When Design Thinking Doesn’t Stick

Much of what I do involves design thinking, whether I’m teaching it at business school or practicing it inside companies, helping them use it either as part of a project or helping them change their creative DNA and “way of doing things”. And for all the universal appeal of it being a proven process, legitimised by campuses and corporations the world over, how it takes root is invariably completely unique to each organisation. How could it not be? It depends entirely on their culture and the issues and objectives they’re dealing with.

Given all this, the questions I get asked most frequently are:

What’s the appeal?
Where does it add value?
What gets in the way of it working?

(Actually, this is usually referred to as “What are the barriers to implementation?”, but since jargon is one of them, I can’t make myself put that here.)

So here’s my take on this given my experiences so far. Yours may be different. Feel free to add or debate. I use design primarily in a strategy context—a useful approach that I blend with a pile of others in my kit bag to deal with wicked or messy strategic issues like change, gender, customer focus, customer service, personal or leadership development, innovation and particularly culture and engagement. So my current focus isn’t as much on product development as other practitioners might be. And I’ve seen it work brilliantly and seen it completely miss as well.

The question of what do you need to make it work can be answered by any of the plethora of articles on line referring to “what it takes to build a culture of innovation”. In short: Willingness to handle mess and ambiguity, willingness to take and reward risk, willingness to tolerate and encourage failure and to mine it for learning, willingness to collaborate, willingness to be flexible, and a culture where questioning and a genuine concern for the experience you are creating for people, as well as a clear understanding of why you exist and a direction that reflects that, drives all the strategic decisions you make. And for it to really work, this needs to be a core part of the culture (reflected in remuneration, HR and hiring policies) rather than well-meaning lip service.

What’s the appeal?

The need to be more creative in how they (individuals/teams/companies) approach their business. There’s a big emphasis on innovation, but also a realisation that they need to be more creative generally. A recognition that standard approaches either aren’t working or aren’t giving them the edge they need. There’s also some acknowledgement of the need for more customer centricity. Many don’t really know what any of this truly means though, and many just see it as boxes to tick and a new formula to learn. Design thinking courses also attract the naturally creative fruit-bats who probably work like this intuitively and are keen to find a “business acceptable” framework to validate them and let them work that way in the face of relentless BAU. And of course it’s the little black dress of management think at the moment. Everybody wants some 🙂

Where does it add value?

  • Anywhere you’re coming up with a new system or product.
  • Anywhere you want your execs to think more laterally and fluidly.
  • Anywhere you’re trying to be more customer centric.
  • Anywhere you’ve got a load of stakeholders involved.
  • And it’s like catnip to graduate recruits.

This means, for example, you can use design to add a huge amount of value to territory traditionally run by a pure project management approach, like setting up new systems, centralising or rationalising processes, restructuring organisations and merged companies. Why? Because no matter how clean it looks on a spreadsheet and how much of a heavy-weight mandate it has riding it, in the end the success of a project comes down to the people who are affected and their willingness to do what it takes to make it work. And since most of these changes are imposed in a way that seems arbitrary or not in the best interests of those affected (how many times do people get told to do one thing when their KPIs are based on doing the opposite?), they are likely to pay lip service to compliance while back-dooring or surreptitiously sabotaging the endeavour.

What gets in the way of it working?

Several related things, I think.

Firstly, most businesses see it as separate and as an add-on, a toy they can play with or an app they can plug into their existing system to give it more juice. They may sense but do not really recognise how potentially disruptive it is, since it fundamentally inverts the normal approach to doing things. Not that it should ever be a replacement, just a necessary balancing element in different parts of the process. More on this soon in a separate article.

This ad hoc adoption can also create confusion where some departments are using it and others are not. So maybe it gets used in the way products are developed, but not in how they are marketed, sold or supported. This makes for frequently fraught internal conversations, and an often schizophrenic customer experience. It also gives rise to a lot of mixed messages. For example telling sales folk to take the time to get to know their customer and their business issues, but incentivising them to keep the acquisition cost down and close the deal early with preselected products.

