David Dunne is professor and director, full- and part-time MBA programs, Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria. He is author of Design Thinking at Work: How Innovative Organizations Are Embracing Design.
Design thinking has both fans and detractors. In the past two years, no fewer than 89 pieces on the subject – articles, blogs and case studies – have been published by Harvard Business Review. Most authors are overwhelmingly positive about design thinking’s value for business; others are less impressed and write it off as a business fad. Does the design thinking emperor have any clothes?
My research shows a nuanced picture. Design thinking – an approach to innovation that uses empathy, logic and imagination to understand users’ problems and develop solutions – can have great benefits. But there are many different ways to implement it: To take full advantage of design thinking, organizations need to be very clear about what they want to accomplish and to adopt a model that fits within their own environment.
I interviewed design leaders within organizations to understand the experience of those who had adopted design thinking. The organizations operated in the private, public and non-profit sectors in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia. They included global multinationals in categories such as pharmaceuticals, packaged goods and retail; large non-profit hospitals; and government departments. Understandably, most wanted to show their efforts in a positive light; but from our in-depth conversations, it was clear that it had not all been clear sailing.
In all the organizations I spoke with, design thinking had strong support from the top – if not from the chief executive, then from a supportive member of the senior management team. However, this support was not always grounded in an understanding of design thinking. One frustrated designer at a health-care provider complained that “[Senior management is] really quickly jump to ‘We want this finished, we want to move on,’ as opposed to actually taking the time to prototype, reframe, go through the iterations.”
Perhaps because of this lack of understanding, design thinking was often adopted with many goals in mind. Some programs grew out of previous initiatives that had failed; others were introduced out of senior management’s frustration that the organization was slow and bureaucratic; others from a sense that the organization had lost contact with its customers.
And that was the rub. Design thinking is not a silver bullet. While it can have powerful benefits, it’s a mistake to try to do too much with it.
Design initiatives come in many different forms: a central lab devoted to out-of-the-box thinking; a distributed program across different departments; a collaborative model in partnership with other organizations. Each one of these arrangements is better for some things than others. Many of the organizations I interviewed had hybrid models that tried to straddle different goals; yet such diverse goals are hard to accommodate in one program.
If you want truly disruptive innovation, take your lab offsite and give it the resources to think not just out of the box, but as if there is no box. Or collaborate with organizations that can bring a dramatically new perspective. But don’t expect to change corporate culture this way. For this, you should have a distributed program that places designers into teams throughout the organization.
There’s nothing wrong with incremental innovation, of course: Products and services need constant tweaking to remain up to date and to match competitive changes. On the other hand, many organizations are desperate to stay ahead of disruption by designing their own disruptive innovations. Design thinking can accomplish each of these goals and more.
But you do have to make a choice. If you try to stretch design thinking too far, you are likely to be disappointed. Disruptive innovators can become isolated from their organization – “crazy cowboys” who are not taken seriously – or, in an attempt to gain legitimacy, can take on incremental projects and become overwhelmed.
If you’re thinking about trying design thinking, think twice: first about your goals, then about the right model for your organization. The design thinking emperor does have clothes. But they need to be tailored to fit.
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