People Over Process: How We Can Still Save Design Thinking

I hate “design thinking.” Allow me to clarify, I love the set of principles collectively known as design thinking that unlock creativity, better problem-solving, and human-centered solutions.

But I hate the term, which has become a bad marketing buzzword. Companies of all shapes and sizes are slapping it into their messaging like it’s a prerequisite for doing business. “We’re innovation leaders, so of course our empathetic, agile, cross-functional, cross-discipline, cross-company, cross-universe, synergistic, and human-centered teams are using design thinking.”   

Look I get it — once there’s a strong business case the bandwagon always rolls around. And when done correctly, design thinking is a powerful tool for framing, ideating, and prototyping simple solutions to the complex issues facing today’s organizations. Organizations that in many cases struggle to adapt their business models to digital disruption, ever-evolving media channels, and an evolved consumer base that now prefers experiences to products. In a business landscape of constant change, design has proven to be a lasting differentiator.

Even shareholders are noticing. A Deloitte trend report found that “among 138 publicly traded companies generally agreed by analysts to get a stock premium for innovation, there is a very strong correlation between the number of types of innovation they use in their most valuable platforms and their stock performance above the S&P. We conclude that more sophisticated design goals, when executed effectively, yield bigger payoffs.”

But when every practitioner (regardless of expertise) peddles design thinking as panacea, it becomes snake-oil.

While I’d love if it was, design thinking is not a catch-all solution. Designer Jon Kolko, writing for Harvard Business Review, articulated this well. “It [design] helps people and organizations cut through complexity. It’s great for innovation. It works extremely well for imagining the future. But it’s not the right set of tools for optimizing, streamlining, or otherwise operating a stable business,” said Kolko.  

What design thinking does do well is humanize emerging technologies and lead the development of products, services, and experiences that connect with consumers. It can help empower teams to be more adaptable, less risk-averse, and ultimately more productive.       

But when big business adopts design thinking and packages it as yet another strictly defined process, it loses its magic.

Corporations have long built process improvements into their work structures to create efficient systems that won’t break down. Unlike design, these processes are great for operating a stable business, but stress an adherence to the way things have always been done. Which is great, and there is certainly a time and place for optimization, but design thinking must be insulated from these processes and existing ways of working to be effective.    

When design thinking becomes synonymous with process, it removes the all-important human element that makes it special in the first place. Put simply, design thinking is codified creativity — and creativity is messy. But when companies are willing to tolerate discomfort outside of their typical processes, real innovation can start to happen. In fact, companies that foster creativity enjoy 1.5x greater market share.    

When done right, design thinking tears down barriers and existing ways of working that prevent businesses from arriving at their best solutions. But I don’t want to see companies with stifling cultures trying to bolt it on as a flavor of the month.   

Design thinking can transform your organization for the better — please don’t ruin it.  

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