Both at the academic and the business DMI conference in Paris this week speakers were very keen on defining design thinking. From an academic point of view, this is quite understandable: epistemologically (wow!) there’s some very interesting stuff happening when a designer/creative puts his teeth in a problem. (See many articles by Roger Martin on this topic) This merits much research which requires a rigorous approach.
From a business point of view however, I’m not so sure all this talk about what design thinking is will help us reach our goals. Let’s explore what’s going on:
As experienced designers and design managers, we have discovered that in many cases our added value to business and entrepreneurship lies not so much in what we do (eg design artefacts or identities) but in how we do it. It is not our design results that make the biggest difference but the way we go about solving problems, applying creativity, involving stakeholders, and creating opportunities. It’s what zilver‘s consultancy practices are based on. We have a great urge to capitalise on these qualities: if only we could bring design thinking to the market, we would be able take upstream what we are best at, and having a great time in the process.
The mistake we are making is that we think we need to know what it is before we can sell it. What we have to watch out for in this context is that we don’t apply ‘traditional’ business thinking to explain design thinking. Imagine trying to sell design thinking to a CEO of a large company using only very strict definitions, measurable benefits, predictable outcomes and proven processes (off course embedded in a nice over the top PowerPoint presentation using a template with groovy fly-in effects, talking paperclips and totally distracting slide transitions). That would be missing the point big time wouldn’t it? Still, that’s exactly the trap I saw some people at the DMI conference fall in to.
My point: from a business point of view, design thinking is not something that needs to be defined before it can be sold. It is many things at once, and none of the above. Like creativity, vision, empathy, excellence and leadership, we all recognise it when it’s there, without having a clue as to how to define it.
If you want to sell design thinking, just make sure it’s recognised: demonstrate what it can do, gather case-studies, ring the bell when it happens, or keep a design thinking diary. I’m sure after seeing these things there won’t be single CEO in the world asking you: “yeah, right, but what exactly is it?”
here’s some thinking on design thinking:
Rachel Cooper’s mindmap on design thinking, based on our dicussion at the academic dmi conference paris 2008