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Design_Thinking, Andrew_Stein, MBA, Chief_Marketing_Officer, Global_CMO, VP, Marketing_Strategy, Operations, Outside_Director, Board_Member, Technology, Services, Energy, Oil_&_Gas, Geologist, Mining, SteinVoxIt’s time to consider what to embrace as the New Year starts. Consider replacing, or augmenting innovation with design thinking.

One of the most beautiful airports in the U.S. is Reagan National, in Washington, DC. Compared to to the stark prison-like concrete structures in so many cities, this airport has a cathedral quality – I understand is the result of design thinking.

Please don’t misunderstand, I am a huge believer in  “innovation,” but the term has become over-used, and its meaning is often lost. Many companies believe innovation is a noun, not a verb (or process). And innovation is regularly confused with “invention,” alone. Innovation seems to have lost its alignment with supporting anchors such as values, pervasiveness, creativity, teamwork, customer-centricity, user-experience, collaboration, inquisitiveness and curiosity.

Design Thinking, An Economic Need

Design Thinking is a concept which fits our collective economic need to keep growth momentum going in 2013. From customer service and operations to marketing and sales, it is a great topic that everyone can embrace. And like many other agendas, there is little argument to resist it. It is something that can apply to strategy and goals for everyone. Design thinking can apply to every goal set by management and individuals, so it is truly pervasive.

What is Design Thinking?

You may have heard the term, and even been exposed to the concept. While still evolving, and studied in business academia, it does have depth and is well grounded. Design thinking as a concept has been around since the art and science of design and architecture has been building structures that met the needs of users.

Wikipedia suggests that the term “first emerged prominently in the 1980s with the rise of human-centered design.” However it is first mentioned in literature in 1969 by Herbert A. Simon, in his book “The Sciences of the Artificial.” Wikipedia defines it this way.

“As a style of thinking, design thinking is generally considered the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem; creativity in the generation of insights and solutions; and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context.”

Wikipedia goes on to say that design thinking is gaining awareness and prominence in many domains outside of traditional creative design, and is further characterized as follows:

“The premise is that by knowing about the process and the methods that designers use to ideate, and by understanding how designers approach problems to try to solve them, individuals and businesses will be better able to connect with and invigorate their ideation processes in order to take innovation to a higher level.”

First Exposure

For me, I was first exposed to design thinking in the mid 1990’s when I met Phil Bernstein. Phil became my boss at Autodesk, when he joined from César Pelli Architects, to lead the Building Industry Division. Phil was a technologist, an architect and a professor at Yale University, and in no time, had me reading Negroponte, Birkhäuser, and other visionaries in seeing the promise of technology to drive design thinking to new levels of experience for people who use buildings (everyone).

At the time, Phil’s team used design thinking to ideate a replacement term for “form follows function” style of architectural design process coined by Horatio Greenough.

Design Thinking Process

While design thinking is an innovation approach that aggregates ideas in an iterative process that promotes unique and unusual ideas, and rewards failure, such that the resulting design has limited technological, or leadership bias in its outcome. The emphasis on collaboration also drives broad ownership for the success of solutions that come about through design thinking.

Moreover, the iterative process employs an often specific and generally aggressive pursuit of elegance by involving interactive user / customer perspectives and input during the process. In this way, the user / customer input has evaluated and defined acceptance, usability, practicality, and simplicity of the resulting solution. The general steps in the process of design thinking are:

  1. Define the problem in terms of the customer/user and what the desired outcome of a solution might be.
  2. Research knowledge and peripheral information and generate insight about the problem.
  3. Ideation of context, perspectives, and needs without bias or judgment.
  4. Prototype and mock up ideas and combinations of ideas and share with prospective customers/users.
  5. Choose a solution based on best outcome for the customer/user, not best technical design or practicality.
  6. Implement solution through standard process management.
  7. Learn from the experience – internal post-mortem review and customer/user surveys.