Secondly, most companies want a formula or repeatable methodology; a playbook, tool kit and process that they can roll out in a standardised way through an organisation. They want to de-mess it and know that they are ‘right’ before they even start. So they see it as a ‘thing’ not a mindset or way of looking at situations. Like a bandaid or some lipstick you can stick on something to make it all betterer or a magic ingredient you can sprinkle over anything to jazz it up. You know the drill—t’s not done til someone has ‘design thunk it’ and ticked the box to say they’ve been creative.

Thirdly that they think they’re doing it when they’re not. After all, it isn’t rocket science. Almost everybody grasps the principles immediately. But getting it cognitively and following a defined process is fundamentally different to either using it as your default way of seeing and interacting with the world or at least being fluent enough to genuinely operate from that space at will.

Design thinking is really a mindset that is then backed by a methodology that comes with a kitbag of tools and terminology. The magic is in the mindset, and the mindset can take quite a while to develop, particularly since it is often the opposite of the BAU mindset (logical, linear, deductive and reductive). You cannot just sheep-dip people and expect instant results. Those that aren’t already wired that way have to have the space to play with it over time, to figure out what it means to them, how they can make it work for them.

This means I see a lot of BAU mindset design thinking. For example insisting on gathering all data and getting exhaustive trackable coverage on that before starting to come up with ideas instead of looking for fast cheap ways to test and learn from the start. Mistaking assumptions for insights. Jumping to solution mode. Only considering “sensible” possibilities. Taking one successful workshop or project and turning it into the rigid blueprint for all others. Or the classic of assuming that if they focus on refining their existing offering, the customer will automatically be thrilled, since of course the company knows better than the customer what’s good for them.

I know of several large companies who claim they no longer talk about practicing design thinking as it’s now part of their DNA, inspiringly infused into every aspect of the way they do things. Which is brilliant if true. If for example their sales targets and KPIs and hiring and reward structures and customer support processes have been changed or redesigned to reflect this. However it usually just means they are understandably bored with having the whole thing jammed down their collective throats. If only mass mindset shift could be legislated with an email…

Finally, a serious limitation is that design thinking and design thinking projects are often somewhat separate from the business so are therefore not connected to core strategic needs and financial realities. They’re just not seen as commercially relevant; more of a plaything or a curiosity until the process proves it can consistently add magic, then be integrated into existing processes and controlled.

And overall?

It’s messy, and how successful it is for each company will depend on their expectations, intentions and commitment. It will also depend on their flexibility in using a design process to figure out how to make that process work best for them.

For me, the best thing about the design thinking juggernaut is that it has provided a credible way for a lot of businesses to openly start to play more with creativity, and to look at including some of the core precepts (empathy and customer centricity, rapid iteration, collaboration) into their everyday way of working. It provides a concrete (if fluid) process that is a much easier place to start than the general directive to “be more creative” or “be more innovative”. It has brought humanity, with all its messiness, back into the process mix. It has legitimised a bunch of creative types who were only allowed to work on the fringe before and given them a platform to contribute and create the magic they were usually hired to create in the first place. And almost inevitably, the people who are involved in the projects are having a pile of fun and feel their work is more meaningful.

Above all, it’s a way of reconnecting many businesses with their core by giving them a chance to take a much more creative and human approach to how they think about their strategy. Who they are, why they do what they do, what they want to achieve, and how they go about it. Because as businesses so often forget, strategy is fundamentally a creative process.There aren’t that many outside of start-ups who are playing with it in this way, but those that are are flying. It is, after all, the heart and soul of any successful business.

So even when it doesn’t stick, when it doesn’t provide the hoped for silver bullet, it seems to add some value. It makes conversations possible that were not possible before, it makes it legitimate instead of fuzzy to bring the customers into the mix early and often, and it gives many talented people a platform, however limited, they would not otherwise have had. And above all, it opens up the doorway to a healthier way of operating as an organisation.

And when that piece starts to work, the results go straight to the bottom line.

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