The Catch Behind Design Thinking

This post is the first of a two-parts article on design thinking co-written with Ralph-Christian Ohr (@ralph_ohr). As businesses are more and more challenged by the wicked nature of the problems they face, whether in strategic or operational context, we need to integrate more divergent and resilient reasoning in our decision-making practices. Cleared from all the fuss which so often surrounds it, design thinking could provide the ongoing transformation of businesses toward “social” with an actionable framework to leverage the true potential of collaboration.

Design Thinking is quite a strange animal. Attempts to define this discipline, in fact as old as creativity, framed by Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO, in his HBR article published in 2008, are as numerous as practical evidence of design thinking in action are. Trying to broaden the scope of design thinking from the design field to the one of complex business and societal problems had raised the need for a much more formalized approach. Practical reasons abound: how could you sell services based on a methodology which only defines and unfolds itself during execution? How could you convince executives that pattern matching and sense-making are as much relevant than proven tracks of expertise in a given domain?

Connecting design thinking with the broader context of problem solving has lead to the growth of two equally harmful myths: the guru designer and practice as a process, emphasizing on subjectivity or linearity where empathy, empowerment and divergent thinking are needed. Design thinking isn’t saving the world or revolutionizing business, for sure, mostly because of these two illusory paths. But before throwing the baby out with the bath water, and stating, with Bruce Nussbaum, that “Design Thinking is a Failed Experiment“, it is worth considering what is turning wrong. Speaking of creativity, learning from failure (if any) is usually a much more fruitful attitude than shooting the messenger.

A process is a process is a process

To allow design thinking to tackle business problems beyond design, it was assimilated to a process. One can easily understand that design thinking doesn’t fit the usual focus on linearity and convergence, so important in the conventional culture for efficiency most organizations emphasize on, and suitable for most traditional innovation approaches. This is an important issue, don’t misunderstand me, but do you really think that companies which give so much credit to Six Sigma or CMMI would welcome design thinking as a serious problem solving discipline? My bet is no. Of course, framing it as such a kind of process was, from the beginning, deemed to failure. There is a problem with “design thinking as a process”, but where does it really lie?

Contrary to expectations, “process”, in the business universe, has no straightforward definition. Processes do not necessarily rely on linearity and certainty might sometimes be fuzzy (think Adaptive Case Management), or divergent. Nevertheless, every flavor of business processes shares a common feature: an intrinsic independence from the people operating them. In this context, even when confronted with the most innovative organizational culture, “design thinking as a process” cannot fit. Not because of the mess and fuzziness associated with creativity, but because of the subjectivity involved: design thinking is highly interpretive and subjective, and most of its outcomes are dependent from the designer’s capabilities. Here lies the catch: this subjectivity is the disease which prevents design thinking from living up to its promise. Here lies also a paradox: subjectivity is as much a problem as it is a necessity. Without it, we fall into the dry world of business processes, unable to sparkle creativity. With too much of it, the ugly head of the guru designer shows up, enforcing a vision which fits more the designer’s ego and reputation than true business needs.

A complex adaptive framework

Most of the problems design thinking intends to solve have no unique formulation, no single solution. Despite the many definitions given, framing design thinking itself is a challenge. For many reasons, it can be considered as a complex adaptive framework aimed at addressing other complex dimensions of business. I view the whole design thinking approach as navigation through a fitness landscape: the problem occupies the base plane, while the third dimension symbolizes the “validity” of possible solutions. Framing the problem means picking up a starting point on the problem plane, then the whole approach consists in climbing up the hills in several directions, through iterative methods, until maxima are reached.

The choice of a starting point is highly subjective, and relies on designers’ personal background, experience, empathy and intuition. There is nothing wrong here, except that complex systems behave according to initial conditions, and this behavior cannot be mastered unless all parameters are known. Little changes might lead to vastly different outcomes, and further actions might well end up in dead-end local maxima, far from optimal solutions. It takes a leap of faith for businesses to follow such tracks. Who will decide which starting point is better, if both satisfy the context? How could the degree of “fitness” of any chosen direction be measured, unless pursuing them all up to the end?

Fractal behavior is another characteristic of complex adaptive systems which closely relates to design thinking. As prototyping and testing takes place, design thinkers progressively gets into details from feedbacks, those details belonging to the same initial formulation of the problem at different scales (global design, ergonomy or touchpoints, realization capabilities,etc), each scale being as important as the initial approach in the overall solution taking shape. A problem is that, at some point, one scale might not fit the solution at all, and little overlooked changes might produce huge changes in the overall system. You might, for example, tumble into a feature which might disrupt the manufacturing capabilities of the company you are working with. At that time, what can be done? It is usually a matter of jettisoning the work made at larger scales and jumping back into a different part of the problem space, switching to a vastly different solution because of a tiny, but critical, detail. Such a disruptive move means creative destruction, and isn’t an easy decision to make, as it involves highly subjective dimensions. Design thinking is about decision making – instead of boiling down a problem to one large decision, designers make lots of little decisions, learnings as they go. Therefore, navigating complex problems and ambiguity through small, iterative trials is highly determined by a subjective and continuously challenged assessment of the context.

