Why Design Thinking Is Out-Of-Date Part 1

(In three parts)

2: The blurred boundary between Design and Innovation

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In part 2 of this critique of the role of Design Thinking in the 21st.- century I’ll look at the current trend driving  Design Thinking – since it has become autonomous with Innovation. Innovation of course, being one of the great buzzwords of the 21st. century and who can deny the need to innovate, as Tom Peters wrote in Re-Imagine: “All working security as we have known it for the last three or four generation is over. Over and gone.”

Forbes, in an article by Reuven Cohen ‘Design Thinking: A Unified Framework For Innovation’ is one of many media channels who have heralded Design Thinking as the be-all unified framework for Innovation. The article builds on the design-thinking model by Stanford University (d-camp Stanford Model), which I feel, doesn’t really provide a suitable basis for 21st. century skills, building on design thinking as a 20th century mindset. For example ‘Ideation’ – one of five activity-gons for me at least, is not a part of a phase-plan.

Ideation is everything – it is the water that grows the proto-idea into a fully-fledged experience. Enough said.

I’ll qualify this criticism by drawing attention to the central aspect of design, innovation and 21st. century skills: The essence of dealing with complex challenges is not in solving problems but developing solutions according to understanding of problems concurrently (Co-evolution of problems and solutions; Dorst and Cross).

This understanding is no longer individual, as ‘the expert’ but team based. 

Design Thinking models generally ignore this central aspect – adopting an analysis-synthesis mindset as ‘problem solving’ which in essence, no longer works with real-world challenges.

Real-world challenges is about working with chaos where the problems themselves are obscure and often hard to understand – Horst Rittels ‘Wicked Problems.’ So we need to tackle this by sharing – the more minds tuned in to sharing intelligence, the better.

Let’s make this easy – this is as much about as sharing inspiration as it is sharing ideas – so we can bring minds together in seeking brilliant solutions. There is a ‘big leap’ involved here that is a far-cry from the phased-based, ‘first we do this, then we do that’ of Design Thinking. So why is Design Thinking out-of-date?

Design Thinking is simply over-simplistic … 

I’m not knocking Design Thinking which provides thinking and methodological tools for experts and teams to get to grips with pre-defined challenges. However, in the chaotic whirlpool of increasing change and complexity, muddying up the fresh water with the muddy, it is simply no longer sufficient when dealing with complexity and change management.

Design Thinking therefore needs a more a detailed theoretical framework. Since then it has expanded by many others as a practice-based discourse to encompass the use of design processes in dealing with challenges in society and business.

Design vs. Innovation

Working with real-world challenges, looking for collaboratively-ideated solutions and working with complexity and chaos is what the 21st. century creative process is all about and a far cry from the ordered, logical, progressive mindset inherent in design thinking as defined some thirty years ago.

I prefer to talk about Innovation that Design, developing the core aspects of design but applied collectively in the interests of developing not solutions, the destination, but a vehicle that is capable of selecting a course that rides over obstacles. This is not straight-line strategic planning, progressive design thinking of is it necessaruily logical. It is human centric and accepts the only way to move forward is by mutually cooperation, agreeing who drives and when… design thinking therefore needs updating, since it doesn’t focus on the drive, only the creation of out-of-date roadmaps.

Talking about innovation with lay-people usually gets one of two responses:

‘What is it anyway?’

‘That’s been around for ages, bit of a cliché, isn’t it?’

If only. As Tim Brown CEO at IDEO said @ TED:

“In times of change we need new alternatives, new ideas”.

And as Bob said, times are a changin’. Change means need to change, keep up, get ahead, stay competitive, leap ahead of the competition, provide a fitting response to a societal problem, get to grips with the oceans of data defining the contemporary empricism we know is there, but we just can’t see…

As long is change is around to stay, innovation is going to be around. So no, it’s no cliché – and what it is, is… I’ll answer that in a moment.

So I’ve been putting my mind to shortlisting the criteria re. what Innovation is all as I model-up a re-think of the whole innovation process – using design thinking as a starting point, and seeing how short of the mark it measures up.

