Rethinking Design Thinking

Design Thinking has become one of the most visible and promising innovation movements in recent history, yet all design thinking is not the same, especially in practice. The current proliferation of a one-size-fits-all approach is not only ineffective, it could ultimately doom its future.

We see this all the time: workshops filled with post-it notes and led by a “design” person who takes the audience through abstract activities that have little to do with the actual challenges facing the participants or their organization. While getting people outside of their comfort zone can create an environment that fosters creativity, design thinking must respond to the political, financial and cultural realities of the organizations it engages. Otherwise, it can become empty busywork that frustrates more than it empowers.

This lack of rigor around design thinking has led many organizations to 1) bring in design consultants on the back end of projects after problems and even solutions have been defined; and 2) seek short-term deliverables in the form of a “quick” technical fix that rarely drives the systemic transformation that makes design thinking so valuable.

Five Common Design-Thinking Mistakes

From our experience embedding design thinking within large organizations, we have repeatedly observed shortcomings in the practice of design thinking and have outlined five ways in which organizations err when engaging design thinkers or developing their own capacity for design thinking. We hope that this list not only helps organizations avoid these costly and time-consuming mistakes, but also preserves the long-term viability of design thinking practice.

  • Mistake 1. Design can fix all that ails an organization. Design is often over-promised and under-delivered – a magic pixy dust in the form of a 3-day boot camp. In reality, not all problems are well suited to design thinking, which works best with ill-defined problems or persistent problems not easily addressed through other means. With its focus on problem seeking, problem framing and problem solving, design thinking offers an up-stream compliment to an organization’s other change activities, such as process improvement.
  • Mistake 2. Move Design to the Organization’s Fringe. Innovation rarely thrives within an organization’s strict hierarchy and day-to-day operations, and so too many organizations marginalize it. While creating space for design to thrive is important, the proliferation of design-thinking centers, institutes and consultancies has reinforced the notion that design is not central to the functioning or long-term health of the organization. As a result, design thinking frequently gets delivered as a canned approach of quirky training sessions that have little to do with anyone’s actual problems and that place the burden on participants to translate abstract concepts into meaningful change within their day-to-day practices.
  • Mistake 3. Treat design as another management tool. Design thinking involves a shift in mindset and the development of leadership skills rather than the multi-step methods and tools that characterize so many management techniques. Design thinking is not about a set process; instead it is about organizing around a problem and those experiencing the problem. Contrary to many current management and change practices that focus only on problem solving, design thinking gives equal time to up-stream problem seeking and problem framing so that organizations don’t waste of time and resources solving the wrong problem well.
  • Mistake 4. Assume that design thinking is only about thinking. Design involves action and it helps organizations to stop talking about problems and start doing something about them. It recognizes that by simply starting, anywhere, organizations will learn more about the problem and those affected by it than any amount of abstract analytics and academic debate. Too many organizations do not understand that design thinking is about design doing.
  • Mistake 5. Become infatuated with ideas, not problems. One of the greatest fallacies of innovation is that great ideas leap fully formed from the mind of geniuses. Great ideas about the wrong problems are simply bad ideas in disguise, with the “owners” of those ideas often far more interested in implementing their solution than exploring their assumptions or questioning the problem they think they have solved. Most of history’s great breakthroughs - the “aha” moments – come not with a great idea, but from a new way of seeing and framing a problem.

There is hope

A few companies have avoided these pitfalls and have benefited greatly from design thinking. However, short of having an executive with a strong design thinking background, organizations can grow their competency and capacity for design thinking by focusing on the most compelling problems and supporting those who have the determination and imagination to see problems in new ways. If an organization can avoid these five common mistakes and not fall prey to the over-promised, superficial deployment of design thinking it will have overcome some of the biggest obstacles to change and innovation.

Building a creative culture and a design-thinking capacity within the organization itself remains the best way to ensure that a company will thrive in the face of fast-paced change and unanticipated disruptions. Doing so is a design activity in its own right and may require designers and organizations to rethink design thinking.

Professor Thomas Fisher is the Director of the Minnesota Design Center, at the College of Design, University of Minnesota. Jess Roberts leads the Culture of Health by Design initiative at the Minnesota Design Center and is Affiliate Assistant Professor at the School of Public Health, University of Minnesota.

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