When NOT to Use Design Thinking: A Checklist For Leaders Who Don’t Give a Damn

A tongue-in-cheek post by our co-author, Kamil Michlewski

I want to come out right away. I am a proponent of design thinking and an advocate of weaving design attitude throughout the fabric of an organisation. I believe that there are many circumstances where designers and design thinkers infuse businesses and teams with values conducive to building happier, healthier and more effective businesses and institutions. There are, however, situations and leaders who render design-thinking inputs less effective or even futile.

Here is a list of situations when it is best NOT to use design thinking:

1. When cultural homogeneity and inertia are seen as virtues

There are organisations and leaders who prefer not to change. There may be a variety reasons why that is the case. They may have reached a comfortable plateau and have entered a defensive stage in their development. Their profits may depend on existing products and services and developing new ones carries with it a risk they are unwilling to pursue. Highly bureaucratic and political organisations (e.g. NHS) are, typically, disinclined to prioritise users’ needs, build cross-departmental bridges and allow multiple cultures to learn from one another. They also avoid embracing ambiguity and experimentation even to the point of demise. If you represent one of those organisations and you want to preserve the status quo, you should stay clear of what design can offer.

2. When little value is placed on fresh and viable innovation

If you are content with the quality and the number of fresh new product and service ideas generated by your innovation pipeline, you should not bother with design thinking (unless it’s what led you to it in the first place). If you believe that you have the entire context, all the market nuance and you have access to all of the hidden consumer needs, taking on-board design thinking paradigm is entirely redundant. If your business is creating feasible, viable and desirable products aligned to your strategic vision without the input of deep consumer insight, design thinking is simply a waste of time. If you want to keep the innovation process opaque because it gives you more power in the short term, you should most certainly give design a wide berth.

3. When people are seen as resources to be exploited not as idiosyncratic human beings with emotions and desires

Have you grown to a size that no longer fits the human scale? Do you believe that talking, observing, interacting with consumers should be solely the domain of the market research department? Do you tend to view users’ ideas as a nuisance that contradicts your plans? Does your favourite method of instigating and managing change in an organisation involve a Power Point, a Word or an email? If the answer is yes then I can tell you right away that you will get frustrated by what design thinking brings to the party. Colourful, joyous, experimental, visually stimulating — those are just a few characteristics inherent in the design approach. Unless you are absolutely certain that you are willing to disrupt your neat, resource-driven order, you should look elsewhere for inspiration. How about Six Sigma instead?

4. When conflict and intra-organisational tensions are tolerated

Many large organisations end up fracturing along the functional lines with silos unable to find a common language, let alone a common and unified purpose to help the consumer. Not many will admit to it, but it’s often a survival mechanism stemming directly from how we ascribe legitimacy to professions themselves. Corporate lawyers, engineers, marketers are often incentivised to ‘protect their patch’ and uphold standards at the same time as their organisations require them to abandon some of the vocational dogma in order to contribute to company’s overall success. Leaders who allow and encourage the former to dominate serve professions rather than consumers. For them there is very little value in design thinking offering arbitrage, reconciliation and pragmatism centred on the ultimate reference point, namely the user. Organisations that are more interested in revelling in their internal politics rather than providing exceptional value to consumers should categorically not use design thinking.

5. When challenging received wisdom is discouraged

What is more important to you, holding on to ‘they way we’ve always done things’ or empowering teams to positively challenge each other in order to bring about the most effective change? The design thinking approach with its tendency to question, prod, upend, provoke and subvert can have an enormously disruptive influence on the conduct of an organisation. If, as a leader, you are unsure of your position, feel easily threatened and insecure, you might want to think twice before involving design thinking both as a method and as a mode of operating. Simply put it, if it is done right, you will be challenged and stretched, surprised and stirred. If you are not up for it, keep it steady and deflect attention arguing that design thinking is a fad that is already passed its prime.

6. When people are expected to adapt to technology and not the other way round

“We’ve developed this piece of technology, how can we make people use it?” This is a common mantra among companies and organisations eager to be first to market to gain that elusive competitive edge — Google Glass, Segway, Newton anyone? We see technologically advanced gizmos, gadgets and even company-wide systems so impenetrable in their emotional intent and usability as to render them entirely ineffective. If you believe technology should come first and people’s needs second, then you should have no business dealing with those who engage in design thinking. If you believe that the code or internal structures of a machine should dictate what it looks like, how it communicates and connects to people, stay clear of design.

7. When community and empathy are seen as redundant to success

If you believe your organisation or company operates in isolation from the wider community of stakeholders and if you believe that deep empathy is wholly unnecessary when building alliances, then design thinking will disappoint. Design-driven approach is usually hands-on and often relies on co-creation and user intimacy. If these things frighten you, stay well clear of this messy, gritty and enthusiastic approach. If your idea of adding value and contributing to society excludes the importance of disparate groups of interest coalescing together around a common purpose, then design thinking paradigm may not be the thing for you.

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