Revisiting Design Thinking

Current State and Recent Challenges of the Concept

 

In autumn 2009 Tim Brown published his influential book ‘Change by Design’, an introduction to Design Thinking for business leaders. Shortly thereafter, in early 2010, I read it for the first time while studying in a post-graduate course at the HPI School of Design Thinking. Now, five years later, I am studying Design Thinking again as part of Laurea’s MBA programme, while Brown shares an update in HBR’s latest edition and — simultaneously — the HPI publishes a large study on the current state of the concept. Time for a review of the concept and its application.

Design Thinking Literature 2015

The Many Meanings of Design Thinking
In 2009, Brown described Design Thinking as a set of principles, as an exploratory, human-centred process and systematic approach to innovation that can be applied for problem solving. He argued that it balances the perspectives of users, technology, and business. Throughout the book he named its ingredients, ideal organisational setup-up, its divergent and convergent phases. Eventually he pitched the idea that the presented techniques, originated in design studios, should spread inside of organisations and be integrated by other disciplines. Brown suggested to use Design Thinking within interdisciplinary teams to manage innovation portfolios and transform organisations.

The Practitioner’s Point of View
According to a recently published study Brown’s hopes became realities — at least partly. Yet, as diverse as Brown described the concept of Design Thinking (principles, techniques, process) in 2009 as much ambiguity did a group of HPI researchers find now when questioning international practitioners through a survey and qualitative interviews. While almost all survey respondents described it as an ‘iterative process’, only about 60% named it a ‘method or methodology’. Only a tenth of the participants referred to it as a ‘culture’.

In Brown’s vision the entire organisation would commit itself to this human-centred practise. What might start off in an innovation cell would then branch out and be applied to bigger projects. Eventually Design Thinking would become integrated into all of the organisation’s processes and be holistically embedded. The study findings, however, show that in practise such deep cultural integration is far from being the norm. For 3/4 of the organisations which apply Design Thinking it is located ‘somewhere in the organisation’, predominantly in a dedicated department. For about 1/6 Design Thinking is being used for strategic management and decision making. Only a little more than a quarter of the participants stated that it is intrinsic to the overall culture. Most likely Design Thinking is currently localised in a special function instead of being widely embraced, the researchers conclude. 10% of the respondents even stated that they abandoned the concept in the meantime.

To Design Thinking through Design Thinking
While Brown highlighted the broad application of Design Thinking, the researchers were surprised to find it being often used as a programme for internal change-making. This theme was identified as an even stronger aspect than its application for the development of new product and service offerings.

In his autumn 2015 article Brown argues that an introduction of design thinking to the organisation through Design Thinking is critical for its success. More important than the design of products, strategies or complex systems is the acceptance of the new process by key stakeholders, he claims. Executives can feel threatened as the introduction of new working practises and consequently new business models or organisational set-ups might challenge their current position or the prevailing power structure. Brown suggests an ‘intervention design’ with iterative rapid prototyping. Such “iterative interaction with the decision maker” would allow a senior management team to be constantly involved in the development of the new system and get familiar with a relative revolution step by step.

The practitioners of Design Thinking might be on the right track by applying the concept to the organisation in parallel to the development of new offerings. Thereby they can establish a common understanding of its capabilities and spread the mindset without overruling anyone. Such an approach might have been the missing recipe for the 10% of companies which have already abandoned Design Thinking. Using Design Thinking truly holistically can help paving the way to a broader understanding and acceptance of the concept.

 

Written by Martin Jordan

Sources
Brown, Tim 2009. Change by design: how design thinking can transform organizations and inspire innovation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

 

Brown, Tim & Martin, Roger 2015. Design for Action. Harvard Business Review, September, 57-64. https://hbr.org/2015/09/design-for-action

 

Schmiedgen, Jan, Rhinow, Holger, Köppen, Eva & Meinel, Christoph. 2015. Parts without a whole? The Current State of Design Thinking Practise in Organisations. Potsdam: Hasso-Plattner-Institute, University of Potsdam.

 

Tschimmel, Katja 2012. Design Thinking as an effective Toolkit for Innovation. In: Proceedings of the XXIII ISPIM Conference: Action for Innovation: Innovating from Experience. Barcelona. http://www.academia.edu/1906407/Design_Thinking_as_an_effective_Toolkit_for_Innovation

10 thoughts on “Revisiting Design Thinking

  1. Great points you’ve raised there! I definitely agree with your view that using Design Thinking holistically is the way to go. It is (unfortunately) so ingrained in many executives’ minds that they can only be successful if they (alone) have come up with an idea that is successfully executed and they are afraid to let go of their power. You often see in companies that change happens little by little as executives ‘ease into’ new ways of doing things. ‘Iterative interaction’ that Brown speaks of might just be the answer for adopting new ways of doing things in companies.

  2. Excellent overview! One could actually find Design Thinking a very natural choice for implementing internal organizational change. The change is way more likely to succeed if it is planned by the organization itself, rather than being pushed from outside. Design Thinking is by nature a collective exercise which makes it a good fit for organization-grown change.
    As for those 10% that abandoned the concept, it may simply be that they have fallen into the “purpose vs. method” trap. In the beginning Design Thinking should be simply treated as a method to reach the desired state. It is very easy to misunderstand Design Thinking as being itself a purpose of a company wide initiative. Then it becomes something that everyone fanatically believes in but no one knows why. Instead it should be treated as a method for solving a particular problem and reaching some desired state. Only after a number of problems solved we can start talking about the company-wide culture.

