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A Useful Definition for Design Thinking

There has been much written of late regarding the notion of “Design Thinking”. Everyone from Rotman’s Roger Martin to Adaptive Path’s Peter Merholz from IDEO’s Tom Kelley to the Institute of Design’s venerable Charles L. Owen has an opinion of what it is, what it does, and who does it. While most agree that this type of thinking is one key to success for today’s organizations, it would seem that there is little agreement on answers to these fundamental questions. The most thorough work up to this point seems to be Charles Owen’s aptly named Design Thinking: What It Is, Why It Is Different, Where It Has New Value. In it, Professor Owen provides a systematic overview and comparison of the different types of thinking as well as a compelling synthesis of the earlier models of creative thinking. It is a fascinating academic work, offers a deep description of Design Thinking, and well worth the effort. That said, after reading it, one is still left with questions about relevance to practical work and answers to these important questions.

The Problematic Word: Design
Difficulties in defining and understanding Design Thinking result mainly from two issues: the problematic word “Design” and an historic separation and compartmentalization of disciplines in the post-industrial age. The word design is problematic because of its flexibility. One can design just about anything: hair, fashion, furniture, hardware, electronic hardware, software, services, space shuttles, or living rooms. Even the nature of the discipline of design (if you can say there is Design discipline at all) speaks to its flexibility; one could easily argue that each and every method used by designers is borrowed from some other discipline. Visualization and an appreciation of color and form comes from art, mechanics and prototyping from engineering, studying people and their needs from the social and biological sciences, and so on.

Is there a single other discipline with few or no unique methods? If one is an engineer, there is little doubt regarding what one does and what methods one uses. The same is mostly true for doctors, lawyers, psychologists, computer scientists, etc. This certainly a big reason why “Design” and many of the concepts related to it is so very hard to describe. This integration also contributes to a general lack of agreement on what design and Design Thinking is. It is chameleon-like in being what people need it to be. Thought of in this way, design is the only wholly synthetic discipline. This is interesting considering the goal of the activity of design itself is also synthesis.

The Rise of Specialization
Design as an integration of multiple disciplines runs directly counter to how the traditional educational system has been built, and therefore, common wisdom. Instead of being broad, deep specialization and discipline specific knowledge is viewed as key to individual and organizational mastery. This view is starkly in contrast to that of the polymath or “Renaissance” person, widely considered the ideal state of man in Western society until the late 1800’s. As factories were built and production lines envisioned, the seminal work of Ford and Frederick Taylor spread from manufacturing to society at large. The thinking was, if efficiency and quality can best be achieved through separation and specialization of task on a production line, then it must be so with thought. Having individuals deeply trained in a variety of disciplines was considered to offer more than the same group taught in a more homogenous liberal fashion. It is difficult to know if this is true, but it is undeniable that disciplines grew in both depth and breadth in the last hundred years. It is also impossible to deny that each benefited in this depth by producing more sophisticated specialized theory and differentiated points of view. It is exactly this differentiation that allows complex problems to be understood completely yet it is also this specialization that limits solutions to be one-dimensional.

Current Popular Views on Design Thinking
In the popular business press, Design Thinking is presented as an antidote for the rigid and factory-like environments and processes in today’s organizations. It is the great interdisciplinary “hope” of many companies wishing to act in more agile, holistic, and innovative ways. In the past year, for example, I worked on a project with a team outlining what this type of thinking had to offer at a large software company. In it, we noted these characteristics as being key to individuals and teams who do Design Thinking: having an “outside in” perspective, empathy for end users, thinking holistically (with the big picture in mind), embracing diversity, using prototyping as an approach to work, collaborating in multidisciplinary teams, recognizing that physical space matters, focusing on goals, and finally, recognizing that scientific rigor can be at odds with agility. In parallel, many have developed opinions about what personifies Design Thinking. Dan Saffer wrote a particularly good piece on his blog, O Danny Boy titled Thinking About Design Thinking. In it he outlines and defines a similar but somewhat smaller list:

A Focus on Customers/Users. It's not about the company and how your business is structured. The customer doesn't care about that. They are care about doing their tasks and achieving their goals within their limits. Design thinking begins with those.

Finding Alternatives. Designing isn't about choosing between multiple options, it's about creating those options. Brenda Laurel speaks of her love of James T. Kirk's "third option" instead of two undesirable choices. It's this finding of multiple solutions to problems that sets designers apart.

Ideation and Prototyping. The way we find those solutions is through brainstorming and then, importantly, building models to test the solutions out. Now, I know that scientists and architects and even accountants model things, and possibly in a similar way, but there's a significant difference: our prototypes aren't fixed. One doesn't necessarily represent the solution, only a solution. It's not uncommon for several prototypes to be combined into a single product.

Wicked Problems. The problems designers are used to taking on are those without a clear solution, with multiple stakeholders, fuzzy boundaries, and where the outcome is never known and usually unexpected. Being able to deal with the complexity of these "wicked" problems is one of the hallmarks of design thinking.

A Wide Range of Influences. Because design touches on so many subject areas (psychology, ergonomics, economics, engineering, architecture, art, etc.), designers should bring to the table a broad, multi-disciplinary spectrum of ideas from which to draw inspiration and solutions.

Emotion. In analytical thinking, emotion is seen as an impediment to logic and making the right choices. In design, decisions without an emotional component are lifeless and do not connect with people.

Looking Back at a Classic
So Design Thinking has been written about in depth by Chuck Owen, characterized by many as a suite of common characteristics, and yet, there still seems to be definitions of what it is and what it does that lack the simplicity of the very best design itself. With this in mind, turn back 35 years to the Christopher T. Jones’ classic, Design Methods. This book is interesting and problematic on several levels but what is most relevant to a conversation about Design Thinking is Chapter 4 concerned titled, The New Methods Reviewed.

