Embrace Criticism To Take Design Thinking To The Next Level

Dennis Hambeukers
Oct 28, 2018 · 7 min read

It sometimes seems an equal amount of people are mindlessly jumping on the Design Thinking bandwagon as there are people writing obituaries on Design Thinking. Design Thinking is either The Holy Grail or The Latest Fad. A couple of years ago Harvard Business Review (HBR) put Design Thinking on the cover. Now it publishes a harsh beheading of Design Thinking. Both are helpful in the spread of Design Thinking. Evangelizing helps Design Thinking as much as bashing.

Let me explain what I mean…

Opening the door

When HBR puts Design Thinking on the cover, it helps to put it in the minds of executives. It opens the door. When you start talking about Design Thinking in a boardroom, people have heard of it. They know it’s something they should pay attention to. They are willing to give it a chance. Their minds are open. They don’t know exactly what it is or whether or how they can benefit from it.

Arriving at the real conversation

When the first experiments with Design Thinking are done, questions start to arise. Does it actually work? What does it take to make it work? What is going well? What went wrong? Failing is a quintessential part of Design Thinking so you will fail. The question is what you can learn from failure. Learning requires deep understanding: not only of Design Thinking but also about the systems that work in your organization. At some point, questions about the real nature of Design Thinking will pop up. This is the moment to have a different conversation about Design Thinking. Before the conversation was a sales conversation: let’s give it a try. Now the conversation is getting deeper: how can we get the most out of Design Thinking? Design Thinking comes with a fundamentally different paradigm. We need to map that to existing paradigms. For that, we need to know:

  • how people see Design Thinking,
  • what the current mental models are,
  • and what the questions people ask themselves are.

Deny, blame and avoid

This is where the bashing articles come in. Any article declaring the death of Design Thinking can provide us with a lot of information to take Design Thinking to the next level. Design Thinking means change. A lot of people don’t like change. Change comes with a lot of emotions. One of the most common reactions to change is to deny, blame or avoid. That is exactly what Natasha Iskander’s article does in her HBR with the title Design Thinking Is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo. In it, we can find a lot of clues that can help us learn how people see Design Thinking.

No, Design Thinking is not about data

In her article Natasha writes:

“that the case for its use relies more on anecdotes than data;”

Design Thinking uses storytelling and narratives to navigate complexity, engage stakeholders and spark creativity. Design Thinking is a right-brain activity that doesn’t rely solely on data to make decisions. People have to start to trust this way of working and realize that the data-driven scientific management approach is no longer sufficient in the 21st-century complex and fast-paced environment business are operating in. There numerous investigations into the data of business value of Design Thinking like this one from McKinsey. But data doesn’t tell the whole story of Design Thinking. Design Thinking is not just something you can add to your business. For it to produce results, you have to take a deep dive. And then the effects and results will be so interrelated that it will remain hard to put the effect into a couple of KPI’s.

No, Design Thinking is not a linear process

In another part of her article Natasha writes:

“Likewise, design thinking is generally described as being made up of modes, stepping stones in the design process,”

This shows how Design Thinking is understood: as a linear process of steps. This is logical. IDEO, the firm that played a large role in popularizing the idea of Design Thinking, is famous for this diagram about Design Thinking:

I see this diagram or some variety pop up in every other presentation on Design Thinking. Anyone who googles “Design Thinking” will come across this diagram. And if you don’t dive deeper into the subject (and who takes the time to do this?), you might think Design Thinking is a linear process and that following the 5 steps outlined in the diagram means you are doing Design Thinking. Anyone who — for instance — takes the time to read IDEO’s Tim Brown seminal book on the matter, will find a totally different idea about Design Thinking. In Change By Design, he paints a far messier, iterative story of Design Thinking.

I would argue that Design Thinking is not a process at all. It’s not so much about what you do, but how you do it. It’s about using the, typically right-brain, skills designers have developed to:

  • become more agile,
  • creative,
  • validate your choices,
  • get a better picture of the problem and
  • create engagement.

The true power of Design Thinking is lifting the problem-solving power of a group of people. This works especially well in complex, fast-paced environments.

No, Design Thinking is not about powerplay

In another part Natasha writes:

“Design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process.”

This shows us how old school scientific management thinking works: the manager as the intelligent architect and the employees as dumb executioners. The scientific management thinker thinks designers will take on the same role as the manager in the scientific management model. It shows us a misunderstanding of the most fundamental power of Design Thinking: co-creation, inclusiveness, engagement. Design Thinking is a technology, a mindset, a platform that enables and enhances co-creation, communication and creative potential. It’s by no means a tool to give designers more power, to give them the power managers now hold. In the 21st century, the users will determine what the best solutions are, not the managers and not the designers. Design Thinking is only here to facilitate the process of collecting insights, finding the right questions, validating choices and iterating towards a better future.

No, Design Thinking is not nothing new

Natasha writes:

“it bears an uncanny resemblance to an earlier model of problem-solving”

If you just see the surface of Design Thinking, it’s logical that it seems like nothing new. If you don’t see the fundamentally different paradigms that underpin it, you see only post-its and 5 step diagrams. Saying Design Thinking is nothing new is like saying tv is the same as radio, internet the same as tv.

We have a lot to talk about

Articles like Natasha’s give us a lot of talking points in future conversations about Design Thinking. I personally find this extremely valuable information. If I want to talk to someone about Design Thinking, I would like to know how they see it, what their objections are. These are excellent starting points to move the conversation to the next level. We should embrace these obituaries to make Design Thinking stronger. We should stop putting things like:

“Design Thinking is a five-step process.”


”Design Thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation.”


“Design Thinking is a toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements of business success.”

in presentations about Design Thinking because Design Thinking is not a process, doesn’t have dibs on user-centeredness and is not a magic toolkit. We have to talk about performance, shifting power, redesigning processes and underlying paradigms if we want to get closer to the business people that are reading HBR.

“People are so negative about the negative. They don’t see the value of the negative. I, personally, am much more positive about the negative. If you are not positive about the negative, you can’t really do Design Thinking or any kind of prototyping.”

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of 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 connect with me on LinkedIn.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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