Before stating what Innovation is, I’ll kick off by making a small list of what Innovation is NOT:

1. It is not design

I like to ask the simple questions. For most of my life I’ve been asking ‘what is design?’ It is a process and an outcome – there are two aspects for design, and each aspect enjoys a specific relationship as yin and yang:

– A structured approach to generating and developing ideas

– Phase-based: A sequence of activities:

  • Used to approach challenges from a holistic perspective
  • Taking everything that can have an effect into the equation

Design also works from ideas about desired qualities to experiences, sometimes as specified quantities – from the value-based to the material-based. At other times it can be purely experiential – as in sensory perception. Or cognitive, as in learning.

The differences between design and innovation

Design can be a solo-venture. Innovation cannot.

Innovation has one main goal: benefit. Design does not, working with ‘desired future’. Design need not be experimental or necessarily original – how many different designs to we have of the humble alloy wheel? So Innovation needs the new, something original elevating innovation above design on the complexity scale in order to achieve successful and realisable benefit.

Innovation isn’t far removed, enjoying the same fundamentals of creative diversity and the application of thinking to creating desired futures out of a good old fashioned challenge. For innovation to be put into motion, there has to be a need. Design is not the same in this respect: Design works with challenges, envisioning desired futures, but it can be based on wishes rather than needs. Innovation is the response needed to something that has to be solved. Solutions, not permutations of existing approaches that just need tweaking.Innovation works with people to make it happen.

Since innovation is a people-thing, corporate, measurement of benefit don’t come into it: Innovation is as valid in education, the public and private sectors. Neither does it need to have any economic benefit IMHO – just an agreement amongst peers that yes, something of value to the people embracing the innovation has been created. Innovation also works across boundaries and phases – the sequence can just as well be in parallel as phased. In short, innovation has few rules!

2. It is not project management.

– Innovation processes can not be ‘controlled’.

– They are not: top-down strategical – or hierarchical.

– They need to happen by co-creation, not defining agendas in priori for actions.

In short, innovation is about swimming in chaos, and having a great time doing so with a major benefit coming out at the end of it. (All right, there are some aspects of PM that apply, admittedly.)

In innovation practice, roles are flat  – so all have equality of ideation.

So sorry bosses, that means the young kid who has joined the outfit has just as valid a say as you do… and neither do you get to decide over him, since innovation is all about the meeting of minds.

3. It is not brainstorming:

Brainstorming is great for generating ideas, lots of ideas, but it tells is nothing about how to roadmap ideas to outcomes…

4. It is not Problem-Solving (and neither is design)

And god forbid, as is often misunderstood about design, it is certainly not problem-solving. Problems need solutions to be truly understood… problems often need ideating to same extend as the developing solutions they mature from. The term ‘co-evolution’ has been coined to already account for this. (Kees Dorst & Nigel Cross, 2001 Creativity in the Design Process: Co-evolution of Problem-Solving). This way it’s possible to map the ‘unknowing’ to ‘resolution’ simply as a process of progressing from abstract to concrete operating from one domain of ‘problem knowledge’ to ‘solution knowledge’ building bridges between the two activity spaces.

Blurred boundaries between Design, Design Thinking and Innovation

We could say Design Thinking is tactical, Innovation strategic. However, the edges are not clear-cut, perceptions many. Design Thinking can be used to unlock Innovation, but is not Innovation or is it a strategy for Innovation. To provide some clarity here, Alfred Chandler wrote in 1962 that: “Strategy is the determination of the basic long-term goals of an enterprise, and the adoption of courses of action and the allocation of resources necessary for carrying out these goals.”

Design Thinking was born of methodology in telling us what to do, how to do it. It was not enterprise-based but project-based, used to explain what we do so could roadmap a more fitting cognitive approach in getting from existing state A to more desired state B.

Strategy is based on Greek military thinking – strategia means ‘the art of troop leadership or command.’ It is about defining values and setting goals, mobilizing resources to execute actions. It describes how the end will be achieved by the means. How the goals can be achieved by using resources.

Innovation is more fitting in terms of using concept driven strategy – being used to describe how humans inquire, strategically. Design is enquiry, it is also discovery, transforming existing conditions into more desirable ones by thinking. So Design Thinking must surely be Innovation, right?

In the last of this three-part rethink I’ll look at what the updated version of Design Thinking could/ should be.


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