Design Thinking: Then and Now

DFA Collaborative | Reading with Collab

Title: The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage
Author: Roger Martin
Topics: Design Thinking, Business, Innovation
Pages: 177
Rating: 7/10

Summary: Most companies today have innovation envy. They yearn to come up with a game-changing innovation, but they get disappointing results. Why? In The Design of Business, Roger Martin offers a compelling and provocative answer: we rely far too exclusively on analytical thinking, which merely refines current knowledge, producing small improvements to the status quo. To innovate and win, companies need design thinking. Filled with deep insights and fresh perspectives, The Design of Business reveals the true foundation of successful, profitable innovation.

This summary is paraphrased, read the full summary here.


Lately, it seems that the term “design thinking” has become a trendy buzzword that is becoming overused in mass publications.

So why read a book about it? Today it seems redundant to invest a couple hours reading all about design thinking. But take a look at the copyright date. This book was first published in 2009 — just when the design thinking movement was first gaining momentum. Not only was this book very relevant in its time, but it’s an important artifact to help us understand the movement today.

Upon reading it, I could see that “The Design of Business” has a clear goal — to pitch design thinking to the skeptic masses of the early 21st century. Overall, the book is dual act between confirming the power of traditional, analytical practices to its audience and selling them on the power of daring, creative thinking. Basically, advising business executives to loosen up a little. It pitched design thinking in a story of five steps:

1. The Knowledge Funnel

The Knowledge Funnel is Martin’s process whereby value is created: from mystery to heuristic to algorithm.

We start with a mystery. A mystery is a question, something “in our environment that excites our curiosity but eludes our understanding.” We shouldn’t be scared of the unknown, rather we should start with a mystery because working through the unknown creates opportunity.

Down the line, that opportunity eventually leads to an algorithm, or a “certified production process.” Algorithms are fixed formulas that guarantee success. They are the solution to the mystery.

A heuristic is the interesting middle step because it’s an “open-ended prompt to think or act in a particular way.” It’s the stage where a scientist might write a hypothesis or a designer might turn insights into ideas — this will probably work, but we can’t know for sure. This is where the design thinker works.

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2. Reliability vs. Validity

The book’s main message is about finding balance, mainly the balance between “reliability” and “validity.”

Reliability aims to “produce consistent, predictable outcomes.” It’s the mastery of the algorithm end of the knowledge funnel that allows costs to fall and efficiency to increase, benefiting the organization and all its stakeholders.

Martin argues that many businesses strongly favor reliability due to “the demand for proof, the absence of bias, and the pressures of time”. Organizations that value reliability “manage permanent, continuous tasks” to ensure their longevity. But here’s the catch — only valuing reliability is an oxymoron because if you’re perfecting your operations to last twenty years, twenty years from now they won’t be relevant anymore.

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This is where validity comes in. The goal of validity is to “produce outcomes that meet a desired objective,” or as we know it better, the R&D department. And while it’s true that validity comes with greater risk, it also comes with greater reward. Corporations can’t “define the resources or time frame required to solve the mystery”, but by tackling new questions they get closer to that heuristic stage.

It’s clear that we need both, anyone can see that only validity or reliability alone doesn’t make for a sustainable business model. The balance between the two is where Martin identifies design thinking.

3. What design thinking actually means

Okay, but what actually is design thinking? IDEO’s Tim Brown said design thinking is “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

Okay, but what actually is design thinking? Martin uses the development of the BlackBerry as an example of innovation that the market could not have predicted. Long before the iPhone took over the world, Co-founder of BlackBerry Mike Lazaridis declared that we could use our thumbs to type and get emails in our pockets. It sounds silly, but we take for granted today the decisions that designers toiled over years ago.

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Lazaridis’s methods were simple. He observed what people valued and he designed delightful experiences. Rather than alerting users when their device received an email, as many developers would code, he insisted on alerting them only when the email was ready to be read. This was a small detail that works either way from an engineering perspective, but makes a big difference from a user-centered perspective.

Design thinking is about what you value, and if you value both the user and the business model, both validity and reliability, then you might be a design thinker.

4. You need executive support

Building a company that values design doesn’t happen overnight. Martin uses the reimagining of Procter & Gamble as a case study for transforming a corporation in crisis into one that’s thriving.

For more than a century, P&G has been the world’s largest consumer packaged-goods company (if you’re unfamiliar, see CVS’s entire store). Then their stock plummeted in the 90’s. When A. G. Lafley became their new CEO in 2000, he made it his mission to drive innovation in the company. Soon, he hired Claudia Kotchka to champion design thinking and lead the course correction.

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Though she was extremely wary and turned down the position twice, Lafley eventually convinced her when he expressed that design thinking was one of the five legacies he wished to leave behind.

So Kotchka got to work. She set clear expectations, consulted outside experts in design (Patrick Whitney, David Kelley, and Roger Martin himself), stepped up to the challenges of revamping the internal system to be more conducive to design, and created empathy when she had senior executives go out in the field with designers.

The point is, people will always be skeptical of change, no matter what it is. If you’re serious about design thinking, you will ensure it gets top-down support, and that’s what happened at P&G.

5. Personal Knowledge System

Lastly, Martin encourages us to think about how we acquire knowledge and expertise through a “personal knowledge system” in order to open our minds to design thinking.

Your personal knowledge system starts with your stance — who you are and what you want to do. Your stance guides your tools — whether they’re abstract ways of thinking or technical software programs. And finally, your tools guide your experiences that you go through as a person.

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The first step toward change is reimagining your stance. Being a design thinker is about “balancing reliability with validity” and about being pragmatic and precise but also seeking the unknown and finding opportunities.

The key tools are observation, imagination, and configuration. “Deep, careful, open-minded observation” is essential for understanding users. Imagination leads to “new tests, new inferences, new prototypes until we arrive at a winning design”. And configuration translates that idea into an “activity system that will produce the desired business outcome”.

These tools will ultimately guide your experiences, which Martin encourages you to have in order to achieve mastery of design thinking.

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So that all happened nearly seven years ago, what’s changed since? A lot, apparently.

In 2011 Bruce Nussbaum told Fast Company that “Design Thinking is a Failed Experiment. So What’s Next?”. He believed that while design thinking has effectively opened the capabilities of design to “the much wider social space of systems and society”, it became far too streamlined in order to appeal to business culture, and therefore failed to deliver on its original goal — creativity. That’s why he’s an advocate of valuing “Creative Intelligence” as much as we value IQ.

In 2014 Mark Payne talked about “The Trouble With Design Thinking” with Fast Company in his book Fahrenheit 212. Payne lets it slip that the best solution for the user isn’t necessarily the best for business (i.e. if it doesn’t earn you more money). He believes the next thing after design thinking two-sided innovation, or working on both the consumer proposition and the business proposition in tandem so that both parties will benefit.

You get the point. Everyone got so excited about design thinking that businesses picked it up left and right. Expectations ran too high, and when design thinking didn’t solve all their problems they were left bitterly disappointed.

But after reading Martin’s book, I learned there really is some value behind design thinking. Balancing creative optimism with pragmatism, speaking with business and design lingo, these are mindsets we can benefit from no matter where we work. So while design thinking might not be the next competitive advantage, it can be a personal step to open our minds to more possibilities.


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