Everyone has thoughts.
Writing them down makes them powerful.

August 12, 2007

Questions About Design Thinking

I've been on extended break from adding any content to creativeslant for a few reasons. First and foremost, I graduated from a Masters program at the IIT Institute of Design and I just needed some time to relax. Second (and most unfortunately), I had a weekend where I experienced not one but three, yes count them three , hardware failures. I was able to rebuild my G5 desktop but my beloved 12" aluminum Powerbook and a very nice but old LaCie monitor are dead for good. I still have yet to recover from the loss—mainly because I'm being forced to use a (crappy) HP laptop during the day and Apple still hasn't introduced a new subnotebook to replace the 12" model. Third, a break from doing anything more at creativeslant was necessitated by my new role at Sapient. I absolutely love the company and the fantastically smart people with whom I am currently working. Needless to say, I've been focused on making an impact there.

So, you may wonder what drew me out of my slumber... I received a mail from a Masters student from Brunel University in London named Bhavnish Chohan. He very kindly expressed his interest in my writing and asked if I could answer a few questions for his research. Long story short, the following submission is my necessarily incomplete answers. I am currently thinking about three other books to write after Naked Innovation get's published (more on that soon)—these questions could be the basis for a fourth. Thanks to Bhav for prodding me out of hiding. I have hope these (quick and rough) thoughts will give you something to noodle on.

What is so special about Design Thinking that people find interesting and useful now? Why is it such a relevant topic now?
Before answering this, it is important to briefly describe what it is. As I have written previously in a post titled A Useful Definition for Design Thinking, its very essence lies in actively designing one’s process of creation or development. Most new product or service developers follow a preset process almost regardless of the problem or opportunity space. They seek similar inputs (many times quantitative data) to drive their decisions. The best design thinkers however, whether individuals or organizations, recognize that the synthesis and integration of many points of view, methods, types of data, disciplines are what produce the best results. While there is some overlap at a high level in what pieces commonly are part of a development process, the active design (called meta-design by Charles Owen) of one’s very process based on the problem is a type of thinking which enables both efficiency yet quality results. This use of flexible design methods in the planning process is non-traditional and does not require one to be a “Designer” per se. A much shorter definition is that design thinking is a willingness to be flexible with regards to methods and process while focusing on a quality result or end state.

So, getting back to the question of why do people find this interesting and valuable now, my observation is that organizations, their processes, and the individuals within them have become so standardized, specialized, and “efficient” that they lack the flexibility to deal with a rapidly evolving environment. The processes are so standardized both within organizations and industries that they simply do not allow easily for change. Similarly, the factory-like separation of different discipline’s work within organizations limit offerings from them to be poorly integrated from a user experience perspective. Flexibility and integration are cornerstones of individuals and organizations who practice “Design Thinking,” thus it is naturally relevant and useful now. The question is funny because being “useful” is really they key requirement of activities by design thinkers—you don’t just do something because you always did before, you do it because it provides value now.

What skills do designers have that business could benefit from today? What is the role of the designer in this?
These are really interesting and commonly considered questions. I imagine my take on them will not be agreed on by the design community at large. I don’t believe the skills designers have are necessarily that important for work other than in detail design. At the same time, “skills” related to any profession are necessarily specific and are not easily transferable to other fields. Rather than skills, I would suggest designers have an attitude, a particular type of goal, and a set of tools and methods which are indeed very valuable for both individuals and businesses.

A designer’s focus on exploration and building is vastly different than a traditionally trained businessman or engineer’s focus on reduction, repeatability, and critical analysis. This attitude results in far different types of goals. Designers seek to create wholes from the suite of (many times incomplete) inputs available to them; other professions tend to tear wholes into parts which are then analyzed separately. These goals are in conflict but can be complementary when ordered in cycles of divergence and convergence. A few specific tools and methods designers use to explore and build are the willingness to sketch (very early), prototype, do contextual research and analysis, among others. A sharp eye will notice that none of these tools and methods originated in the “Design” field. Sketching and drawing comes from art, prototyping comes from engineering, contextual research and systems thinking comes from the social sciences. In fact, I would argue that design is the only field with no methods unique to it. But, again, that is the power of design—by integrating any useful method into the designer tool set, the very purpose of the discipline and the act of design itself is synthesis.

