Design Thinking – background

Design Thinking is all the rage nowadays. It is by far the most commercially viable embodiment of the argument for augmenting creativity in the workplace. According to the DT school of thought, creativity has something to do with open-ended thinking. That is because design, as practiced in both the arts and sciences, is an open-ended endeavor. One could tell Picasso to paint a “good” painting, but adding more specific requirements would likely only reduce the genius of the ensuing work. Similarly, one could not tell Einstein “concentrate on improving Maxwell’s equations” and expect him to come up with the Theory of Relativity.

The world, and particularly the business world, has arguably been dominated by engineers at least ever since the wild success of the Industrial Revolution and before then, the success of the scientific revolution ushered in by Newton. While engineers exercise limited judgement often in the form of trade-offs as a way to meet prescribed requirements, a designer imagines never-before-seen function and form. While an engineer optimizes, a designer creates.

Design thinkers argue that we have inherited organizations that do too much optimizing and too little blank sheet of paper imagining. While art has certainly been influenced by the larger societal evolution, it has remained mostly outside the quest for optimization. Artists are designers by definition. And so, the DT movement can be seen as an attempt to infuse art back into the broader act of managing organizations, institutions, entire societies. In essence, this is what Design Thinking is about.

Design Thinking – implementation perspectives

When we as a species stumble on a good thing, we want to implement it en-masse. That is we want to scale it to the larger society. And “scaling” often means productizing, processualizing, procedualizing. In short, all practices to industrialize an idea. But industrialization and creativity are like Superman and Kryptonite. Industrialization aims for repeatable process which limits thinking and choice. For this reason things are a bit more convoluted when it comes to DT implementation.

Some of the DT “philosophers”, people like Roger Martin of the Martin Prosperity Institute, are smart enough to stay away from the pitfalls of implementation. They define DT as a dichotomy contrasting the thinking required for optimization and creative invention. Study the dichotomy, figure out how you might reinforce the designer side of you, and maybe inspire others to do the same.

The movement also attracts its share of the “certification minded” practitioners who see no problem with hijacking the very essence of the philosophy in pursuit of scalability. Having participated in a few large group DT events, I can describe the generic scenario. It goes something like this. A large group is given a problem solving exercise. Inevitably the group is given a process to follow. The time and resources are constrained, and the flow is linear. At the end the group is told they now have a sense of DT, and they can be ambassadors for DT in their own organizations. Righttt…

Roger Martin has more recently described what might be a feasible DT implementation concept. The idea is that choices are proxies of creativity – they imply judgement calls. If we can cascade choices down an organization’s hierarchy, then it might just have achieved a better balance between optimization and creativity.

Charles Handy, the management philosopher, also has a useful related concept. His doughnut model sees an individual in an enterprise as having an inner core of prescribed responsibilities, but also an outer “doughnut” core where the individual is allowed judgment autonomy. The larger the outer core, the more creative freedom an individual is given.

Design Thinking: tackling societal issues

Whatever the implementation issues, the DT philosophy has sound underpinnings. In a world where we are close to exhausting the benefits drivable from optimization (cloud computing, Uber, infrastructure as a service, etc.), the only remaining source of prosperity appears to be unbounded creativity – the imagining of never-before-seen function and form. But the hierarchical organizational model may not be able to achieve unbounded creativity – that is even if Martin’s cascade of choices or Handy’s doughnuts become the norm. It may be that the hierarchical form of collective human enterprise as we have come to know it needs to be replaced by a flat form of organization. This might take the form of a freelance economy in the business world. In the public sector, a service oriented government might also finally allow creativity and choice to permeate bureaucratic environments. Whatever the ebb and flow that generates the form of the future societal fabric, I am convinced that design will be a key component of our prosperity. I am also convinced that we need to pursue design as part of prosperity.

Design Thinking – its future and possible pitfalls

The challenges to a “prosperity by design” future are not small. There is always the danger that the pendulum in leading democracies swings too much in favor of optimization. Politically, this takes the form of the all-too-familiar zero-sum trade-offs. Poor against the rich, automation vs. human labor and the like. The zero-sum optimization worldview is all about here and now. It negates the possibility of creative outcomes that might relax existing resource constraints in the future. Design Thinking is not immune to ideology. I would expect to see ideological confusion in the DT rank and file, where DT philosophy would have been lost in translation. I however see evidence of ideology sneaking in DT in the movement’s highest echelons. Thought leaders such as Roger Martin are attempting to extend Design Thinking to address systemic societal issues. As they do so, they appear to be using arguments traceable to optimization rather than creativity. Is personal ideology getting in the way of DT core principles? Perhaps. Stay tuned for more on this…

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