Reflections on My Semester-long Survey of Design Thinking Literature

In my posts so far, I’ve examined some of the key concepts of design thinking. I’ve also cited some interesting examples of projects that have benefited from utilizing the design thinking process. Hopefully, the variety of these examples illustrates the flexibility and broad applicability of the design thinking framework. Indeed, design thinking has advocates in a host of different spaces and disciplines. Design thinking consultants tout the benefits of utilizing design thinking processes across a wide swath of business functions, such as product development, managerial decision making, and organizational design. Design thinking theorists zealously proclaim that our dire times call for a dramatic increase in creative thinking and problem solving. They argue that design thinking can catalyze and sustain creativity, and that more individual and collective creativity is needed to address the complex challenges we now face. In almost every instance I’ve encountered, design thinking is presented as a radical alternative to the status quo. This begs the question: what conditions would need to exist for design thinking to be a natural outgrowth of the environment, as opposed to a process that goes against the grain of the existing norms. Not surprisingly, much of the design thinking literature is dedicated to exploring this very question.

A common theme in design thinking literature is that top-down, rigid hierarchical organizational climates often squelch creativity, a necessary ingredient in a culture amenable to design thinking. All too often, a strict set of rules and procedures precludes the possibility of inter-organizational, cross-disciplinary collaboration. As we have seen in previous posts, teamwork, particularly teamwork with a diverse set of participants, is an integral part of design thinking process. For an organizational culture to be imbued with the spirit of design thinking, it is necessary to encourage collaboration and brainstorming across between different disciplines and across all levels of organizational rank.

In addition to advocating less rigid organizational structures, design thinking theorists often encourage organizations to adopt a culture of play. Play — engaging in an activity for its own sake, rather than as an effort to achieve a particular outcome — provides ample opportunities for discovery and innovation not afforded by a strict adherence to business as usual. On a fundamental level, play is about embracing creativity — whether it be children role-playing, an athlete creating an opportunity for a teammate through an improvised maneuver, a jazz musician creating an improvised solo out of thin air, etc. — play requires agility, novel solutions and divergent thinking.

It is safe to say that these two key preconditions for design thinking, a relatively flat organizational structure and a culture of play, are absent in the vast majority of organizations today. If organizations hope to take advantage of the benefits that come from design thinking, they must make sure that their culture and their organizational structure encourage creativity rather than inhibit and constrain it.

I have learned a great deal from surveying the literature of design thinking. I was initially attracted to design thinking because it offered a programmatic approach to creativity and idea generation. As a musician focused on improvisation, I have, what I consider to be, a pretty deep relationship with creativity, serendipity and idea generation. However, my experience of creativity has been that it occurs in seemingly random and uncontrollable bursts — when the muse speaks, or when the spirit moves me. Design thinking challenges this notion head on. For this reason, it was something I wanted to explore in greater depth.

After reading a dozen books on design and design thinking, I realize that my initial characterization of what design thinking promises to accomplish was off base. Design thinking theorists do not proclaim that creativity and innovation can and will occur if a set of steps are followed, or if a certain criteria is met. Rather, they espouse the idea that an environment conducive to creativity and innovation can be created by following a set of very concrete steps, such as setting up inter-disciplinary teams and limiting hierarchies as much as possible. Design thinking, according to much of the literature, is a set of steps that put in place a set of conditions which increase the probability that serendipitous insights occur.

A particularly salient aspect of the design thinking literature for me was the discussion of divergent and convergent thinking. Both forms of thinking are integral steps in the above-mentioned process. In my experience, much of one’s socialization discourages divergent thinking. This is particularly true in many business settings. Unnecessary rules and regulations often dictate how one goes about assigned tasks. All to often, the inflexibility inherent in an organization’s organizational structure and idea-generation processes preclude creativity and innovation. As such, organizations become entrenched in a ‘business as usual’ mindset. Design thinking theorists are quick to point out that this entrenchment is not only inimical to creativity and innovation it is downright dangerous. Many theorists assert that dire social, environmental and economic realities require radical solutions. The status quo has, thus far, more often than not, perpetuated these potentially calamitous realities. It is, therefore, naïve to imagine that ‘business as usual’ thinking will solve some of the complex and pressing problems we face. Nurturing divergent thinking, according to thinking theorists, is a necessary precondition for the generation of truly novel and innovative solutions.

In my survey of design thinking literature, I have been struck by the theorists’ insistence on the necessity of creativity in the face of so many daunting challenges. Design and creativity are, of course, responsible for the structures we have in place and for the situation we find ourselves in. Ironically, however, many of these structures — such as our educational system, and organizational designs — which required creative thinking to be developed and implemented, now stifle rather than encourage creativity. Given this fact, the possibility that we can follow a set of procedures and steps that will foster environments and conditions conducive to creativity — which is what design thinking purports to do — is a truly novel and radical idea.