The Catch Behind Design Thinking


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This post is the first of a two-parts article on design thinking co-written with Ralph-Christian Ohr (@ralph_ohr). As businesses are more and more challenged by the wicked nature of the problems they face, whether in strategic or operational context, we need to integrate more divergent and resilient reasoning in our decision-making practices. Cleared from all the fuss which so often surrounds it, design thinking could provide the ongoing transformation of businesses toward “social” with an actionable framework to leverage the true potential of collaboration.

Design Thinking is quite a strange animal. Attempts to define this discipline, in fact as old as creativity, framed by Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO, in his HBR article published in 2008, are as numerous as practical evidence of design thinking in action are. Trying to broaden the scope of design thinking from the design field to the one of complex business and societal problems had raised the need for a much more formalized approach. Practical reasons abound: how could you sell services based on a methodology which only defines and unfolds itself during execution? How could you convince executives that pattern matching and sense-making are as much relevant than proven tracks of expertise in a given domain?

Connecting design thinking with the broader context of problem solving has lead to the growth of two equally harmful myths: the guru designer and practice as a process, emphasizing on subjectivity or linearity where empathy, empowerment and divergent thinking are needed. Design thinking isn’t saving the world or revolutionizing business, for sure, mostly because of these two illusory paths. But before throwing the baby out with the bath water, and stating, with Bruce Nussbaum, that “Design Thinking is a Failed Experiment“, it is worth considering what is turning wrong. Speaking of creativity, learning from failure (if any) is usually a much more fruitful attitude than shooting the messenger.

A process is a process is a process

To allow design thinking to tackle business problems beyond design, it was assimilated to a process. One can easily understand that design thinking doesn’t fit the usual focus on linearity and convergence, so important in the conventional culture for efficiency most organizations emphasize on, and suitable for most traditional innovation approaches. This is an important issue, don’t misunderstand me, but do you really think that companies which give so much credit to Six Sigma or CMMI would welcome design thinking as a serious problem solving discipline? My bet is no. Of course, framing it as such a kind of process was, from the beginning, deemed to failure. There is a problem with “design thinking as a process”, but where does it really lie?

Contrary to expectations, “process”, in the business universe, has no straightforward definition. Processes do not necessarily rely on linearity and certainty might sometimes be fuzzy (think Adaptive Case Management), or divergent. Nevertheless, every flavor of business processes shares a common feature: an intrinsic independence from the people operating them. In this context, even when confronted with the most innovative organizational culture, “design thinking as a process” cannot fit. Not because of the mess and fuzziness associated with creativity, but because of the subjectivity involved: design thinking is highly interpretive and subjective, and most of its outcomes are dependent from the designer’s capabilities. Here lies the catch: this subjectivity is the disease which prevents design thinking from living up to its promise. Here lies also a paradox: subjectivity is as much a problem as it is a necessity. Without it, we fall into the dry world of business processes, unable to sparkle creativity. With too much of it, the ugly head of the guru designer shows up, enforcing a vision which fits more the designer’s ego and reputation than true business needs.

A complex adaptive framework

Most of the problems design thinking intends to solve have no unique formulation, no single solution. Despite the many definitions given, framing design thinking itself is a challenge. For many reasons, it can be considered as a complex adaptive framework aimed at addressing other complex dimensions of business. I view the whole design thinking approach as navigation through a fitness landscape: the problem occupies the base plane, while the third dimension symbolizes the “validity” of possible solutions. Framing the problem means picking up a starting point on the problem plane, then the whole approach consists in climbing up the hills in several directions, through iterative methods, until maxima are reached.

The choice of a starting point is highly subjective, and relies on designers’ personal background, experience, empathy and intuition. There is nothing wrong here, except that complex systems behave according to initial conditions, and this behavior cannot be mastered unless all parameters are known. Little changes might lead to vastly different outcomes, and further actions might well end up in dead-end local maxima, far from optimal solutions. It takes a leap of faith for businesses to follow such tracks. Who will decide which starting point is better, if both satisfy the context? How could the degree of “fitness” of any chosen direction be measured, unless pursuing them all up to the end?

Fractal behavior is another characteristic of complex adaptive systems which closely relates to design thinking. As prototyping and testing takes place, design thinkers progressively gets into details from feedbacks, those details belonging to the same initial formulation of the problem at different scales (global design, ergonomy or touchpoints, realization capabilities,etc), each scale being as important as the initial approach in the overall solution taking shape. A problem is that, at some point, one scale might not fit the solution at all, and little overlooked changes might produce huge changes in the overall system. You might, for example, tumble into a feature which might disrupt the manufacturing capabilities of the company you are working with. At that time, what can be done? It is usually a matter of jettisoning the work made at larger scales and jumping back into a different part of the problem space, switching to a vastly different solution because of a tiny, but critical, detail. Such a disruptive move means creative destruction, and isn’t an easy decision to make, as it involves highly subjective dimensions. Design thinking is about decision making – instead of boiling down a problem to one large decision, designers make lots of little decisions, learnings as they go. Therefore, navigating complex problems and ambiguity through small, iterative trials is highly determined by a subjective and continuously challenged assessment of the context.

Design thinking = critical thinking + design doing

In the hope to be better accepted in the business world, design thinking has given up the subjectivity associated with experimentation, and without which creativity simply doesn’t exist. Similarly, in its search for a better way to find solutions, it has forgotten that problems cannot always be framed without ambiguity.

Back in the eighties, I remember attending a meeting in a Japanese fabric company. The meeting’s goal was to agree on next season’s trends to start the manufacturing of new fabrics. Attendees, which included designers, product and sales managers, discussed about colors and textures for several hours, often taking little thread samples in their hand and rolling them together to get a concrete view of how it would look like. At the end of the meeting, no decision was made. Attendees didn’t agree on anything but general color trends, but kept some of the hand-made thread samples for further exploration and technical feasibility, ready to produce fabric samples for testing.

This was an enlightening experience for me, and still is thirty years later. It superbly illustrates how design thinking could thrive at resolving complex business problems. Critical thinking among stakeholders is a much better way to seed creativity than relying on individual designers. Early parallel and conflicting exploration holds more promise than relying on individual bias. The activity out of which something innovative emerges, is social and highly interpretive. It involves guiding connected conversations among individuals and groups to determine the range of alternatives from which convergent choices are made.

Subjectivity is a key component of design thinking which, to be accepted and profitable for businesses, should be tightly tied to organizational context. This requires a novel, and more resilient, approach to design thinking: we need designers who have a sound understanding of all the parameters involved, leaning on networks and groups of stakeholders, harnessing critical thinking, and linking outcomes to his own range of experience and expertise, through design methods. Let us call that parallelogram-shaped designers (strong specific business understanding linked to strong design expertise) in a collaborative enterprise. I sense this might also be a good definition for management 2.0.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Thierry de Baillon
Branding & web strategist, Druckerian marketer with a sustainability and cross-culture flavour. Passionate about learning.


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