What is Design
Thinking, Really?

Design thinking has received much press but many don’t understand it’s meaning and thus, how to use it to create innovative strategies and transform their organisations.

The industrial era organisation was built around delivery. That was okay in more stable times, but we are not there any longer. No major organisation in any sector can go to sleep at the wheel and leave the ship on auto pilot. There is simply too much change and dynamism in our 21st century context for that to work. So the core competence of the modern bureaucracy has to move beyond delivery to include innovation. We cannot just deliver customer experiences; we need to create better ones. The trouble is that the systems and cultures that support a delivery mission don’t support an innovation mission. They are at odds with one another.

‘Innovation’ is the buzz word that attracts most attention today, but it is an aspiration not a method. It is the sign of interest but not much more. If people keep using that word, it is a telltale sign that they have not moved to a deeper understanding of the issues and the way forward. The key is to move from the ‘innovation’ word to ‘design’ as the way to describe the new thinking. Once you make this shift, you open up a new world of tools, techniques and experiences that can help an organisation move from empty exhortations and confused committees to real methods. ‘Design’ is the professional area that has been the unwitting custodian of innovation over several decades. Almost every other academic discipline is primarily analytic and evaluative; we are taught stuff that other people generated not us, and we taught to critique and evaluate. In the words of one business thinker[1], we are teaching managers (and the professions) to ‘decide’ but not to ‘design’. In contrast, a design education demands that students grapple with the ‘blank page’ and start to conceive new forms and solutions; almost no design student can succeed by reading and analysing, they have to create new things.

What does design thinking mean? It is used as a shorthand for creativity, right brain thinking, innovation etc. All these are useful pointers but a bit sloppy and run the risk of appealing to stereotypes rather than introducing genuine new ideas. It is most useful to contrast ‘design thinking’ with ‘analytics’. Analysis starts with ‘what is’ and pulls it apart. It is strongly linked to problem solving and making what we already do more efficient. It is heavily reinforced by our education system which routinely gives students what are de facto analytic tasks; “Here is a body of information — pull it apart into its constituent elements and understand its cause & effect relations. Then we will test that you understand this information and if you do, we will graduate you.” This is the common educational experience that most of us have confronted in one way or another. It teaches us well to analyse and to evaluate. Behind this analytic method lies the scientific method with its various assumptions about the world and how we engage with it such as the desire for certainty and control, the necessity of proof, the imperative of objectivity and the need for data. Sum it all up and it creates a culture of rationality and control. In our organisations this thinking translates into the ‘delivery’ and control culture. Managers are expected to control, predict, verify, guarantee, test and decide. These are important attributes but they are all connected to the world of ‘what is’. They do not help us with the world of ‘what if’. And it is this world that design thinking addresses.

Design thinking asks ‘what is possible’ and ‘what could be’. For the answers to these questions we cannot go to analysis since that is cemented firmly in the world of ‘what is’. Once we want to create new possibilities we need to move beyond analytics to synthetic thinking. Synthetics integrates elements into new combinations, it does not pull them apart. It follows the goal of ‘transforming situations’ rather than ‘solving problems’. It is expedited by visualisation and prototyping not cause and effect logic. It comprises cognitive acts like immersion and emergence, imagination and empathy. And it is fed by language (both word and image) rather than numbers. In particular it is fed by the language of poetics, metaphor and story.

None of this is a ‘science’; it is more an ‘art’ than a science. So the assumptions of scientific thinking get turned on their head and are replaced with the values that underpin art and creation; the desire for certainty is replaced by faith in outcomes, the necessity of proof by the need to learn from failure and objectivity by the energy of will and desire. This kind of thinking requires courage and a kind of faith, and it also works best in highly collaborative workplaces.

So when people like Roger Martin suggest that management needs to learn a new way of thinking from design, they are not just advocating that we import new work practices into the organisation or that we start a new kind of department called ‘Design’. They are advocating a revolution in the spectrum of thinking that underpins management. No-one is saying that we throw away the wonderful skills of analytics and controls. We are saying firstly that they need to be balanced with design thinking, and secondly we need to recognise that there will be a natural tension between the new and the old skills sets. That is why we say that the choice is not an either/or choice but a ‘both and’ choice and that integration will be an integration of paradoxes.

By Tony-Golbsy Smith
Richard Boland et al, “Managing as Designing” Design Issues Winter 2008

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