People Over Process: How We Can Still Save Design Thinking

I hate “design thinking.” Allow me to clarify, I love the set of principles collectively known as design thinking that unlock creativity, better problem-solving, and human-centered solutions.

But I hate the term, which has become a bad marketing buzzword. Companies of all shapes and sizes are slapping it into their messaging like it’s a prerequisite for doing business. “We’re innovation leaders, so of course our empathetic, agile, cross-functional, cross-discipline, cross-company, cross-universe, synergistic, and human-centered teams are using design thinking.”

Look I get it — once there’s a strong business case the bandwagon always rolls around. And when done correctly, design thinking is a powerful tool for framing, ideating, and prototyping simple solutions to the complex issues facing today’s organizations. Organizations that in many cases struggle to adapt their business models to digital disruption, ever-evolving media channels, and an evolved consumer base that now prefers experiences to products. In a business landscape of constant change, design has proven to be a lasting differentiator.

Even shareholders are noticing. A Deloitte trend report found that “among 138 publicly traded companies generally agreed by analysts to get a stock premium for innovation, there is a very strong correlation between the number of types of innovation they use in their most valuable platforms and their stock performance above the S&P. We conclude that more sophisticated design goals, when executed effectively, yield bigger payoffs.”

But when every practitioner (regardless of expertise) peddles design thinking as panacea, it becomes snake-oil.

While I’d love if it was, design thinking is not a catch-all solution. Designer Jon Kolko, writing for Harvard Business Review, articulated this well. “It [design] helps people and organizations cut through complexity. It’s great for innovation. It works extremely well for imagining the future. But it’s not the right set of tools for optimizing, streamlining, or otherwise operating a stable business,” said Kolko.

What design thinking does do well is humanize emerging technologies and lead the development of products, services, and experiences that connect with consumers. It can help empower teams to be more adaptable, less risk-averse, and ultimately more productive.

But when big business adopts design thinking and packages it as yet another strictly defined process, it loses its magic.

Corporations have long built process improvements into their work structures to create efficient systems that won’t break down. Unlike design, these processes are great for operating a stable business, but stress an adherence to the way things have always been done. Which is great, and there is certainly a time and place for optimization, but design thinking must be insulated from these processes and existing ways of working to be effective.

When design thinking becomes synonymous with process, it removes the all-important human element that makes it special in the first place. Put simply, design thinking is codified creativity — and creativity is messy. But when companies are willing to tolerate discomfort outside of their typical processes, real innovation can start to happen. In fact, companies that foster creativity enjoy 1.5x greater market share.

When done right, design thinking tears down barriers and existing ways of working that prevent businesses from arriving at their best solutions. But I don’t want to see companies with stifling cultures trying to bolt it on as a flavor of the month.

Design thinking can transform your organization for the better — please don’t ruin it.

In Defense of Design Thinking

Source: Google trends

For the last ten years, the demand for design thinking has increased as the complexity of modern technology and business has increased. Design thinking offers a set of principles and unique processes that enable organizations to design simple human solutions and experiences for complex systems. Think the “uberfication” of everything. Today’s consumer doesn’t want all the friction that comes with tracking down a cab, they want to tap once and have a personal car service.

But to get from cabs to imagining Uber as a complete service requires plenty of creativity. It isn’t easy to immediately identify consumer friction and design an experience that eliminates it.

This is where design thinking comes in: principles like empathy for the end user, an openness to failure, and rapid prototyping, when paired with workshops that include gamestorms and other states of play, unlock the fresh thinking necessary to find human answers to complicated problems.

It amplifies the creative problem solving of every employee, stripping away the barriers that years of education and work experience have built up that prevent them from just thinking differently.

So what makes design thinking so valuable when used properly? For one, it creates a level of entertainment and engagement in how people connect with each other and work together.

Design thinking workshops are so charming and exciting because they’re collaborative. Not typical business collaborative where the “HiPPO”, or highest paid person’s opinion, runs the room, but actually collaborative. People start laughing, joking, having fun — the experience contrasts the “groan zone” of useless meetings riddled with groupthink, replacing it with an engaging process that when executed properly, leads to effective business outcomes and tighter cultural connections within teams.

