What can Design Thinking do for Business Academics?

Ivano Bongiovanni
Sep 9, 2019 · 12 min read
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Photo by "My Life Through A Lens" on Unsplash

Three years ago I worked on my first design-led project. We helped the State Government re-shape some services: How can we make starting a cafe’ a more streamlined process? How can we help entrepreneurs quickly apply for start-up funds? How can we design a whole-of-government service platform? etc.

I am not a designer. Never studied it, barely knew it existed. I guess my then-boss had noticed my experience as a researcher in government organisations and thought I could be of use. I walked into that 6-week Innovation Sprint armed with my (decent) knowledge of public management theories, thinking I could totally make innovation happen. Silly me… The team I joined was made of other researchers, some clients, a project manager and someone I wasn’t expecting there — a design facilitator.

The word design made me think of fancy ergonomic chairs, a cool-looking kettle and that empty corner in my living room, which I still have no idea what to do with. My surprise escalated when, a couple of days into the project, the walls of our innovation lab became populated by sketchy drawings of people, colour-coordinated post-its, and never-ending maps of journeys through such and such life event. The author of those masterpieces was, needless to say, the designer. I even started teasing him for his contribution: “Oh yeah, keep up with your drawings!”. The joy of having an Italian team member…

Three years, many more Innovation Sprints and a change of continent later, and here I am, engaging public and private companies around design-led projects; teaching design tools to our students; working on making design thinking (DT) a methodology to yield high-impact, real-world research; and using DT in my own entrepreneurial journey to help academics sort out their crazy lives. Design-led methods and DT are not about fancy chairs and cool interiors and have become my passion, and a significant part of what I do. What are the values I see in DT?

Still have no idea on how DT looks? My suggestion: try it. And this video can help:

And for the diligent ones, Tim Brown (2008) singles out the key-features of DT: it uses creativity to innovatively solve problems by focusing on end-users’ needs, proposing as many original solutions as possible (diverging), identifying the feasible/viable/desirable ones (converging) and finally making use of rapid prototyping to test them.

Now, back to its values.

My experience suggests three main thumb-ups for DT:

  1. It can drive innovation and help make the world a better place. Design-led innovations synthesise users’ needs, technology affordances and business requirements. Imagine an airport in which you could order and pay for a coffee while queuing for security: once you’re done with x-rays and explosive detection, simply head to the cafe’ and enjoy your espresso! The modern designer is a multi-faceted individual: a bit of a psychologist, a bit of a technology expert, a bit of a businessman.
  2. It is manageable. It can be time- and resource-bounded and carries a reasonable tolerance for failure. When treated as a process, it comes with a massive kit of tools, techniques, canvasses, and methods that can be easily learnt and replicated and make it extremely practical.
  3. It can create a powerful bridge between public and private organisations, academia, researchers, and end-users.

The first two points have been extensively unpacked.

They have also recently led to significant criticism against the absurd design thinking movement: just another fad of the business world, full of technical jargon that inflates expectations, reinvents the wheel by using approaches known for centuries and corroborates a capitalistic view of society. Other recent pieces have criticised DT: it struggles with definitions, is promoted through anecdotes more than data and is little more than pricey common-sense.

As I myself haven’t drunk the DT-kool-aid, I tried to understand the arguments of so much criticism. And I noticed that some solid biases were behind them.

Portraying DT as an individual exercise where the designer is in charge of pretty much everything is far away from my experience, made of long sessions of side-by-side work with clients, JSON developers, researchers, project managers, and end-users. Design-led projects are team efforts.

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A team effort

And generalising the failure of one solution created through design-led methods as the failure of the whole DT approach sounds very much like the infamous baby thrown out with the bathwater. As well pointed out in this article:

You can practice design thinking for good or for evil. Blame the practitioners not the tools.

DT is not all about profit-making, and similarly is not all about creating products. Some of its applications (service, experience or process design) specifically create public good, within the boundaries of sustainability, as witnessed by the work done by numerous design agencies.

Extensive research has been produced in this field: design science is indeed an academic discipline, sitting at the intersection among business and social sciences, creative industries, and information systems; has dedicated journals; and researchers identified as designers or design researchers.

Yet, not all criticism is criticisable.

Yes, vague or somehow biased design terminology does sometimes lead to misunderstandings. Once I introduced myself as a ‘DT enthusiast’ to the CEO of a service design agency I greatly admire, to which she promptly responded:

“Oh, we don’t just do ‘design thinking’ here; we prototype!”