Design thinking = critical thinking + design doing

In the hope to be better accepted in the business world, design thinking has given up the subjectivity associated with experimentation, and without which creativity simply doesn’t exist. Similarly, in its search for a better way to find solutions, it has forgotten that problems cannot always be framed without ambiguity.

Back in the eighties, I remember attending a meeting in a Japanese fabric company. The meeting’s goal was to agree on next season’s trends to start the manufacturing of new fabrics. Attendees, which included designers, product and sales managers, discussed about colors and textures for several hours, often taking little thread samples in their hand and rolling them together to get a concrete view of how it would look like. At the end of the meeting, no decision was made. Attendees didn’t agree on anything but general color trends, but kept some of the hand-made thread samples for further exploration and technical feasibility, ready to produce fabric samples for testing.

This was an enlightening experience for me, and still is thirty years later. It superbly illustrates how design thinking could thrive at resolving complex business problems. Critical thinking among stakeholders is a much better way to seed creativity than relying on individual designers. Early parallel and conflicting exploration holds more promise than relying on individual bias. The activity out of which something innovative emerges, is social and highly interpretive. It involves guiding connected conversations among individuals and groups to determine the range of alternatives from which convergent choices are made.

Subjectivity is a key component of design thinking which, to be accepted and profitable for businesses, should be tightly tied to organizational context. This requires a novel, and more resilient, approach to design thinking: we need designers who have a sound understanding of all the parameters involved, leaning on networks and groups of stakeholders, harnessing critical thinking, and linking outcomes to their own range of experience and expertise, through design methods. Let us call that parallelogram-shaped designers (strong specific business understanding linked to strong design expertise) in a collaborative enterprise. I sense this might also be a good definition for management 2.0.

Read Part Two

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14 Responses to The Catch Behind Design Thinking

  1. Great post!

    Subjectivity is about understanding what you know.
    Subjectivity is dynamic, dimensional, complex and chaotic.

    Subjectivity is intuition, inspiration, insight and imagination all of which belong to the creative process of which is highly personal and contextual. Just like value.

    The subjectivity of design thinking is methodical.
    The objectivity of design thinking is processable. “filter”

    If there’s method in someone’s madness, they do things in a strange and unorthodox way, but manage to get results.

    Is it possible then to create a process that filters one’s own methods?

    For example, my own process is…
    Adapt, Address, Advise, Add

    Adapt to your environment, Address your opportunities, Advise your strategies, and add your value

    This process is more of a filter for my methods.
    My methods entail observational research, ethnography, empathy, inspiration, intuition, imagination, insight, experience, personality, characteristics, it’s my contextual value.

    But it’s subjective. I understand this

    Design thinking really takes affect when you have something to filter, situational at best.

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Thanks a lot Spiro.

      I really like your idea of process as a filter. In fact, this is very close to the first result I got when googling it: “a continuing natural or biological activity or function” (from the Merriam Webster).

      If we step out the conventional business context, processes are natural, continuous, cyclic, and even resilient. They are the mechanism which sustains life itself.

      But I am not sure that businesses are ready for such an organic definition of work. What do you think?

  2. Hi Thierry,

    Yesterday I read a post that says…”Rather than frame design thinking as a process, I’ve begun to think about it as a (1)”set of skills” that we (2)”need to develop” to (3)”support innovation” (4)”throughout an organization”

    (1) Set of skills – A method is the “special way” you adopt in performing your task
    (2) Need to develop – A process is the way you do something throughout the “act of doing it”,
    (3) Support Innovation – framework, best practices, models

    Subjective set of skills: Information, Insight, Intuition, Inspiration, Imagination = Experience
    Objective set of skills, Diverging, Story telling, Engagement, Empathy = Observation

    We filter skills to develop ideas, we develop ideas to support Innovation, we support innovation throughout the organization

    Process as a filter = Design thinking
    Design thinking – a continual natural activity/function, continuous, cyclic, resilient a mechanism that sustains life itself.

    Let’s start with “special way” here are a few examples:
    Value Co Creation, Outcome Driven Innovation, Service Design, Service Dominant Logic, Productive thinking, Creative Thinking, and many many “special ways”

    If these are methods then we must be able to process this, thus the “act of doing it” is the process in itself, by doing it you are (should be) supported by a culture of innovation (framework, models, best practices)

    Eveything needs to be filtered to process..


