The Problem with Design Thinking

It may have a great name, but Design Thinking no longer packs a punch big enough to drive universe-denting, full-stack innovation. Here’s why we need ‘Full-Stack Design Thinking’.

The thing about ‘Design Thinking’ is that it’s such a great label. It’s an attractive way to describe a new innovation model based on human-centered observation and prototyping — especially when compared with the awkward labels given to a slew of competing methodologies: User Centered Design or ‘UCD’ (sounds like a disease), Agile UX, Lean UX and Lean Start-Up thinking (sound like diet plans), Service Design (sounds boring) and, er, Industrial Empathy (just silly) are some of the other desperately uninspiring contenders.

So yeah — ‘Design Thinking’ totally wins the evolutionary struggle to coin a better way of describing a more human/less tedious approach to the tricky business of innovation. The pairing of ‘Design’ with ‘Thinking’ in one helluva-business-friendly combo was — quite frankly — a brilliant move. It makes something which is a bit awkward, even intimidating, supremely accessible even to the dullest of business dullards.

Just saying it — go on, chant it: “Design Thinking, Design Thinking, Design Thinking” — has the effect of metaphorically loosening one’s tie and undoing your top button.

We’re probably at peak ‘Design Thinking’ right now. A lot of people have slagged Design Thinking off over the years, but in 2015 it scored a whole issue of the Harvard Business Review and it has emerged as the methodology of choice for big businesses wanting to bring innovation inside and use it to achieve the corporate nirvana known as ‘Digital Transformation’.

But in practice, Design Thinking all too often delivers a wonderful day or two off from the realities of boring old business-as-usual. You’ll always remember the day you were let out of your work cubicle (aka veal-fattening pen) to ‘play’ with Sharpies and Post-Its along with colleagues on Brainstorm Island*. You’ll meet colleagues on a Design Thinking safari whom you may not even have realized before actually have first names. Working together — probably in teams — you’ll be empowered to ideate the heck out of some really tough business problems, instead of just using boring old Excel and Word to count beans and execute your tiny piece of ‘The Plan’. Afterwards, you’ll probably tell loved ones at home about it, and you’ll think back to it wistfully for years to come as you sit safely back inside your pen.

I know: that’s all bit unfair. Design Thinking can be a revelation if you’re trying to get closer to your customers and their needs, and this has probably never been more important than it is today. We live in a business world increasingly driven by the demands of empowered consumers with absurdly high expectations, yet we are still struggling with the legacy of a century or more of big industrial thinking that systematically dehumanized the interface between businesses and people. There’s definitely some catching up to do. The less customer-centric your business is, the more you’ll get out of it.

It’s also undeniably useful for getting people from across the organisation to work together in new ways, to behave differently, and to re-align in an innovation-oriented direction. Brainstorm Island will feel like a transformative experience, and that’s still valuable.

What Design Thinking Doesn’t Do

However, in terms of lasting, impactful, commercial innovation, the Design Thinking scorecard doesn’t look so healthy.

In reality, when you return from a trip to Brainstorm Island you probably won’t have done any real innovation — at least, not the sort that’s going to transform the fortunes of your business. This is because Design Thinking is too general a framework and too ideation-based: it’s more focused on generating new ideas than understanding how they might actually work. It often underestimates the strategic context of how specific industries and markets really work. Truth is, it’s easy to come up with beautiful, clever ideas without the burden of understanding constraints — but this is where the genuinely transformational stuff is probably hiding.

The unfantastic truth is that building a powerful innovation growth-engine does require changing your organization and finding ways to transcend the constraints of your business, industry and market. And that’s really hard. Harder than merely finding new ways to meet the needs of your customers. Design Thinking is great for winning hearts and minds, but the big prize innovation remains out of reach.

This is because it’s not enough to be customer focused first, and think about all the hard stuff later.

At Made by Many we have never described what we do as ‘Design Thinking’ (we have used many, if not all, of the terms at the top of this post. Well, apart from Industrial Empathy). There isn’t a term for what we try to do — so I’m going to invent one. Let’s call it ‘Full-Stack Design Thinking’ for the sake of this piece.

The point is that universe-denting innovation demands a full-stack approach that doesn’t privilege design over other disciplines and treat those disciplines as executional issues, or things to figure out at a later stage.

In that sense, classical Design Thinking is like the new waterfall: too linear, too slow, too dumb. Full-Stack Design Thinking is more potent because it brings people from a range of disciplines — business strategists, technologists, product managers, human insights and interaction designers — together into a unified, weaponised, team that brings cross-disciplinary thinking to bear on a problem all at once.

It’s a human-centered approach, just like Design Thinking, but it’s massively expanded in terms of its potency and capabilities, especially across the broader business context, real-world constraints and externalities.

It’s an innovation approach capable of attacking the full-stack problem space all at once, and in our case at Made by Many, of making rapid progress through the whole stack of the problem and solution by ‘making stuff’. It’s an approach that gets further, faster - because it looks at technology, data analytics, operational capabilities, talent and staffing, commercial models and pricing, measurement and KPIs, product lifecycle management and capital, structure and geography — and makes it progressively more real in a continuous cycle of make-test-learn. This accelerates transformation by rendering it tangible and testable as you go.

I don’t condemn Design Thinking — at Made by Many we might never have used those words to describe it, but being evidence-driven, using prototypes and basing solutions in an understanding of human needs are all important strands of our approach. I do think it’s dangerous to ignore its shortcomings and to fetishize it, or give it an easy ride just because it sounds cool. It’s easy to be seduced by its appealing name, but don’t forget the rest of the stack: because in order to win, you need to solve for the whole of it.

  • Note: I wish I could take credit for the phrase ‘Brainstorm Island’, but I can’t. It comes from the very excellent book ‘Innovation As Usual’ by Paddy Miller and Thomas Weddell-Weddellsborg. Enjoy…

I had a dream, there was a rainbow,
Over the mountains, over the sea

Just you and me, we would go walking together,
Watching the sunrise over the trees

Wa-Oo-Wa-Oo-Wa
Wa-Oo-Wa-Oo

Fantasy Island, you know we have a dream but
True love, holding us together
Starshine, Fantasy Island
You know I wish that we could stay like this forever
Fantasy Island, you know we have a dream but
True love, holding us together
Star shine, Fantasy Island
You know I wish that we could stay like this forever

People like me, can always believe in
Love on an island surrounded by sea

Fantasy Island, by Tight Fit