More Thoughts on Design Thinking

Design thinking, by its nature and foundation can help produce solutions to much larger and difficult problems, often referred to as “wicked problems”. When I worked for Phil Bernstein, “wicked” was a common adjective used in our New Hampshire office for precisely this kind of problem. By using design thinking, these more difficult problems can be broken down into manageable pieces.

The enemy of design thinking is fear and unwillingness to let go. In many companies, there often is predisposed “ownership” of problem solving. As an organizational problem leadership must set the rules of engagement to stamp it out of the culture. Not everyone in an organization will work well in a design thinking context.

Design thinking is conducive to a learning organization of the type every MBA should be aware of and nurture in practice. Modern organizations are constantly evolving through learning, and this requires a culture that does not manage or lead by fear. It requires empowerment and an unbiased approach to ideation that enables everyone to have a creative voice in the solution.

More to Ponder

There’s much more to this process, for sure. There are many good consultants (like me) that can help plant the seeds in your organization. But do one thing right – don’t jump in as vogue or topic du jour. Don’t just use the word, but fully implement design thinking by making it part of your company’s culture.

This may well be more likely to happen, and easier to do, than innovation, just by the nature of all the superfluous noise around innovation initiatives, consulting approaches and strategies available today. People in many organizations have the perception that innovation has to do with product design, alone. They don’t’ easily understand that one can innovate more broadly. For example to innovate way the phone is answered or how a company responds to customer questions.

But design thinking is something everyone can do. All one needs to do is apply “design thinking” (think in terms of designing) the response, answer or solution to the expectations of the target customer, audience or user. Innovate? Yes! Use design thinking to do it better? Absolutely.

Please share your thoughts with other readers by leaving a comment.

Image credit: JanetandPhil via photopin cc , Featured Image: JanetandPhil via photopin cc

20 Responses to Tip for 2013–Replace Innovation with Design Thinking

  1. Jean-Claude Vandonghen says:

    An interesting take on the subject (in French for those who read it) : http://innovation-design-thinking.blogspot.fr/2013/04/think-design-and-rest-will-follow.html – it reminds me of Michel Foucault in an interview after he published “Les Mots et les Choses” – “The Order of Things” : “Thinking needs to rethink itself.”

  2. […] Replace / augment innovation w/ design thinking in strategy. It applies pervasively across the organization.  […]

  3. […] Replace / augment innovation w/ design thinking in strategy. It applies pervasively across the organization.  […]

  4. […] "I am a huge believer in “innovation,” but the term has become over-used, and its meaning is often lost. And innovation is regularly confused with “invention,” alone. Innovation seems to have lost its alignment with supporting anchors such as values, pervasiveness, creativity, teamwork, customer-centricity, user-experience, collaboration, inquisitiveness and curiosity." Design thinking can apply to every goal set by management and individuals, so it is truly pervasive.Design thinking is an innovation approach that aggregates ideas in an iterative process that promotes unique and unusual ideas, and rewards failure, such that the resulting design has limited technological, or leadership bias in its outcome. The emphasis on collaboration also drives broad ownership for the success of solutions.Design thinking, by its nature and foundation can help produce solutions to much larger and difficult problems, often referred to as “wicked problems”. The enemy of design thinking is fear and unwillingnessto let go.  […]

  5. […] Replace / augment innovation w/ design thinking in strategy. It applies pervasively across the organization.  […]

  6. […] Replace / augment innovation w/ design thinking in strategy. It applies pervasively across the organization.  […]

  7. […] "I am a huge believer in “innovation,” but the term has become over-used, and its meaning is often lost. And innovation is regularly confused with “invention,” alone. Innovation seems to have lost its alignment with supporting anchors such as values, pervasiveness, creativity, teamwork, customer-centricity, user-experience, collaboration, inquisitiveness and curiosity." Design thinking can apply to every goal set by management and individuals, so it is truly pervasive.Design thinking is an innovation approach that aggregates ideas in an iterative process that promotes unique and unusual ideas, and rewards failure, such that the resulting design has limited technological, or leadership bias in its outcome. The emphasis on collaboration also drives broad ownership for the success of solutions.Design thinking, by its nature and foundation can help produce solutions to much larger and difficult problems, often referred to as “wicked problems”. The enemy of design thinking is fear and unwillingnessto let go.  […]

