So just what is “design thinking” (again)?

I’ve posted previously about design thinking more than a couple times in the last few years, continuously struggling to understand just what it is that makes this phrase such a buzzword-worthy novelty among non-designers…and also connect it back to humanistic aims of rhetorically nuanced good design, as advocated by Dick Buchanan/CMU. Recently my thinking on this has taken another evolution, influenced by reading books like The Lords of Strategy, helping drive design leadership in a corporate context, and chatting with colleagues at places like Second Road and MSFT.

Here’s what I’ve concluded so far; nothing earth-shattering but good to capture and share to feed the fire ;-)

** Foremost, it’s clear “design thinking” has become the new “user experience”– a convenient, catch-all, shorthand phrase alleging a pro-design posture by non-designers that is mundane/generic in daily language yet somehow implies a substantive realm of intellectual & practical activity. Which it may be, if you sincerely, earnestly want to master and absorb design–and all its lovely quirks, imperfections, frustrations–into your values, people, actions, etc. I think that’s the rub, at the end of the day.

Design thinking has got to be more than a “mot du jour” among the business class jetset but a mode of being for a team striving to improve themselves and their products and customers.

** Design thinking is just applying routine “designerly” concepts of observing people/contexts (ethnography, people research), generating lots of options (brainstorming), stating an hypothesis or two or three (solution proposals), prototyping them somehow (paper, video, code, etc.), and iterating based upon feedback. That’s really it! Nothing too fancy, folks. And applying that across the board: finance, human resources, biz dev, operations, IT support, etc. Where anyone can feel empowered to brainstorm valuable options to solve relevant problems, and experiment with diverse solutions without being penalized. What a revelation! And for some companies and departments, it truly is…sadly.

** Design thinking has more to do with an attitude shift from “select and execute a decision” towards “what’s the problem, how can we frame the options properly, and iterate til we get it right”. It’s about adopting a mentality that “failure” (a highly inaccurate word, BTW) is perfectly fine and normal. Actually it’s not truly “failure”, but simply allowing yourself to “get it wrong on the first try”; failure inexplicably sounds sexier in pithy business article headlines ;-)

** Design thinking is NOT “designers can now do business strategy”. That is totally the wrong lesson to learn. And for any designer who thinks that she can suddenly run a business, I highly recommend reading The Lords of Strategy on the historic rise of strategy as a business and intellectual mode of thought. Really brings into brutal focus the tough issues of growth-matrices, labor experience curves, cost cutting microeconomics, and accounting standardization which I seriously doubt an designer without a relevant business/economics background (or raw eagerness/curiosity) can tackle formidably.

I challenge the typical product or service designer to go toe to toe with a seasoned biz execs or strategists from Bain, Boston Consulting, McKinsey, etc. Or HP or Dell or Wal-Mart or Boeing for that matter. Real hardcore business strategists are pretty fracking smart and driven. They may not account for the “human dimension” of empathy/imagination/iteration that designers bring to the table, but that’s where designers can help supplement, not substitute.

** Likewise, design thinking is NOT “business strategists can now do design” (as in product design or brand design or similar). Seasoned execs have a strong vision for a product, market, customer and the various elements that determine a viable business model: costs, risks, debts, sales, etc. which is awesome and can only be strengthened by an increased awareness of the observe/brainstorm/prototype/iterate cycle and how designerly thinking can help forecast opportunities and further evolve the business. But that doesn’t mean the exec is now ready to design a logo or interface just yet! ;-)

** At the end of the day, I consider “design thinking” a mental lubricant to loosen up non-design thought processes, pushing more open-minded, right-brained, synthetic problem solving that applies what designers have done for decades and thereby empower everyone, particularly designers, to have better collaborations with peers/superiors/partners.

** It’s also an attitude adjustment that all members of a company should focus and can contribute to design successes, not just “the designers”. It’s a conversation starter and team builder for all interested and engaged stakeholders…

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