Design thinking as a model for the organization of the future

The dominant organizational models we use today are based in some way, shape, or form on the principles of Scientific Management. This means cutting work up and organizing it in boxes with management layers. These boxes can be structured in different ways ranging from silos to matrices. Years ago, I wrote this essay about how I saw we could use Design Thinking to manage change in organizations. We can use Design Thinking to design our organization. But what if we take this idea one step further and not only use Design Thinking to (re)design our organizations to adapt to change but use Design Thinking as the model for our organizations? There are a couple of interesting elements in Design Thinking that would enhance the way organizations are structured.

The first thing that is interesting if we apply the mental model of Design Thinking to organizational design is that we start to see the organization as a service. An organizational design and the elements thereof should solve a problem. If we just use an existing model and apply it, we are not designing for purpose. The Scientific Management model that is the blueprint for most organizational designs was designed for a very specific purpose in a very specific environment. The idea to cut work up into small pieces and have a manager oversee the whole process so it can be optimized was designed to be used in factories with the goal of increasing production and lowering cost. It was designed to find the one best way and organize so that one best way was executed. This model was so successful that it went viral in the beginning of the 20th century and fueled the second Industrial Revolution. The majority of our society was organized around this model, our educational system was designed to serve this model, the majority of all organizations today use this model. If your goal is to optimize complicated processes and have control, this model is great. If your goal is to optimize creativity and potential, this model sucks. It’s a machine model. And we are not machines. We should design our organizations accordingly. An organization should be designed for a purpose and if the situation changes, the design needs to change. An organization is a service, a tool, not a given structure based on century old ideas.

We have machines to do machine work. In the Industrial Revolution, we had machines to replace manual labor. In the Digital Age, we have bots and AI to replace repetitive work. What separates us from machines, what makes us human, is creativity. So the goal of the next iteration of our organizations should be to optimize creativity. Design Thinking is a step in that direction, a mental model that can be used for that. Design Thinking is all about unleashing creativity in people that they lost after kindergarten. Everyone is creative but our educational system and conventions around creativity, art, and design have programmed most to believe we are not creative. Design Thinking is the liberation of creativity. Creativity has been monopolized by design and Design Thinking breaks that box. Thinking like a designer is available to everyone. But to do that, you have to break silos, release your limiting thoughts around creativity, experiment, iterate, prototype, learn, be willing to fail, be open, engage in co-creation. Everybody needs to have space to speak their mind, people have to be able to review ideas from each other without fear, ideas need to be tested in reality and feedback needs to be processed, people need to open their minds. These are all the elements of Design Thinking and Design Sprints. There are elements in our century old models of organizations that limit creativity. Power imbalance, inequality, boxes, fear, secrecy. These elements are great if you want to create a well oiled machine. They are limiting if you want to unleash the human potential for creativity. The goal of Design Thinking is to maximize creativity of a group of people and so should the organizational design of the future.

The closest organizational design to Design Thinking is Agile. The Agile Manifesto is an attempt to break the limiting elements in the traditional, Scientific Management based organization. Just look at these new rules from the manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

These are all direct attacks on the way we have organized ourselves in this past century. Processes have become more important than people. Paper trails have become more important than making things that actually work and add value. Legal attempts to control uncertainty has become more important than trust. Having a strict plan has become more important than using progressive insight. These things are a direct result of the Scientific Management mental model. This model is about fear, control and ego. Fear of uncertainty and complexity, an attempt to control by creating power imbalance between people, by making processes more important than people, letting ego’s create power imbalance between people, all that stuff. Luckily this doesn’t work in design. Design only works if individuals can create their own processes and tools. Design only works if don’t have to document your whole process and are free to just make something that works. Design only works if people follow their gut instead of rational systems. Design only works if people can throw away stuff and change their mind. So the whole Scientific Management model never really worked in design. It did in the organization of creative agencies but not in the design process itself. In the design process itself, a way of working survived that is more human, more creative, more free, more open. This is what the creators of the Agile Manifesto must have sensed. This is what fueled the whole rise of concepts like Design Thinking. Leadership in Design Thinking is pure facilitation, pure servant leadership. There is no boss. The process is organized around equality, openness, learning. Design Thinking is a learning organization.

The model of Scientific Management is built upon the philosophical ideas of Descartes and his clockwork model of the universe. He believed that the universe is a clock and if you study all the elements individually and put that all back together, you understand the universe. It is a mental model that was used to improve human performance in this world. It has been very successful and effective. We are in a vibe shift, the world is changing and we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. I feel the organization of the future should be designed based on a new philosophy that takes into account the complexity of dependencies, the energy between people, and the potential of human creativity. The seeds of that are in the projects that are organized around design thinking, agile, service design, lean startup, and user centered design.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you clap for this essay, I will know I connected with you. I will dive deeper into the topics around Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also subscribe to an email service here on Medium which will drop new essays right into your inbox. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at :) You can also find me on Instagram. When I am not blogging about Design Leadership, I work as a design strategist and project manager at Zuiderlicht.



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Dennis Hambeukers

Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner