively predicted. The forces driving it are too big, too inexorable to turn back.”


ABOUT MARK STORM
As a catalyst for change and renewal, Mark Storm challenges leaders to understand today and shape tomorrow. He is a progressive thinker and sense-maker who looks at the world through different prisms — constantly asking himself why is it like that and not like this?

You can follow Mark on Twitter and Medium, and connect on LinkedIn.

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