Yes, a superficial approach to DT does portray it as a merely aesthetic (and expensive) exercise, which can struggle with implementation, if not supported politically and financially. This, combined with the interest that large consulting companies have recently shown towards DT (McKinsey has bought design agencies Lunar, Carbon12 and Veryday; Accenture has combined its design branch Fjord with newly acquired design and innovation firm INSITUM) has contributed to associate DT with expensive bills.

And yes, the methods, tools and techniques that DT uses are not totally invented from scratch. So what? The quest for uniqueness-at-all-costs has often proved detrimental to the business world…

My point #3 above is what I will focus on:

DT can create a powerful bridge between public and private organisations, academia, researchers, and end-users.

Last year an interesting article entitled Why we should bulldoze the business school generated heated debates in academic circles. I do not think business schools should be bulldozed, but one argument in the article reflects a recurring worry: business research is often disconnected from the real world.

Across higher education, there is a tangible push towards promoting research with impact, which produces concrete outcomes for individuals, organisations and society at large. In the UK, the Research Excellence Framework 2021 emphasises the impact criterion in assessing research projects. In Australia, funding incentives are offered for research conducted by academic-practitioner partnerships (Linkage projects). Besides teaching and researching, a third mission has recently emerged as a top priority for universities: nurturing a solid network of stakeholders, based on continuous engagement and dissemination of value. This is the trend, but a lot of work needs to be done.

Business schools need to learn how to better listen to the external environment and DT can be a powerful instrument to do so.

Roughly speaking, business research has three areas for improvement: increasing real-world impact; enhancing multi-disciplinarity; and promoting accountability to external stakeholders. I believe DT can offer solutions in each of these three areas (skip below for a synthetic table!):

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1.Increasing real-world impact: In DT, relevance and provision for impact are intrinsic. Research questions are around real-world problems. Clients and stakeholders participate in the design process and their presence helps avoid disconnect from reality (a researcher’s job can be quite alienating). Furthermore, a design-led project is not just research: it is research with the purpose of building solutions to classes of problems. Research questions that are intellectually stimulating but have no practical anchoring (quite common in business research) are virtually impossible in DT. In the design-led projects I worked on in the past, any sorts of problems have been thrown at me: improving emergency communication systems; engaging high-school kids with a global sporting event; making a State attractive for digital entrepreneurs; and so on. To solve such problems, I always needed help from a wealth of subject matter experts, which brings me to the second area.

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2. Enhancing multi-disciplinarity: Business research is often criticised for being a siloed system where researchers rarely connect with other disciplines. DT is typically a team-based exercise, where team members possess expertise in a variety of disciplines. Two basic assumptions characterise design-led projects: first, no one is an expert in everything; and second, a team’s potential is greater than the sum of its parts. DT postulates that every phase of the process, from the collection of data around users’ needs, through the creative efforts and prototyping, to the testing of the proposed solutions, is team-based. Professionals (practitioners and researchers alike) from different disciplines participate and provide their views on the problems at stake and so do the clients.

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3. Promoting accountability to external stakeholders: Academic research can take a lot of time to be completed. In many cases, it is never ‘completely completed’, as new research questions can arise and new data can be collected. Now, how does a seemingly never-ending process sit with a private external partner for whom time is money? Not very well. Design projects are highly structured, time- and resource-bound: DT as a process provides phases, tools and tempo for a project to be accomplished. Traditional research tends to stop only when new knowledge is acquired and recommendations for practice are extracted. In DT, research is one component, with ideation, prototyping and testing being equally fundamental.

Here’s a synthesis of these three areas:

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Three areas in which DT can help Business Research

If the benefits of DT to business research are so evident, why wouldn’t all business academics be expert designers and design facilitators? Well, things are not as easy. In reality, design-led projects are perceived with a less than enthusiastic attitude by most academics. Why is that?

A business researcher faces several barriers when involved in a design-led project:

Misaligned goals: Typically, academics do research to answer questions they deem interesting. Once they do have answers, they publish them in papers, which determine, among others, their career progression. In DT, problems drive research and the quest for solutions; the typical output is a new idea, a minimum viable product (e.g., a working website), a prototype (e.g., the model for a new shopping cart), or a proof-of-concept (e.g., the first draft of a new marketing strategy). When things are done properly, a proof-of-concept can eventually become a successful product, like this AI lie detector for airport security. Academic papers are not the typical output of a design-led project (industry-friendly reports are). And when they are, they rarely meet the requirements needed to be elevated to established scientific domains such as management, information systems and psychology.

The struggle with ambiguity: While design-led projects are the domain of ambiguity; structure, organised processes and rigour are an academic’s ‘bread and butter’. I experienced this myself when I was first involved in an Innovation Sprint: seemingly endless sessions of brainstorming, of framing problems, of research conducted across the broadest range of topics, quickly had me frustrated and totally exhausted. I was screaming for a to-do list, a clear project plan, a protocol to follow. It took a couple of weeks for my frustration to loosen up. And for me to get really excited.