This chapter discusses metaphors for designers and their process. Included among these are, in order, “Designers as Black Boxes”, “Designers as Glass Boxes”, and “Designers as Self-Organizing Systems”. We are all familiar with “Black Box” designers and processes. The Black Box relies heavily on experimentation and the “creative leap” to move design projects from the abstract to the conceptual and then to the real. Sketching is the key method through which concepts are developed but no particular order is applied to how they are developed. It is not that designers in this mode are devoid of process but that the process itself cannot easily be externalized through verbal or rational means. Instead, output and results are closely “governed by inputs received recently from the problem and also by other inputs received from previous problems and experiences.” Without a doubt, there have been many great designs executed in this fashion by many great designers. While one could easily argue this describes most designers and their processes, even today, it is clear that Jones’ was less than enthusiastic about this approach. It is also clear, that complex problems that require the sharing of interdisciplinary knowledge to produce best results are not well supported by this model. It is hard to have good interdisciplinary collaboration happen when members of the team don’t know how to verbalize what they are doing and how they do it.

Similarly, we are most familiar with the design or development process as a “Glass Box”. This approach is typified by Structured Planning, created and still taught by Charles Owen at the Institute of Design, but more commonly manifested in large companies as some flavor of “stage gate”. In the Glass Box model, process and decisions are scheduled, standardized, and externalized for stakeholders to see. These processes were developed for several important reasons. First, was the need to reduce the variables within development, or to “industrialize” the process. The companies that were born out of the Industrial Revolution were closely attuned to factory lines and operations management run with standardization and efficiency as primary goals. These values extended all the way up to senior product teams and were, thus, reflected in how they organized their work. The second reason the glass box developed was to provide a framework for how different functional areas work together in an organization. From this perspective, the box is only transparent to the architects of the company and not to those working in some specific function. This allows a large design project to be split into multiple parts while still maintaining an overall structure. The final reason was the desire to provide a breadth and depth of coverage to insure output quality. This is especially the case with regards to Structured Planning. Forcing an individual or team to go through an exhaustive and authoritative process can indeed guarantee coverage. It is required for any development project with a significant number of lives and billions of dollars on the line. For example, design of the new space shuttle requires a known process with all details shared among across a large range of project team members. Unfortunately, the rigor that gives the Glass Box its relevance can also result in wasted resources or limited innovation as each step is considered and analyzed in depth. We have all had experiences with inflexible processes that were designed to insure success but, in the end, limited a team’s ability to produce great results.

The design process as a Black Box doesn’t support an interdisciplinary approach, nor does it guarantee good coverage of risks or opportunities. The Glass Box combats this by forcing systematic rigor and interdisciplinary support yet doesn’t take into account different goals in innovation, constricted project schedules, or a lack of resources. They are, in many ways, at opposite ends of a spectrum of structure in process yet both introduce constraints which limit the ability to properly consider an appropriate number of alternatives. Jones identifies a third approach to the design process that he calls “Designer as a Self-organizing System”. It is this approach that is key to Design Thinking.

Design Thinking: Designing Your Process
As a Self-organizing System, the design process is split into two distinct parts. In Jones’ words, these include, “that which carries out the search for a suitable design, and, that which controls and evaluates the patterns of search.” This is a powerful notion and represents the very heart of what is now generally known as Design Thinking. More specifically, Design Thinking is this: designing one’s process to do the actual work of development and design with each project addressed. It is design at a meta level. Let me illustrate this with some work done by Institute of Design professor Vijay Kumar.

Professor Kumar has developed a suite of methods, frameworks, and tools into an extensible construct he calls the Innovation Toolkit. This “Toolkit” is a classification of modes of work in the development process, an initial sampling of tools that fit within those modes, but also an important approach to the process itself. Rather than forcing each project to step through a standardized and innovation stifling series of steps, Vijay illustrates that modes of work in creating new offerings are not linear. In fact, the point of genesis for a company or project team can come from any mode within the Toolkit approach. The path to producing meaningful results in the most efficient way possible is different for each situation and purpose driven just as is design.

Each approach to the offering development process has its place. The Black Box is appropriate for simple offerings. We all know how simple projects get out of control as more individuals and supposed "stakeholders" get involved. The Glass Box is especially important when people's lives are on the line and vast numbers of people are effected as with government. The planning and implementation process must be transparent for everyone to both give their input and have confidence in the system. Finally, Design Thinking as an approach is applicable to the largest number of problems on which we work everyday. These problems are complex, require interdisciplinary collaboration, and are make up most of the valuable activities of large firms and not-for-profits. It goes without saying then that speed, efficacy, efficiency are key goals in which a framework for designing a process for each development effort could support well.

So how is this definition useful?

There are a variety of reasons but three are most important. Number one, Design Thinking is not specifically professional design as it is taught. While it shares the “D” word, it is an approach that can be practiced by anyone regardless of discipline once its value is recognized. Second, Design Thinking is naturally integrative because it is purposeful. When developing some new offering with a team, members share the common goal of being producing something contextually relevant. To do so, solutions must integrate differing points of view. Finally, and most importantly, the characteristics of Design Thinking provide a general guideline for how to work but do not prescribe a specific process. While this entails some risk, it also allows for the greatest flexibility to produce the best solution in the most resource efficient manner. Design Thinking is greatly enhanced by a certain breadth and depth of knowledge of complementary disciplines. It is exactly this reason that organizations must begin to recognize that moderately deep breadth is as important if not more so than deep specialization in addressing complex problems.

By understanding that “magic” can come from anywhere in new offering development, practitioners of Design Thinking can help their organization formulate flexible processes, build open cultures, and ultimately produce more compelling and successful results.


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