What’s killing ‘design thinking’?

Is ‘design thinking’ a dinosaur yet?

Discussions of design thinking across the blogosphere and business press range from evangelical to critical to terminal, with commentator Bruce Nussbaum declaring the emperor dead or at least out to pasture. In April 2011 Nussbaum argued that there were ‘far too many failures’ in this process.  CEOs took to the process side of ‘design thinking’, implementing it like Six Sigma and other efficiency-based processes, he claimed.  But such an approach could never deliver the heavy lifting of a viable innovation process.

…it was denuded of the mess, the conflict, failure, emotions, and looping circularity that is part and parcel of the creative process. In a few companies, CEOs and managers accepted that mess along with the process and real innovation took place. In most others, it did not. As practitioners of design thinking in consultancies now acknowledge, the success rate for the process was low, very low.

If that wasn’t enough, in September 2011 he argued that American CEOs who initially enthused on ‘design thinking’ either did not understand it or ignored its lessons as they proceeded to deliver the same earnings-driven formula of cost-cutting, off-shoring and knowledge-stripping in the process.

It is true that there continues to be a vacuum of innovation stories that are directly accountable to ‘design thinking’.

Not everyone agrees with Nussbaum.  Dominic Basulto in his post ‘Can Design Thinking Save the Economic Dinosaurs?‘ argues that design thinking continues to be misunderstood.  Design thinking, he argues, ‘is not just something you can sprinkle on the top of an existing business model — it requires a long-term commitment to fundamentally changing the corporate DNA’.  Simplicity is the most effective adoption lubricant.  Even if the internals of the innovation are as complex as a dynamic derivative market, the device will sell if it’s a cinch to use.  If the angel investor can’t get the idea from your taxi-pitch, your complexity is showing.

John Nash commented that Nussbaum’s argument focuses only on ‘a narrow band of design thinking’s application: within the corporate sector and as sold/applied by misguided boutique consultancies’.  Design thinking is only a failure to the extent that organisations are not willing to do the hard work it takes to reap the benefits, just as Tim Brown has himself admitted on YouTube no less (see earlier).  This comment is closer to the truth.  ‘Design thinking’ gets you to the starting line.  The marathon is still ahead.

Whereas Nussbaum points the finger at America’s business-results driven corporate culture, I see the problem as one of organisational aversion to change.  Whether it be entropy or inflexibility, culture or the innate desire to preserve the status quo, The Organisation will kill most design thinking innovations before they see the glint in a customer’s eye.

The free market plays its part, as does the bleeding edge of the services industry that furnishes so many consultants, thought-leaders and design thinking mentors to excite and dispatch its design thinking harpoons into fleshy organisational enclaves.   Like a whale, the Organisation little more than flinches with the first strike.  Unlike a whale, the Organisation usually overpowers the hunter. It lumbers on, doing what it has always done, awaiting the fate that the market and consumer sentiment will undoubtedly hand out in its own time.


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