Why design thinking will not save your business

Creative mess or just a mess?Design thinking is a multi-dimensional term, that today is used very freely when talking about business development. A decade ago nobody in business had even heard of this weird lovechild of design and strategic, out-of-the-box thinking, but now it’s everywhere: in strategy papers, business periodicals, blogs and even politics. Design thinking is seen as the answer to the prayers of fading businesses, unengaged organisations and decreasing interest towards public affairs and society.

But here’s the deal: even though you can teach everyone to apply the basic tools of design thinking to their everyday lives (at least according to Tom and David Kelley), just buying post-its and whiteboards, and organising brainstorming sessions every now and then simply will not make your dysfunctioning business suddenly into a blooming one. To fully implement design thinking requires making it an integral part of your business and company culture. And in most cases, doing that would mean a fundamental change of such a magnitude, that most businesses simply aren’t up to it.

So, what is design thinking, and why is it so popular?

Idris Mootee states in her inspiring book Design thinking for Strategic Innovation that design thinking is (among other things) “the search for a magical balance between business and art”, and Michael Roush in his TEDxWorthingtonED talk compared Design Thinking to Leonardo da Vinci, being a genius in both classical arts as well as physics, which are in general considered almost opposites. Design thinking is a way of seeing the world, ready to question the existing norms and restrictions, and actively turning the future better.

Design thinking is more than just gathering and analyzing data, discovering a problem and then fixing it (although they are elements of design thinking processes). Innovations need a creative culture to grow. That means e.g. accepting failures and embracing uncertainties, and willingness to preferably design the future rather than just trying to predict it. If a business is fixed on finding the philosopher’s stone in the financial statements and user NPS, i.e focuses on being reactive instead of being proactive, it probably will not discover the actual business challenges before it’s too late. And if a business can’t address the right problems, how could it find the right solutions that design thinking might have to offer?mindthegap

More than strategy paper jargon

One of the key elements of design thinking is human-centricity, which is why I find the rise of design thinking in business one of the most important and noteworthy trends of the decade. Being human-centered, or responding to human values, means putting the added value that your product or service is bringing your users first, i.e. instead of putting your immediate revenue goals first. And by doing that, your business can create a unique and positive user experience, that outshines the competition.

At this point to businesses embracing the traditional, goods-based logic, this all sounds like an expensive, but in the end a meaningless process. But there is a solid business logic to it: to beat the competition, gain growth and become – or remain – relevant to your users, you need to think bigger than just the end-product. Could your company change the consumption habits of your customers? Why not! That’s where design thinking really can and will bring competitive advantage to your company. If you can’t give your users something extra, something better, then your setup will be second to the business that can.

Design thinking is not a project. It’s a complex, dynamic mindset, that you can foster and nurture, but what you can’t just one day decide to apply on top of your old setting. It takes a lot of time, work and dedication, but in the end, it will be worth it (and all the post-its).


Written by Sara Härmälä

Literature & sources:

Kelley, David and Kelley, Tom: Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All. Crown Business 2013.

Mootee, Idris: Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation: What They Can’t Teach You at Business or Design School. Wiley 2013.

Tschimmel, Katja: Design Thinking as an effective Toolkit for Innovation. In: Proceedings of the XXIII ISPIM Conference: Action for Innovation: Innovating from Experience. Barcelona 2012.

5 thoughts on “Why design thinking will not save your business

  1. You have good points. It is important to understand that just superficially embracing Design Thinking will not save you business and bring forth great success. It is intergal to also change the underlying company philosophy of doing things. This can be difficult especially when people are not used to embracing uncertainty and trusting different type of data (deep user/customer interviews, workshops, testing, etc.) in developing their business.

  2. I liked this blog text. It is very true that without implementing some changes in business strategy, design thinking will easily be a quick fix to problems and empty jargon. However, design thinking workshops can be used as method for creative problem solving. Even though the customer dominant logic does not apply to the whole organisation. It’s a good starting point.

  3. I totally agree with you! When I observe several companies I witness how they buy post-its and furnish creativity rooms but it is actually a desperate attempt to catch up on something they don’t understand but sense to be important. Without fully understanding the mindset of service design thinking and working on a cultural change insight the whole company the creativity rooms will not unfold their potential. I think there is a business leading companies in and through this cultural change and I hope to gain lots of skills from the SID programm so I can be a facilitator to other who want this cultural change to happen.

  4. I fully agree that only organizing brainstorming sessions, business meetings and implementing few ideas will not benefit the organizations or business. Lot of facts need to be considered while creating a new business model or updating the current business model. Deep customer insights through ethnographic research, costumer requirements, expectations about the service etc also need to be considered. Organizations, Businesses and Managers need to think in customer’s perspective and understand what brings value to their customer. It is really required to understand the difference between ‘what company thinks’ and what ‘customer thinks’ that will take the organizations towards success in this century.

    Having said that, basic tools of design thinking, processes and methodologies surely help to organize the missing pieces of the puzzle.

  5. I fully agree with you: design thinking definitely is not a project. Design thinking is not something that grows overnight or starts to bloom as soon as you buy some post-its and organize a couple of workshops. Design thinking, as you stated, is a mindset and it should be an important part of company culture. I believe that businesses and company culture are what the people of the company, both the management and the employees, make of it. Hence, it could also be argued that in order to design thinking (and the business itself) to flourish, it is crucial to find the right people.

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