Creativity is and always will be a solo and team sport. Too often, people think that they can lead from the sidelines. But in today’s businesses, the leaders that make a difference are player/coaches. This aligns with design thinking because you can’t be on a design thinking team and not participate. There is no HiPPO, just a flat team that comes together as individuals to contribute.

Why else is design thinking valuable? It’s fun. We all have our reasons for the professions we’ve chosen, but at the end of the day, work is stress. We don’t have fun most of the time. With design thinking, you can solve problems faster, think 10x, and have fun in the process.

If you really tear it down, design thinking is all the fun you had in a classroom when you were a kid before they told you to sit in your seat and follow the syllabus. Forced linear thinking is in many ways the problem in corporate cultures. Design thinking instead mimics playing with blocks and having fun with other kids, it nurtures your mind, but toward an outcome the teacher (workshop leader) has designed the exercise to achieve.

After this period of play and convergence when no idea is good or bad, there is a period of divergence when ideas are immediately prototyped and tested with real customers. The good ideas get improved, the bad ones get left behind. Repeat process. In this sense, design thinking incorporates test and learn elements of the scientific method.

To summarize, first you create a space for team members to think, work, and play with a focus on an end goal or outcome. Next, you design a series of approaches that create inputs and outputs that will help solve a problem. Third, solutions are tested. Repeat until the problem is best solved.

It is important to note that design thinking also incorporates principles of sound organizational design, including empowerment, flat meetings that lack a strict hierarchy, and accommodations toward different learning styles.

A study of the personality traits of more than 4,000 managers found that 60% describe themselves as very outgoing, and 38% as having an above-average level of extroversion. Whether this is because organizations assume that extroverts make better leaders, or because traditional interviews are biased toward candidates with strong interpersonal skills, managers tend to be extroverts. Extroverts, and therefore most managers, tend to be auditory learners who absorb and process information by talking about it. Hence the structure of typical meetings.

But in many cases teams are made up of visual and kinesthetic learners who work much better when they can visualize, sketch, or physically handle prototypes. Done right, a design thinking workshop delivers a multi-sensory experience where everyone can touch, feel, and see solutions. If there aren’t post-it notes all over the walls, you’re doing it wrong.

This helps eliminate the disconnect that so often forms between auditory managers and their teams who “just don’t get it.” Our brains are not computers that objectively store and recall information. Our thoughts and memories are inextricably linked to our emotional experiences. We process information in pictures, symbols, metaphors, and stories that we can map to something we’ve experienced before — the human brain is much better at recognizing than it is at recalling.

Design thinking is so powerful for getting everyone on the same page because it creates a shared emotional experience that accommodates everyone in the room. Participants almost always remember how they felt when they placed their post-it idea on an empathy map or sketched 30 circles.

Death to Fordism

Today’s knowledge workers don’t want to be cogs in the wheel. They don’t want to limit their careers to performing very specific, linear job functions over and over. We all live divergent lives filled with a variety of experiences, interests, and passions — why would we want to box in our professional lives?

Far too often, late design thinking adopters stress optimization: “Design-driven companies have outperformed the S&P index by 228% over the last decade, so let’s figure out the cogs we need to make it work.”

But when you keep pushing to optimize, optimize, optimize, you end up with the same ways of working that necessitated a separate design thinking practice in the first place. Forcing optimization on the wrong things can lead to a sterile creative process.

Experience is the differentiator, not optimization.

Just compare office-suite giant Regus’ co-working spaces to newly formed WeWork spaces. The one I prefer (decide for yourself) has the amenities, the attention to design, and the attention to creative flair. Most of all, it feels human and approachable, it doesn’t feel like a business. It fosters a sense of community and belonging, a basic human need critical for creativity to take place. It feels like a place you want to stay and create, not a 9–5 prison.

Design thinking is an experience designed to produce outcomes, not a sterile process steeped in past ways of working. The companies that are doing it wrong forget this. Human connection is the be-all and end-all.

Do you want to go to the movies, or do you want to step into an immersive experience where you can be a part of the movie? This is essentially the difference between practitioners that treat design thinking as a passive process, versus those that frame it as an active experience.

Design thinking is a system of experiences for having fun and putting creativity to work for defined outcomes.

Don’t take the soul out of it.

Originally published at