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Is Design Thinking a fairytale?

Design thinkingSystems thinking. Integrative thinking. Design Thinking. Left brained. Right brained. Whole brained. The character of our thinking seems to be the new competitive currency . A quick search of books with ‘thinking’ in the title revealed 44,797 results, while ‘how to think’ tracked 451,009! Intellectual discourse is flourishing between neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, artists, philosophers, and business gurus alike sharing what they think, about thinking. But why has the subject captured our imagination? Why now? What’s going on?

…as Dorothy said to Toto in The Wizard of Oz, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

The character of our thinking seems to be the new competitive currency. The well-oiled tools, theories and practices that proved their worthiness over the last 100 years, no longer suffice. Competitors are feistier. Customers are ever more capricious. Commoditisation is commonplace. Complex global interdependencies threaten economic stability. The ideals of ‘reliability and predictability’ that mitigate risk have been swept up in a tornado of uncertainty.

Discussions on Design Thinking have gained considerable traction in the C-suite, especially when a company like Apple resurrects itself to become “the worlds’ most valued” enterprise. Countless studies, books and blogs have popped up trying to decipher Steve Jobs’ secret. Can their success be duplicated? Or is Apple an anomaly? An inherently clever organisation led by an iconoclastic leader – the archangel of ‘think different’ fame.

Being relevant in 2020 and beyond will requires a different set of skills than the ones that drove business success in the past. How does an organisation devise their-own Apple success story? How does an organisation leverage design as a strategy and imbue a culture with creativity? How could thinking like a designer make a difference?

Thinking like a designerThinking like a designer

Design Thinkers have a certain disposition. A mind-set that doesn’t get flustered by ambiguity – it’s inspired by it! They’re obsessed with imagining what might be possible – driven to challenge the status quo. Design Thinkers take a holistic approach to understanding the problem from multiple angles and stakeholder perspectives. It’s a belief system that if you explore the shadows, you’ll uncover the underserved need, the unique opportunity. (Steve Jobs was a Design Thinker.)

Combining the capabilities to ‘think like a designer’ with the methodologies to ‘work like a designer’ and any organisation will be able to adapt to turbulent times, not be paralysed by it.

Creating a better future through design thinking

Everyone has the capacity to become a Design Thinker . As with Dorothy and her ruby slippers – we all have the power, we just need to know how to use it.

However, there are two important hurdles that must be overcome first:

The first is clinging to rigid habits and default behaviors. If we’re to explore the new, we must let go of referencing past successes to make way for bolder, braver future solutions.

The second hurdle is a perception of ‘time’. Is it considered a cost? Or an investment? Taking the time to ‘stop and think’ is critical. It is not a luxury, it’s a necessity and a core tenet of Design Thinking. And therein lies the rub. In a business ethos where speed to solution is revered and utilisation rewarded, in general managers believe design takes too long and in particular – designers are bewildering.

Seeing into the future isn’t easy. Even the Wizard of Oz couldn’t do it. But look behind the curtain and you’ll discover that design enables us to create new value with our clients. It is not a fairy tale. As we learn to shape our future and the means by which to profit from it as design thinkers, we’ll be taking the first steps down the yellow brick road.

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10 replies »

  1. I hadn’t realised Steve Jobs’ was a design thinker. Makes sense though .. So much of what I love about Apple is how well they understand my needs and create an intuitive and enjoyable user experience.

    • I think I read somewhere that IDEO worked with Apple back in the 80s on redesigning the mouse – presumably with design thinking.

  2. I like your point that in design we often value time too much as a cost rather than an investment. If we are to produce “bolder braver future solutions” we need to do so with careful and thoughtful processes.

  3. Yes IDEO is still working in that space, in fact, they have a design thinking course which is free aiming at human centred design which is the main type of work they engage with.

  4. The last words of Steve Jobs –

    I have come to the pinnacle of success in business.
    In the eyes of others, my life has been the symbol of success.
    However, apart from work, I have little joy. Finally, my wealth is simply a fact to which I am accustomed.
    At this time, lying on the hospital bed and remembering all my life, I realize that all the accolades and riches of which I was once so proud,
    have become insignificant with my imminent death.
    In the dark, when I look at green lights, of the equipment for artificial respiration and feel the buzz of their mechanical sounds, I can feel the breath of my approaching death looming over me.
    Only now do I understand that once you accumulate enough money for the rest of your life, you have to pursue objectives that are not related to wealth.
    It should be something more important:
    For example, stories of love, art, dreams of my childhood.
    No, stop pursuing wealth, it can only make a person into a twisted being, just like me.
    God has made us one way, we can feel the love in the heart of each of us, and not illusions built by fame or money, like I made in my life, I cannot take them with me.
    I can only take with me the memories that were strengthened by love.
    This is the true wealth that will follow you; will accompany you, he will give strength and light to go ahead.
    Love can travel thousands of miles and so life has no limits. Move to where you want to go. Strive to reach the goals you want to achieve. Everything is in your heart and in your hands.
    What is the world’s most expensive bed? The hospital bed.
    You, if you have money, you can hire someone to drive your car, but you cannot hire someone to take your illness that is killing you.
    Material things lost can be found. But one thing you can never find when you lose: life.
    Whatever stage of life where we are right now, at the end we will have to face the day when the curtain falls.
    Please treasure your family love, love for your spouse, love for your friends…
    Treat everyone well and stay friendly with your neighbours.

  5. It’s not a fairy-tail, it’s outdated…

    If you read the opinion of one of its major former advocate’s Prof. Bruce Nussbaum then it seems that he agrees with IDEO’s Tim Brown that:


    “Design consultancies that promoted Design Thinking were, in effect, hoping that a process trick would produce significant cultural and organizational change. From the beginning, the process of Design Thinking was a scaffolding for the real deliverable: creativity. But in order to appeal to the business culture of 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.”

    Helen Walters similarly agrees that it won’t save you, but it might help.

    Fortunately, however, Nussbaum is one of those people who doesn’t merely “dish” an idea for the sake of publicity, he actually extended effort towards an interesting and most promising alternative, which he calls “Creative Intelligence” (a concept much alike IQ and EQ) together with a framework within which creativity can be “mined.”

    Perhaps a forward looking, forward thinking organization should look up and aspire treetops rather than branches…

  6. Organisations that perceive time invested in design thinking as an INVESTMENT rather than a COST are the ones that are built to succeed and built to last. The highest level of thinking design is at the system level rather than at component levels.

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