De­sign Think­ing: Mas­ter­ing the Ten­sions

Rotman Management Magazine - - FACULTY FOCUS -

IN­NO­VA­TION AND DE­SIGN have been part of my life for decades. As a for­mer in­no­va­tion man­ager in the pack­aged goods in­dus­try, I worked closely with cre­ative peo­ple to de­sign prod­ucts, pack­ag­ing, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and ser­vices; and as a pro­fes­sor at the Rot­man School of Man­age­ment un­der then-Dean Roger Martin, I was ex­posed to de­sign think­ing as a way of ap­proach­ing the world and com­ing up with cre­ative so­lu­tions. I im­me­di­ately saw great pos­si­bil­i­ties for this ap­proach in man­age­ment ed­u­ca­tion and in busi­ness.

Over the years, I would see many or­ga­ni­za­tions em­brace de­sign think­ing. While some suc­ceeded, many floun­dered. Be­fore long, some de­sign­ers started ac­cus­ing busi­ness lead­ers of turn­ing de­sign think­ing into a man­age­ment fad — and I be­gan to won­der whether, for all its ap­peal, it had been over­sold. Per­haps, in spite of the best ef­forts of its ad­vo­cates, de­sign think­ing was just too big a de­par­ture from reg­u­lar busi­ness think­ing.

I would find that el­e­ments of both were true: De­sign think­ing had in­deed been over­sold and mis­un­der­stood, and it was very dif­fi­cult for man­agers to get their heads around it.

De­sign­ers have long known that they have a dis­tinct way of think­ing, and they coined the term ‘de­sign think­ing’ long be­fore it caught the at­ten­tion of the busi­ness com­mu­nity. The ag­gres­sive sell­ing of de­sign think­ing seemed for many de­sign­ers to triv­i­al­ize their pro­fes­sion — pack­ag­ing it into an eas­ily-di­gestible form for man­agers. Worse yet, many or­ga­ni­za­tions have been se­duced by a dumbed-down ver­sion of de­sign think­ing, see­ing it as be­ing all about idea gen­er­a­tion and gloss­ing over the deep anal­y­sis and re­flec­tion that are re­quired to come up with cre­ative so­lu­tions.

Ul­ti­mately, the triv­i­al­iza­tion of de­sign think­ing got it into trou­ble. When it did not reach the im­pos­si­ble heights claimed for it — lit­er­ally, to change the world — some wrote it off. In 2011, Bruce Nuss­baum, then the as­sis­tant man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of Busi­ness­week and one of de­sign think­ing’s erst­while ad­vo­cates, dis­missed it as a ‘failed ex­per­i­ment’.

Years later, and de­spite all of th­ese chal­lenges, many peo­ple — in­clud­ing me — still be­lieve that there is much more to de­sign think­ing than ‘the lat­est busi­ness fad’. I have found that de­sign think­ing ini­tia­tives in large or­ga­ni­za­tions live in a per­sis­tent state of ten­sion around three is­sues: their cul­tural en­gage­ment with the or­ga­ni­za­tion; how rad­i­cal their in­no­va­tions are; and tak­ing on the user’s point of view. I call th­ese the ten­sion of in­clu­sion, the ten­sion of dis­rup­tion and the ten­sion of per­spec­tive. Let’s take a closer look at each.

TEN­SION 1:IN­CLU­SION. Ev­ery suc­cess­ful de­sign think­ing ini­tia­tive I have ever en­coun­tered had what one per­son I in­ter­viewed termed ‘air cover’: Ex­plicit and con­sis­tent sup­port from the top of the or­ga­ni­za­tion—of­ten, though not al­ways, from the CEO. Yet, even with such un­equiv­o­cal sup­port, in­no­va­tion can fly in the face of es­tab­lished or­ga­ni­za­tional cul­ture. Suc­cess­ful or­ga­ni­za­tions are of­ten ‘do­ing’ machines, built to ac­com­plish clear goals as quickly and ef­fi­ciently as pos­si­ble. While in­no­va­tion deals with am­bigu­ous and illde­fined prob­lems, am­bi­gu­ity in the daily busi­ness of man­u­fac­tur­ing, fi­nanc­ing and hu­man re­sources can be toxic. Re­flec­tion, it­er­a­tion and non-lin­ear think­ing may be fine for a de­sign firm or a con­sul­tancy, but are not help­ful, if you are try­ing to run a man­u­fac­tur­ing plant or get an air­craft off the ground.

