Chaos, Fusion, & Design Thinking

I read a biography years ago (in the 80’s, perhaps) about a man named Stephen Hawking. To tell the truth, I don’t remember much about him beyond his illness — a rare early-onset form of Lou Gehrig’s disease — and the fact that he was a well-renown physicist famous for Chaos theory.

What I do remember — what has stuck in my mind all these years — is something that set his ability apart from all the rest — his disability. As he lost the ability to write algebraic equations (or anything else), he had to find a way to solve problems. So, he developed new ways of solving problems geometrically, in his head.

As I solve problems, build organizations, care for a family, and redefine new ideas that people bring to me as promising opportunities, it strikes me how much of success — being set apart from all the rest — is in the approach. When we look at or go about something from a completely different position or define a different goal that no one is addressing, we can create what I’d call success-by-design.

The classic example, of course, is the iPod. When it first came out, it was lampooned as technologically inferior to the other MP3 players of the day. But it became a huge success. Why?

Because technology wasn’t the point. The device wasn’t created to compete technologically. It was created to solve problems of the users — to organize a big collection, find the piece of music you want right now, and to easily add a piece of music to the collection. Users loved it because it solved problems. And because a system for managing and purchasing was built along with the device, that system provided “stickiness” that kept users loyal and customer relationships growing.

I believe the real lesson for non-designers to learn from the iPod and non-physicists to learn from Steven Hawking is not Chaos, but Fusion — the melding of disparate ideas, methods, needs, tools, industries, and more, to create breakthrough value. Prof. Hawking fused a need (physics problem-solving) and a method (geometry) in a new way, and created ground-breaking theories as a result. The iPod fused a need (organization) and tools (component technologies) in a new way, and dominated an industry as a result.

How can we do the same? What are the thinking processes of world-class fusers?

One way to begin is with Design Thinking — bringing the designer’s sensibilities and techniques to issues outside the field of design — to business, government, social enterprise, and beyond. That in itself is a fusion of the disparate, i.e. methods from one field (design) to needs in another (business, for example).

Top designers of products, services, buildings, etc. do something businesses and technologists sometimes forget — to begin with the user. Taking a human-centred approach, as above with the iPod, designers at IDEO flew beyond their original mandate (creating a nifty-looking money clip) to create something of substantial use to 12 million banking customers (Bank of America’s Keep the Change program), facilitating $3.1 billion of savings along the way.

That’s why Design Thinking starts with defining (or redefining) the challenge at hand. After all, it’s a lot easier to get the right answer if you ask the right question. In fact, it’s particularly useful for “wicked problems” (no, I didn’t make up that term), in which both the problem and the solution are unknown.

That’s also why Design Thinking is built on observing people — not just asking them what they want, but seeing what they do and don’t do, observing needs or desires they may not know they have, envisioning possibilities they can’t imagine if they don’t know the technological capabilities.

And that’s why we’re researching and teaching at i2i, the Innovation & Insights Center at SPJain School of Global Management. The world is full of needs that haven’t been addressed and solutions that aren’t working, alongside new technologies and tools for addressing them. It’s an exciting time to be alive and to create. So, we’re learning & developing Fusion, teaching Design Thinking, and helping our participants apply design methods to real-world problems in business & beyond.

Perhaps in a world that seems full of chaos, the way forward is fusion and crafting successes-by-design with Design Thinking.