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.”
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:
- Define the problem in terms of the customer/user and what the desired outcome of a solution might be.
- Research knowledge and peripheral information and generate insight about the problem.
- Ideation of context, perspectives, and needs without bias or judgment.
- Prototype and mock up ideas and combinations of ideas and share with prospective customers/users.
- Choose a solution based on best outcome for the customer/user, not best technical design or practicality.
- Implement solution through standard process management.
- 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.