  3. Excellent overview! One could actually find Design Thinking a very natural choice for implementing internal organizational change. The change is way more likely to succeed if it is planned by the organization itself, rather than being pushed from outside. Design Thinking is by nature a collective exercise which makes it a good fit for organization-grown change.
    As for those 10% that abandoned the concept, it may simply be that they have fallen into the “purpose vs. method” trap. In the beginning Design Thinking should be simply treated as a method to reach the desired state. It is very easy to misunderstand Design Thinking as being itself a purpose of a company wide initiative. Then it becomes something that everyone fanatically believes in but no one knows why. Instead it should be treated as a method for solving a particular problem and reaching some desired state. Only after a number of problems solved we can start talking about the company-wide culture.

    • Good point, Nenad. ‘purpose vs. method’ trap fits well. One might have an advantage when understanding the current adaptation level of design thinking in the organisation. Therefore I find a couple of models useful:

      1. ‘Conceptual Model of Design Thinking’ by Ingo Rauth et al. — it describes three levels of design thinking:
      a) Level 3 – ‘techniques’, containing “methods and tools supporting practices and the development of minds”. The techniques support the next level
      b) Level 2 – ‘practices’ (“ways of working”) and ‘mindsets’ (“attitudes, ways of thinking”)
      c) Level 1 – ‘principles’. These principles are embodied in the mindsets, and enacted through the practices.
      You can find a visualisation of the model here: http://thisisdesignthinking.net/on-design-thinking/discourse/

      2. A second model I find useful is a visualisation of where the design function is located within the larger organisation it supports. Prof Sabine Junginger made the following helpful differentiation:
      a) Separate – design is only an external resource
      b) Peripheral – design is somewhere part of the organisation
      c) Central – design is at the core of the organisation
      d) Integrated – design is integral to all aspects of the organisation
      Especially the latter is very rare in the business world. Apart from Apple and maybe Dyson, this seems to be a unicorn to me. The model is used as an illustration of this article of the brilliant Hugh Dubberly: http://www.dubberly.com/articles/stevejobs.html

      3. The third model I like to quote at least every other week is Stefanie Di Russo’s ‘Stratification of Design Thinking’ pyramid. It differentiates four levels of complexities of where design (thinking) is applied. The four levels are:
      a) Artefacts – as produced through product, interior, graphic design
      b) Artefact & Experience – as created through engineering, interaction design and human-centred design
      c) Systems & Behaviour – as build through urban planning, architecture, service design, strategic design
      d) Large Scale Systems – as realised through policy design, infrastructure, public design
      One might argue that a ‘classical’ designers work ends at the level 2 or 3, but a design thinking, I would argue, has to be ready to go high up in the pyramid and tackle as well large scale systems. You can find an illustration of Ms Di Russo’s model here: https://ithinkidesign.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/design-wars/

      Am very happy to discuss all these models face-to-face – and, in best case, learn about some more, too …

  4. Hi Martin,
    I really like your points and summary. I think the study shows the excellent progress that has happened in organizations in the last 6 years. Organizational change is in my opinion always super slow because: 1. people don’t like change 2. people/executives/employees want to see proofs/results before they commit to the new approach. I think that the evidence of setting up internal design thinking teams proves that executives see design thinking as competence important enough to have in house. Really curious to find out how the practitioners’ view of design thinking will change in the next 2-3 years

  5. I really like your points and summary. I think the study shows the excellent progress that has happened in organizations in the last 6 years. Organizational change is in my opinion always super slow because: 1. people don’t like change 2. people/executives/employees want to see proofs/results before they commit to the new approach. I think that the evidence of setting up internal design thinking teams proves that executives see design thinking as competence important enough to have in house. Really curious to find out how the practitioners’ view of design thinking will change in the next 2-3 years

  6. Good overview of DT. I agree that there is many place you could use Design thinking. I also feel that is something that should be known by higher managers so that they would implement it to their decision making and also appreciate DT as tool in company. As many cases you could use methods as faster tool for results. It is not always just for three days workshop in forest and making new products.

  7. I like the wider aspect of Design Thinking you stated. I see that DT process is easy to communicate to the whole organization as it can be visualized. When organization is familiar with the DT process and its helping tools and methods in their daily work, it is natural to use DT also in change management situations or e.g. when formulating strategy as everybody is using the same common language. DT guides the whole organization to the same map “mental space” and on the way helps people to collaborate naturally and create internal changes together.

  8. Thank you for the recent update on Brown´s article and the HPI research! I enjoyed reading your blog because of the perspective of reviewing DT in larger context. The HPI research clearly shows that incorporating DT thinking into organisations is not easy, and we are in the beginning of that journey.

  9. A great overview of the subject. My co-worker commented that Design thinking has become a bit of a buzzword and asked me to explain what it actually means. Your post was a really helpful tool to actually explain it.

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