  8. […] "I am a huge believer in “innovation,” but the term has become over-used, and its meaning is often lost. And innovation is regularly confused with “invention,” alone. Innovation seems to have lost its alignment with supporting anchors such as values, pervasiveness, creativity, teamwork, customer-centricity, user-experience, collaboration, inquisitiveness and curiosity." Design thinking can apply to every goal set by management and individuals, so it is truly pervasive.Design thinking is an innovation approach that aggregates ideas in an iterative process that promotes unique and unusual ideas, and rewards failure, such that the resulting design has limited technological, or leadership bias in its outcome. The emphasis on collaboration also drives broad ownership for the success of solutions.Design thinking, by its nature and foundation can help produce solutions to much larger and difficult problems, often referred to as “wicked problems”. The enemy of design thinking is fear and unwillingnessto let go.  […]

  9. […] Replace / augment innovation w/ design thinking in strategy. It applies pervasively across the organization. Design thinking is better than innovation alone  […]

  10. […] Replace / augment innovation w/ design thinking in strategy. It applies pervasively across the organization. Design thinking is better than innovation alone  […]

  11. […] Replace / augment innovation w/ design thinking in strategy. It applies pervasively across the organization. Design thinking is better than innovation alone  […]

  12. […] Replace Innovation with Design Thinking […]

  13. […] Replace / augment innovation w/ design thinking in strategy. It applies pervasively across the organization.  […]

  14. Kate Degnan says:

    You tease out and clarify several important concepts here, Andrew. I agree that the term ‘innovation’ has lost meaning and am wary that ‘design thinking’ is being used as a synonym and the same fate will befall it. DT is a powerful method. Although I originally used it for architectural/environmental design, I’ve found it highly applicable in a wide range of business contexts. I believe this is because DT is grounded in human factors/customer behaviors AND the realistic and practical contexts in which these behaviors occur AND explicitly considers desired goals and final outcomes from the start of the process.

    • Thank you Kate. You add great insight. As business seeks out a strategy for 2013, and the usual buzzwords come up, followed by the expected corporate cultural antibodies, I’m somewhat OK with the parity between the terms. The collective objective, I think, is to get the economic engine started. I think DT can help.

  15. Mark Olivito says:

    Great article! Innovation is certainly the lifeblood of competitive advantage, but it requires discipline! Love your step #4, customer is often the forgotten piece until too deep into the process.

    • Andrew Stein says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mark. I firmly agree with you about the customer. The advent of “social transparency” is a great catalyst for this – and may well break down legacy barriers to innovation.

  16. Design Thinking is what any successful designer or manager has been doing since time began.
    It is not something senior executives have been doing consciously however except for the more creative leaders lie Sir Richard Branson.
    I do think DT is. Band wagon fashion rather than a serious business development concept. This is because it has the words ‘design thinking’ in it. To be taken seriously it needs to say, ‘ improving your bottom line for long term investors and finance controllers’ as as much as the Industrial Revolution proves DT it is the shareholders who control the business world. We need Obama and Cameron et al to get on this bandwagon for a start. We need designers on main boards of large companies…something that the thickest glass ceilings currently prevent.

    • Andrew Stein says:

      Excellent point on the perception of Design Thinking. I agree with you and see it as perhaps a catalyst to get the economic engine going. Globally, not enough innovation is getting the visibility it needs over traditional leadership response to economic downturn (cost cutting, eliminate new projects, drop marketing efforts, etc.) If by calling it something new, it get’s traction – that’s success. I toiled over the title verb “Replace” vs. “Augment” and opted for the attention-grabbing word. Thank you Christopher for making these good points.

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