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?
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.