Design Thinking

The romance of design is alive and well, but the effectiveness and applicability of design thinking is not appreciated as a widespread business strategy. Endeavoring to illuminate this concept, author Tim Brown uses case studies and design and business acumen in Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. Brown is the CEO and president of IDEO, a Palo Alto-based self-described global design consultancy creating “impact through design.” In the words of Brown, design thinking is “an approach to innovation that is…broadly accessible, that can be integrated into all aspects of business and society, and that individuals and teams can use to generate breakthrough ideas that are implemented and therefore have an impact.” Whereas design focuses on creative inputs to create products, design thinking advocates risk-taking and exploration to foster true innovation. In a timely reference, Brown postulates that “design thinking may be one of the most profitable practices a corporation can adopt during a recession.”

In supporting his claim of the importance of design thinking, beyond that of just simply design and applying the processes to business strategy, Brown speaks of the importance of generating ideas and concepts, not products, that have not existed before and that “articulate the latent needs [people] may not even know they have.” For it is the design thinker, not the designer, that fosters innovation through “ideation” and implementation.

The result is a focus on experience. The importance of experience is equal to, if not more important than, an actual product being delivered. This is another difference between solitary design and whole-process design thinking. Experience is based on consumer participation, authenticity, and precision. This is where design thinking crosses the threshold of applicability from products to services, and brings to light methods to apply the premise to methods of thought, delivery, and implementation.

Brown describes the process of design thinking, building first upon the importance of broadening options, or ideas, through divergent thinking. This simple first step multiplies options to create choices. The realities of the business world, however (and this is where Brown legitimizes his own theories and practices in the world of 21st-century capitalism), dictate that time and money constraints require ideas to converge at some point. After all, it is not a viable business strategy to simply create options. At some point, decisions need to be made. In all, balancing divergent thinking with convergent realities is a delicate balance act necessary to advance the most promising ideas. Deadlines, Brown says, serve to provide a level of discipline to the process.

Divergence is built on collaboration. Multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary differ, however, and the former is inferior to the latter. Multi-disciplinary work groups are individuals working in skills silos, honing their skills independent of others and then sharing results. Inter-disciplinary represents experts working across skill sets, thereby promoting active collaboration by bringing ranges of thoughts to bear upon one another.

Although breakthrough ideas are usually the result of serendipity and unpredictability, effective design thinking is framed by “criteria for successful ideas” – feasibility, viability, and desirability. Change by Design succeeds by combining business realities with design creativity, much as combining an MBA with a MFA provides the most effective academic arsenal for design thinking. There is a competitive advantage in balancing “management’s legitimate requirement for stability, efficiency, and predictability with the design thinker’s need for spontaneity, serendipity, and experimentation.”

The success of Change by Design rests squarely on Brown’s ability to show the value of design sensibilities and processes on traditional business and management sensibilities and processes. While there is a very useful summary at the conclusion of the book, resisting the urge to skip to the end rewards the reader with illuminating real world case studies and insightful strategic initiatives. As we collectively navigate forward, the designer will learn his or her role as it relates to business, and the businessperson likewise will understand the importance of design thinking as a credible foundation for future success.

The separation of products and services is blurring, reinforcing the importance of experiences and “a new participatory social contract.” Those best equipped to apply design thinking to business realities will have a competitive advantage. It is not about trading one way of thinking for another, but, rather, redirecting so that “successes can be cumulative.”