Design Thinking is ‘not’ an old wine in a new bottle

Jul 15 · 4 min read

Design Thinking has emerged as a powerful approach to problem solving, adopting a human-centered manner. As a consultant and coach on the subject of Innovation and Strategy, I often get quizzed on the applicability of Design Thinking in contexts beyond products. I like to think of the process more as a approach to thinking clearly than designing elegantly, while appreciating the boundary conditions and cultural nuances in its adoption.

This piece is an attempt in furthering my clarity and that of my audience on where Design Thinking serves best. And nothing better than a 2x2 for its elegance and stickiness.

If you consider the problem space as being known or unknown, and the solution(s) being know or unknown (yet), we have four quadrants. At the risk of sounding simplistic, I would offer that Design Thinking is at its best when confronted with a thorny problem with no apparent solution. Let’s discuss about the various scenarios.

Known Problem and Known Solution: Lean Thinking

These are straight forward situations where a problem is reasonably well understood and so are the solutions, and it’s a matter of generating better ideas, and cutting down waste or improving productivity. The template is set to be followed diligently. The time tested approaches to Lean, Six Sigma, and Agile come in handy here.

The element of execution weighs over discovery, and the aim is to replicate what works. The premium is on replicating solutions with minor modifications, and in process, eliminating inefficiencies. The DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) cycle of Six Sigma allows further pruning of the problem space, and so does the elements of Kaizen, Kanban, Andon and other practices from the Japanese automobile industry. The notion is efficiency.

Known Problem and Unknown Solution: Lateral Thinking

Most creativity, at least in the non-artistic sense, calls for generating ideas for known problems. Reasonably well identified problems are good candidates for methods like Edward de Bono’s Lateral Thinking or Six Thinking Hats, or a host of other creativity methods, such as SCAMPER, or other triggers of unorthodox associations. The entire scheme of techniques on brainstorming largely falls under the ambit of known problems and unknown solutions.

These methods are akin to Divergent Thinking approaches, which aims at generating possibilities, except by design, most humans aren’t adept at divergent thinking if left on their own. The aspects of Nudge Theory and Game Theory applied to behaviors offer vital clues on how relatively well known problems or behaviors can be addressed distinctively.

Most work on creativity largely revolves around solution generation, with an understanding that the problem is well defined, which is seldom the case in real world scenarios. Hence, these techniques often follow Critical Thinking, where emphasis is laid on problem discovery and framing.

Unknown Problem and Known Solution: Critical Thinking

This might be a intriguing quadrant to begin with. How can we have a (potential) solution set to a unknown or undefined problem?

There is a category of methods that offer a well defined set of treatments once the problem is discovered. One popular approach is Goldratt’s Theory of Constraint, which aims at reducing a system to a flow, with well identified constraints that need to be addressed to improve overall system performance. The element of discovery is the identification of the constraint or the problem, and once it’s unearthed, the solution is to attack the bottleneck, one at a time.

Another technique from past that could potentially fit into this quadrant is the Russian TRIZ. Originally meant of solving physical contradictions in engineering and scientific space, TRIZ offers a set of well identified means of resolving contradictions, provided the problem can be identified clearly. The art is in abstracting a specific situation to a contradiction and then drawing on cues from the 39x39 Matrix.

Unknown Problem and Unknown Solution: Design Thinking

Finally, the construct with highest level of ambiguity on both the problem and the solution front, and with greatest room for discovery. Drawn on the principles of Systems Thinking and Integrative Thinking, Design Thinking takes a more human-centered approach to discover the problem and generate ingenious solutions.

The five step process, from Empathize to Test, is truly front loaded, in the sense that a disproportionate emphasis is laid on discovering and framing the problem before it’s treated.

Unlike Critical Thinking, the solution space is ambiguous, for the appropriate solutions must be desirable to human, viable to business, and feasible technically to be able to make a cut.

However, unlike Lateral Thinking, there aren’t any well prescribed triggers of generating ideas (perhaps a weakness of Design Thinking).

Which means that a truly powerful performance can be delivered with a combination of the four thinking paradigms, preferably in the following order:

Design Thinking >> Critical Thinking >> Lateral Thinking >> Lean Thinking.

So, it’s not so much of a old wine in a new bottle, this Design Thinking, but rather a new way of looking at the problem space and exploring it little better before giving in to the urge of solving.

Hope this offer some clarity. Do share your thoughts.


Written by

Founder and Innovation Evangelist at Inflexion Point Consulting. TEDx speaker. Teacher. Strategy Coach. Creativity Workshops. Executive Education.

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