I recently participated in a working group tasked with answering the question: ‘Is design thinking for everyone?’. We shared experiences and DT’s typical ambiguity emerged as the most common reason why the answer could actually be ‘no’.

Academic performance management: The last barrier is a structural one. Here’s a story to better understand it.

Paul, 34, is a young researcher in management. He wants to become a Lecturer and his research on Human Resource Management needs to be published in a top journal for him to be considered for promotion. To do so, Paul needs to work on building a new HRM theory: top journals are in fact more precious about ‘expanding knowledge’ than about ‘making a practical impact’ (journals with a practitioner focus generally rank lower than purely academic journals, because…I have no idea). Now, elaborating a new theory requires major efforts and a very rigorous methodology. This translates into long research. Time to publication is further extended by the review process of top journals, which is extremely selective (and rightly so). If everything goes super-smoothly, Paul’s research will likely take at least 18 months, from onset to publication.

Now, imagine that Paul is also a passionate innovator and masters design-led methods. Companies know it and a pet food manufacturer wants him to design a tool to manage employees’ career. Paul is thrilled: with the help of some developers, he can produce something tangible, which will have an immediate impact for the firm. Plus, he will guide the clients through a design-led exercise and show the firm the pros and cons of this approach. To top it up, he will be able to collect data for a paper on this project! However, the manufacturer has a limited budget, and no interest in Paul’s paper: they want the tool. Paul will need to make do with what they give him, including time: he has ten months to present the final prototype.

Paul’s university is a very traditional one: top journal publications have priority when it comes to promotion. Now, do you think Paul will focus on building a theory or designing a tool?

Let me conclude with three ideas on how we could make DT more attractive for business researchers (and other academics).

1) Re-aligning objectives: I get it, some researchers don’t want to be consultants: they love scientific enquiry, addressing lingering questions and seeing the fruits of their efforts published in a paper. Designers, on the contrary, need to produce ‘stuff’, while not worrying too much about the resulting knowledge. To marry these two objectives, we need to build research rigour into design-led projects; with limited resources, we can do so by carefully planning the data collection, by increasing the number of involved researchers (for example offering co-authorship on all resulting publications, to designers and clients alike), by designing a streamlined application for ethical clearance, by leveraging digital technologies to speed up the research phases (how about creating virtual research teams across the world to outsource specific pieces of research?).

A promising approach to build rigour is concatenation: a series of design-led projects where learning from the one is migrated into the following and so on, and knowledge is progressively accumulated. For example: 5 two-week engagements with 5 departments from a government organisation to propose solutions to 5 problems, could also yield one academic publication on the problems faced by the whole government organisation. This can favour quality over quantity of publications, essential for academic career progression.

2) Preparing for ambiguity and giving structure: How do we prepare researchers for ambiguity? How do we structure ambiguity? Though questions. A couple of ideas:

*Invite academics as guests in design-led projects, for them to get a taste of the dynamics occurring in these situations; allow them to talk the team through their perceptions and feelings.

*Begin with bite-sized, design-led projects, with clear start and end dates. The traditional Design Sprint lasts five days, which could be a good testing ground for researchers.

*Steer ambiguity by creating intermediate milestones and frequent moments for researchers to ‘sense-check’ on the overall directions of the project (coffee-breaks in which I could simply ‘vent out’ were decisive for me to overcome my initial unease with Innovation Sprints).

3) Some structural changes may help…: Let’s conclude with a (not) easy one. A change in how we manage academic career progression, towards increased appreciation of external engagement and real-world impact could push researchers to adventure in design-led projects more. These dynamics are slowly in place, but structural change can’t happen in isolation: small-scale success cases, initiated from the grass-roots, where academics take the lead and show that change can happen, will go a long way in speeding up the process…

I’ll leave with a note of optimism: The Academy of Management Conference is the largest gathering of academics, researchers and practitioners in the field of management. During its last edition this past August, the most recurring word in the concluding presidential address was end-users.

The key message was: We need to ensure we always keep end-users top of mind when we do our thing.

This is also Design Thinking’s most fundamental concept.

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The importance of end-users in business research

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Ivano Bongiovanni

Written by

Research Fellow @ Uni Glasgow & Digital Fellow @ Chair in Digital Economy. Trying not to get too into Design Thinking. Failing.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +755K people. Follow to join our community.

Ivano Bongiovanni

Written by

Research Fellow @ Uni Glasgow & Digital Fellow @ Chair in Digital Economy. Trying not to get too into Design Thinking. Failing.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +755K people. Follow to join our community.

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