As for the designer’s role, I would argue that designers are great at doing detail design. A designer who’s entire world revolves around the inputs, outputs, and values of design will not be any more or less useful than any other professional. Those who have interdisciplinary training, experience, and above all, interests, will be able to bridge gaps in organizations and the processes within them exceedingly well. They do this by creating artifacts and activities which provide a shared and iterative perspective on a team’s focus: problems and potential opportunities. The role is invaluable but is not unique to designers—we all have worked with individuals who could do it regardless of their title.

Isn’t Design Thinking just design management?
No. No. No. Did I happen to say “No?” The intricacies of managing a detailed design process is most certainly not design thinking. These two concepts are at two different levels. As I mentioned above, I believe that design thinking is the willingness to be flexible with regards to methods and process while focusing on a quality result or end state. In contrast, design management may or may not have this higher order purpose. There are plenty of design managers (and star designers) who are as religious and inflexible about process as other operations, engineering, or business managers. Please note that this is not to say that having idealized processes is not relevant. Rather, one understands the many ways one could act, has a preference for how to act (a standardized process), yet realizes that life is not “ideal”—constraints override perfection in life.

One of the confusing issues in this case is the highly problematic nature of the word “design”—it get’s applied to everything from hair to space shuttles. While I still believe it is an appropriate to use “design” rather than “creative” or some other modifier, we have to separate traditional definitions of design and this newer notion of Design Thinking.

How can it be implemented? What are the potential barriers, and what factors will affect the success in adopting Design Thinking in business?

These questions would require a book to answer completely (perhaps the topic of my next books… hmmm), so here is a high level answer. A specific implementation plan will vary widely depending on the organization but there are some keys to being successful.

First and foremost, you have to identify the right people in the organization who really need to be practicing it. The organic and somewhat uncontrollable nature of this type of thinking just isn’t relevant for a large percentage of execution oriented employees (should accountants, for example, be thinking this way?). In addition, just like with any problem or opportunity, identifying and understanding a target naturally enhances one’s ability to develop solutions which are relevant (users desire them), effective (can be delivered capably), and efficient (can be delivered sustainably). Generically, those in management, product and service development, those who do portfolio planning, marketing and strategists are all sensible targets to focus on. For these groups, you institute training, mentorship, and pilot programs. Above all, you have to identify and then break down points of inflexibility in an organization. These invariably relate to siloed functional groups, a development process which doesn’t foster good interdisciplinary work, and most importantly, a management style which values one type of input and decision making over all else (usually a strict and incomplete quantitative view of the world).

I believe the biggest barrier implementing this way of thinking and acting is the current educational system. I can’t speak for other countries but the American educational system is based on a factory model that cranks out specialists. The lack of respect society has for generalists is evident in phrases like, “Jack of all trades and master of none.” People don’t want to be Jack because that type of individual isn’t valued. This strikes me as incredibly ironic given that the master of management, Peter Drucker, called out the need for leaders to be generalists. So called experts rule our world but their ability to understand a given problem space is inherently limited. You are what you eat—this is equally valid for academic training as it is for food. Specialized training without being introduced to the larger context in which discipline-based work get’s done will continue to be the largest barrier in organizations and in society to practicing Design Thinking.

How can Design Thinking impact Branding?
Initially, this question seemed to be a bit of a red herring and I wasn’t sure I would even attempt to answer it. Discussion with a couple of very smart friends at dinner (as well as some exceptional food and wine) last evening made me reconsider.

The whole notion of “Branding” has largely been taught and practiced as a top down activity. Those in charge of “Branding” have traditionally thought you could dictate a brand to consumers. This very well may have been true in earlier eras because of the nature of how people consumed media and advertising. Communication, branded or otherwise, was broadcast one to many. That sole point of view could be controlled pretty well by corporations. Contrast that with our current situation—the moment someone has something to say they blog about it or post it on a message board. Think of how much different the effect of in-line consumer reviews on Amazon is from a TV advertisement.

While not agreeing completely with everything he says, I tend to like Marty Neumeier’s take on the current state of branding as presented in The Brand Gap—consumer and customer perceptions override managers. A company’s brand isn’t what they say it is but rather what their customers say it is. This makes Design Thinking applicable to branding exactly in the same way it is applicable to other activities like product development or strategy. Rather than assuming a set process and a specific set of methods and tools will always be used in a top down fashion, Design Thinking allows for a both bottom up and top down synthesis of inputs. What customers say and what managers say both matters.

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