Design Thinking, Leadership, and Missed Opportunities

Cameron Norman
Feb 28 · 9 min read

A recent Harvard Business Review article titled ‘The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking’ gets a lot of things wrong not because of what it says, but because of the way it says it. If design thinking is to achieve real impact on important issues it needs to be spoken of differently.

I cringed when I first saw it in my LinkedIn feed. The headline read: The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking. I usually bristle when I see broad-based claims about the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do something, particularly with something so scientifically bereft as design thinking. This was no exception. Like others, I’ve called out much of what is discussed as design thinking for what I see as simple bullshit. What started off as something novel and practical for getting people engaged in new ways to look at design problems and ways to solve them has morphed into something hollow.

My concern was that this was going to be another piece based on opinion alone, not data. To my (pleasant) surprise, this article was based on data, which already puts it ahead of most other articles on design thinking, but that doesn’t earn it a free pass, especially considering the title. In some fairness to the authors, the title may not be theirs (it could be an editor’s choice), but what comes afterward still bears discussion. The issue is less about what the authors say, but how they say it and what they don’t say.

How we talk about what we do shapes what we know and the questions we ask and design thinking is at a state where we need to be asking bigger and better questions of it. If we are to move design thinking beyond being a set of ‘failed experiments’, BS, and elitism, we first need to talk differently beginning with the idea of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

Right and Wrong

The issue is: we don’t.

There isn’t a definition of design thinking that can be held up for scrutiny to test or evaluate so how can we claim the ‘right’ way to do it? The authors link to a 2008 HBR article by Tim Brown as its reference source for illustrating design thinking, however, that article provides scant concrete direction for measurement or evaluation. Instead, Brown’s HBR piece emphasizes thinking and personality approaches to addressing design problems and a three-factor process model to guide how it is done in practice at IDEO. What Tim Brown outlines might be useful for someone looking to use design thinking, but it doesn’t provide us with something we can derive indicators (quantitative or qualitative) from to inform a comparison between design thinking activities.

The other citation is a 2015 HBR article from Jon Kolko. Kolko is one of design’s most prolific scholars and one of the few who actively and critically writes about the thinking, doing, craft, teaching, and impact of design on the people, places, and systems around us. His work is well worth reading and this piece is no different. While this HBR article is useful in pointing to the complexity that besets designers doing ‘design thinking’ in the world, it provides little to go from in developing the kind of comparative metrics that can inform a statement to say something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It’s not fit for that purpose (and I suspect was never designed for that in the first place).

Both of these reference sources are useful for those looking to understand more about design thinking and few are more qualified to speak on such things as Tim Brown and Jon Kolko. But if we are to start taking design thinking seriously, we need to go beyond describing what it is and show what it does (and doesn’t do) and under what conditions.

Brown, Kolko, and others have described what design thinking is and we are now at the stage where we need to show what it is in practice (and evaluate what it produces).

The authors provide a description of design thinking later in the article and anchors that description in the language of empathy, something that has its own problems.

Designers seek a deep understanding of users’ conditions, situations, and needs by endeavoring to see the world through their eyes and capture the essence of their experiences. The focus is on achieving connection, even intimacy, with users.

False Empathy?

It’s fair to say that Apple and the Ford Motor Company have created a lot of products that people love (and hate) and rely on every day. They also weren’t always products people asked for. Things like the iPod or automobile were not designed for where people were at when they were launched, but they did shape where they went afterward. It’s not clear what role empathy played in their developed.

Empathy is a poor end in itself. Seeing the world through others’ eyes helps you gain perspective, maybe intimacy, but that’s all it does (and that’s OK). Many of the issues we face day to day are shaped by systems and shared, collective, connected, and sometimes unconscious desires and motives. Empathy is important, but it only tells us part of the story.

There is a risk that we over-emphasize the role that empathy plays in design. We can still achieve remarkable products and services that generate enormous benefit without being empathic. While there is no reason we can’t strive for empathy, we risk confusing the means and ends when we place it as the purpose of design thinking as Bason and Austin have.