    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Process as a filter, yes. But… filter as a process? I rather see filtering as a skill, or even better, as a meta-skill, which help tying other skills to context. I’m not really literate in neurosciences, but I see those as the “infrastructure” of our cognition.
      Among other meta-skills: pattern matching, sense making, … An important implication is that they cannot be learnt like other skills. Talents?

      • I was just about to comment on how I hope this post keeps gathering momentum. 🙂

        I agree with the implication of “cannot be learnt” even “serendipity” is something that one recognizes rather than learns.

        I’m don’t know if you are familiar with the Kiersey Tempermant Sorter,

        “infrastructure of cognition” interesting choice of words…

        In some ways this is what Kiersey does, it provides you with an “overview” of “skills” that compliment “who you are”

        Obviously this is just a reference for understanding. My point is in relation to design thinking as Jose mentioned is to first approach it as a mindset.

        Perhaps that notion in itself would help those who can benefit from using their skills with best practices to take ideas to action.

        Great discussion!

        • Thierry de Baillon says:

          I am familiar with MBTI but didn’t really know about Kiersey’s work. ( Interestingly enough, this kind of tests are much more common in the Anglo-Saxon world than they are in France. )

          Skills versus capabilities, process versus mindset… This is a really interesting debate, in a world where metrics matter so much. It also means TRUST versus ROI, Businesses rely on personal and subjective bias (don’t tell me that CEOs are the most objective and cartesian individuals) but are ruled by a rigidity inherited from XIXth century… The biggest chasm ever.

  3. Hi Thierry!
    Thanks for this great article in my opinion a great contribution to “an adaptive landscape” or convergence of business and design thinking.
    In fact facing the conventional culture of efficiency it can be difficult to identify the value of design thinking as a competitive advantage for companies and that’s why it is important that the language used by both sides is understandable.

    In my opinion the point made of subjectivity can be a good example. While “design thinking is highly interpretive and subjective, and most of the results depends on the skills of the designer, on the other hand, conventional organizations highlight is the analytical thinking and reliability where data analysis (past experiences) and their use to provide, in addition to being a creative act is also a fallacy, when companies want something truly innovative.

    Another point that I find extremely important is the reference to “context” organizational which I believe is an asset to avoid transfer of alleged errors of good or best practices so common in traditional organizations.

    Finally I must agree that there is needs for design thinkers have an understanding more “real” what are the implications of an organizational context for work to develop, the simple to the complex situation, which is not possible without a significant experience in this field.

    I think that this requirement is satisfied if the design thinking is seen as a mindset.

    These are my two cents

    Jose Baldaia

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Thanks for leaving your two cents Jose 🙂

      I agree on viewing design thinking as a mindset; that was the idea behind management 2.0.

      You are also totally right on saying that, for any convergence to take place, a common language must be found. I would even say common values.
      Speaking of processes, they are often considered, in business context, as black boxes: organizations focus on the result, quite never on the journey. This is a cultural matter too. French education, for instance, focus much more on the result than on developing children’s capabilities, which explain why French companies are so reluctant to adopt social business values. Customer centricity is still far far away…

  4. Rotkapchen says:

    Probably the most underrated, highest potential term in this piece — in terms of a search for a ‘new way’: fractal behavior. Love that term. Mulling now…great clue.

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      We often consider networks and communities as being “more than the sum of the parts”. But what if the part IS the whole (albeit with less details)?
      Holograms are a good example of this.
      If we consider businesses, more than a few organizations are in fact the mirror of their CEO’s personality. I begin to consider fractal behaviors as a key to harmonious OD as well as to “socialize” our systems. Humans have a left and a right brain, but businesses are mostly built on the left brain. Social businesses (gosh, I begin to hate this terminology) shouldn’t aim at replacing left by right, but at combining best of both worlds.

  5. Rotkapchen says:

    There’s something else important that you bring out here: no decision was made. This falls in line with something that @thedesignkata tries to bring up a lot: being at silence with the issue. Although this is a bit more than that. Indeed, I think that we grossly underestimate the value of the simple sharing-to-minimize-personal-bias — because of the impact it has on the more than MANY decisions that get made on a regular basis around the problem — any one of which could derail any of the ‘best’ answers.

    What you’ve described might effectively be akin to ‘setting the stage’ for the solution to emerge. And clearly, from your second part, that’s really the goal for wicked problems, is it not?

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Yes it is.
      Decision making to often appears to be a Gordian knot cutting solution. While it allows for cutting through context to give an answer, it obliterates most of the potential wicked problems have to teach us novel approaches.
      Isn’t that paradoxical that this “Gordian knot” metaphor has been used for many years to illustrate the fact that oblique thinking hold a better promise than analytical thinking, but that it finally comes short when considering the nature of the problem by itself?

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