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.
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.