One of the examples of how empathy is used in design thinking leadership takes place at a Danish hospital heart clinic where the leaders asked: “What if the patient’s time were viewed as more important than the doctor’s?” The authors point to how asking this question upended the way that many health professionals saw the patient journey and led to improvements to a reduction in overnight stays.

Another question is: what did this produce?

What did this mean for the healthcare system as a whole? How about the professionals themselves? Are patients healthier because of the more efficient service they received? Who is deriving the benefits of this decision and who is bearing the risk and cost? Is this outcome better than others we could have tried under these conditions? These aren’t known.

Failure Failings

The issue is about framing. As the authors report from their research: “Design-thinking approaches call on employees to repeatedly experience failure”. Failure is largely a binary concept, which is not useful when dealing with complexity — something that Jon Kolko has written about. If much of what we deal with in designing for human systems is about complexity, why are we anchoring our discussion to binary concepts such as ‘success’ and ‘failure’?

Failure exists only when we know what success looks like. If we are really being innovative, reframing the situation, getting to know our users (and discarding our preconceptions about them) as is advocated in ‘design thinking’ how is it that we can fail at it? I have argued that the only thing we can steadfastly fail at in these conditions is learning. We can fail to build in mechanisms for data gathering, sensemaking, sharing, and reflecting that are associated with learning, but otherwise what we learn is valuable.

Designing for learning is a goal and an outcome we can commit to.

Reframing Our Models

The very fact that this article is in the Harvard Business Review suggests much about the intended audiences for this piece. I am sympathetic to the authors and my critique has focused on the details within the expression of the work, not necessarily the intent or capacity of Bason and Austin. Failure is popular these days within the business world and there are probably many reasons why it was included in the article.

One of the reasons concepts like ‘failure’ apply to so much of the business literature is that it speaks to concepts like an improvement, efficiency, profit, and productivity. Business outcomes might also include customer satisfaction, purchase actions, or brand recognition. All of these benefit the company, not necessarily the customer, client, patient, person, citizen, or society.

If we were truly tackling human-centred problems, we might approach them differently and ask different questions. Terms like failure actually do apply within the business context, not because they support innovation per se, but because the outcomes are pre-set. Learning is secondary to achieving a specific outcome and if that isn’t done, failure is what results.

Leadership Roles

It also provides commentary and insight on some practical areas of design leadership that readers can take away right away by highlighting roles for leaders.

One of these roles is in managing the tension between divergent and convergent thought and development processes in design work. This includes managing the insecurities that many design teams may express in dealing with the design process and the volume of dis-organized content it can generate. The authors describe this situation this way:

The exemplary leaders we observed ensured that their design-thinking project teams made the space and time for diverse new ideas to emerge and also maintained an overall sense of direction and purpose.

Another key role of the design leader is to support future thinking. By encouraging design teams to explore and test their work in the context of what could be, not just what is, leaders reframe the goals of the work and the outcomes in ways that support creativity.

Lastly, a key strength of the piece was the encouragement of multi-media forms of engagement and feedback. The authors chose to illustrate how leaders supported their teams in thinking differently about not only the design process but the products for communicating that process (and resulting products) to each other and the outside world. Too often the work of design is lost in translation because the means of communication have not been designed for the outcomes that are needed — something akin to design-driven evaluation.

Language, Learning, Outcomes

A read between the lines of the data — the stories and examples — that were presented in the article by Bason and Austin is the role of managing fear — fear of ‘failure’, fear from confusion, fear of not doing good work. Design, if it is anything, is optimistic in that it is about making an effort to try and solve problems, taking action, and generating something that makes a difference. Design leadership is about supporting that work and bringing it into our organizations and making it accessible.

That is an outcome worth striving for. While there are missed opportunities here, there is also much to build on and lead from.

Lead Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Inset Photo by R Mo on Unsplash

Cameron Norman

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Designer, evaluator and community psychologist interested in creating beautiful, healthy, innovative spaces for human excellence. Lover of coffee. Nerd.