Erika Bailey
Aug 20 · 6 min read

Empower the people. Walk the talk. Culture is everything. Design Thinking is it! Innovation is key!

Buzzwords or phrases are the worst, and not just because they induce eye-rolling.

They are a dangerous mechanism to lose sight of things that bring value to organizations and affect the bottom line. Buzzwords make us tired of hearing about it. They make us crave the day before we heard about it. They solidify patterns that hold firm on the status quo. Sometimes that buzzword may be something you actually need to do, and dismissing it puts your business at significant risk.

Popularity breeds over-simplification

I always cringe a little bit when something that has been shown to work (with real evidence) becomes wildly popular. It’s exciting at first… and then the inevitable crash happens where people say, for example, “Design Thinking. That’s so last year.” Or, “Design Thinking? I did that two years ago. Didn’t work.”

Innovation and Design Thinking have both fallen prey to the negative impact of popularity. They both can be so easily dismissed because of the over-use and over-simplification.

Many times employees get asked to innovate, but aren’t given the time, resources, or tools to do so. Many times leaders start an innovation initiative without any help, and find themselves creating something that yields minimal or only incremental improvements instead of engaging in true innovation.

Design Thinking and Innovation are easily over-simplified because they are both crafts. They only work when the person or people using it have developed expertise and experience. They aren’t a thing you can learn to do in a day or on that corporate retreat. Steven Johnson muses on this in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation and also in this short video. He makes the point that great ideas and innovations are rarely flash of insight or a short endeavour. Ideas take time — sometimes LOTS of time — to move from a hunch to a fully fledged innovation. And that is hard and sometimes frustrating work. Real innovation work goes beyond post-it notes and is comprised of rigorous projects, research, testing, failing, and winning. Because both innovation and design work can be hard, and people feel the pressure to engage with them, people too easily give up. And the easiest way to give up is to blame the word. The easiest way to blame the word is to devalue it — enter The Buzzword.

Design Thinking sets the table for Innovation

We at The Moment believe in Design Thinking as a method and practice that supports innovation and the best that we can be and deliver as organizations. It has a purpose, and if activated effectively, it can produce remarkable results.

Let’s start by taking an objective view of Design Thinking. Obviously, working at an Innovation Design firm, I’m a believer in the power of Design Thinking to influence the creation of good things for people, and for organizational bottom lines.

This isn’t just one woman’s view; Design Thinking offers real value to organizations when done properly. This article from Forbes is just one of the latest evidence-based critiques of the value of Design Thinking for businesses.

All that said, one should be wary of anyone who says “Design Thinking will solve everything!” or “Design Thinking is the key!” It is a key; not the key. It sets the table for innovation and can be the difference when trying to keep a business remain relevant in the future, but it isn’t the end. It fact, Design Thinking is just one means of getting great work done.

Here is a typical (video) description of Design Thinking.

The problem with that video, and much of the material I have seen out there that describes and promotes Design Thinking to organizations is that it focuses almost entirely on the formula, or the linear path to getting to an outcome, and the outcome remains a mystery. The proof is lacking. When that is the bulk of material out there, it is entirely fair for designers and business folks to stand up and call baloney on any excessive lauding of Design Thinking.

Natasha Jen has some particularly astute criticism that emphasizes the over-simplification of Design Thinking to the 3M post-it-note, and the lack of criticism or “crit” that Design Thinking invites. She also points out the failure of the design community to step up and criticize the movement, allowing it to become over-popularized without significant evidence that has been shared and reviewed. These criticisms are completely valid. Like any large movement, there have been and will be problems.

In my experience, skeptics of the Design Thinking movement are often rather dismissive of the value of getting non-designers within organizations to participate in design to any significant degree. There is something of the “designer as hero” in that critique. This belief is problematic. In my experience, bringing design expertise while also bringing in alternative expertise can enhance the collaborative design process with impressive results.

What skeptics also miss is that there is value in people learning to care deeply about customer needs, to ask better questions, to design in ways that make sense — for the organization and the end users. In that sense, having non-designers participating deeply in the work can be powerful for now and for the future of any organization’s aspirations.

Sometimes, it can help to employ a designers tool, to better understand the method. In this case, we could use the tried and true “yes-and”:

Design Thinking is a craft. Yes, and non-designers can engage with it in a way that they don’t need to be experts and still provide valuable insights.

Design Thinking has been oversimplified. Yes, and sometimes we need to simplify things to invite non-experts in. The danger is in not continuing the conversation beyond simplifications.

Design Thinking really only works well when you have “real designers.” Yes, and the value of building a multi-disciplinary team from both design and business amplifies the system around the design to accept it and accelerate it.

The Innovation Imperative

We all know we can’t stay still as the world changes at an ever increasing rate. However, we should note that, as humans, we will collectively resist things that feel unsafe, unsure, new, or novel as a general rule.

Innovation is not a choice, so when people “don’t want to hear about it anymore”, stay the course even if you have to call it something else. Seriously. Just rebrand that business and get on with it.

Innovation Design is something we care very deeply about at The Moment. It’s a framework to support teams and organizations through the transition from where they are now to where they need to be tomorrow. It incorporates different viewpoints, backgrounds, and knowledge. It is the sum of the parts working together to create a better whole.

Innovation designers are the bridge from Design Thinking to Innovation. They take method, and add expertise from all the angles. They bring a richness to innovation work, with method, tools, and experience to foster exciting business results.

Get busy getting beyond the eye-rolling

Engaging with design thinking and innovation in a way that gets past the buzzwords and all the way to the real work can be accomplished in many ways. Here are a few to get you started:

  1. Develop a new product or service, using design thinking and innovation design tools and mindsets. This is the bottom-up approach. Start with the work, and the thinking will follow.
  2. Develop your innovation strategy, including a strong and well-thought-out innovation portfolio. This starts with the high level stuff and works down to tactical solutions.
  3. Avoid only having design firms just come and do it for you. Have firms like ours do it WITH you. That’s how you build the craft within your own walls. That’s how you keep innovation costs contained, and good practice amplified.
  4. Listen to skeptics of Design Thinking and their criticism. Criticism is part of what makes design work truly great! But don’t throw the whole thing out because some people are misusing the term or not doing the work well.

To learn more about Innovation Design and how to rev up your own practice, check out themoment.is/ideas

In The Moment

The Moment is an innovation studio located in Toronto, Canada. We work with organizations across industries to empower people to lead change and co-create a thriving human future.

Erika Bailey

Written by

Making the world better for humans-1 service/system at a time. Innovation Designer at The Moment, an innovation studio. @themomentishere http://themoment.is.

In The Moment

The Moment is an innovation studio located in Toronto, Canada. We work with organizations across industries to empower people to lead change and co-create a thriving human future.

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