This ten­sion was par­tic­u­larly vis­i­ble at the Mayo Clinic, where physi­cians’ for­mal dress and way of ad­dress­ing pa­tients were de­signed to put pa­tients at ease — con­fi­dent that they were in the hands of ‘com­pe­tent pro­fes­sion­als’. The de­sign team at Mayo’s Cen­ter for In­no­va­tion, on the other hand, dressed ca­su­ally and com­mu­ni­cated less for­mally. Their de­meanour and ap­pear­ance broad­cast their dif­fer­ence from the Clinic’s health­care teams. In re­sponse to such ten­sion, there is a temp­ta­tion to build walls — phys­i­cal or vir­tual — around an in­no­va­tion pro­gram, to pro­tect it. Some or­ga­ni­za­tions move their lab to an off­site lo­ca­tion, for ex­am­ple.

How­ever, the risk in do­ing that is that in­no­va­tors can be­come iso­lated from the or­ga­ni­za­tion — speak­ing a dif­fer­ent lan­guage, dress­ing and be­hav­ing dif­fer­ently. Ul­ti­mately, this of­ten leads to ir­rel­e­vance based on ‘in-group vs. out­group’ think­ing. To sur­vive and thrive, in­no­va­tors need not only the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s re­sources, but ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion and moral sup­port from the grass­roots, not just from the top. Put sim­ply, de­sign think­ing pro­grams need to main­tain some in­de­pen­dence from the or­ga­ni­za­tion, while at the same time be­ing thor­oughly en­gaged with it.

TEN­SION 2: DIS­RUP­TION. ‘Dis­rup­tive in­no­va­tion’ has be­come a buzz­word in busi­ness and even in the non-profit and pub­lic sec­tors. Dis­rup­tive trends in technology, de­mo­graph­ics and so­cial be­hav­iour cre­ate the need for prod­ucts and ser­vices that re­spond to them. In­no­va­tion ini­tia­tives are of­ten set up with such a re­sponse in mind. Yet es­tab­lish­ing a de­sign think­ing pro­gram does not make dis­rup­tive in­no­va­tion easy. Em­brac­ing de­sign think­ing means re­vis­it­ing the core as­sump­tions that un­der­pin your or­ga­ni­za­tion’s of­fer­ings. It in­volves ‘prob­lem find­ing’ to iden­tify hid­den is­sues that the or­ga­ni­za­tion and its users are not aware of; it re­quires a will­ing­ness to en­gage in ab­strac­tion; and it takes time.

On the other hand, in­no­va­tors within any or­ga­ni­za­tion need to work within dead­lines and bud­gets that arise from real-world con­straints. Many take on ‘in­cre­men­tal’ projects — tweak­ing cur­rent of­fer­ings or ex­per­i­ment­ing with vari­a­tions on ex­ist­ing ways of do­ing things — to demon­strate short-term re­sults. The prob­lem is that it is easy for this level of ac­tiv­ity to take over, and to get de­railed from the dis­rup­tive in­no­va­tion they were set up to do. The prob­lem is, the more suc­cess­ful the pro­gram is, the more de­mands there will be for in­cre­men­tal work. The core of this ten­sion is that de­sign think­ing pro­grams need to be both in­cre­men­tal and dis­rup­tive at the same time.

TEN­SION 3: PER­SPEC­TIVE. De­sign thinkers de­velop prod­ucts and ser­vices cen­tred on the ex­pe­ri­ence of the in­di­vid­ual

user. In­no­va­tions, how­ever, have to do more than en­gage users: they need to con­sider re­lated prod­ucts and ser­vices, re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties and ex­pe­ri­ences, and the im­pact on the so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal sys­tem. In ad­di­tion, the or­ga­ni­za­tional ecosys­tem is tasked with the im­ple­men­ta­tion of ideas: tech­ni­cal sup­port, lo­gis­tics, plant tri­als and dealer re­la­tion­ships are all part of this sys­tem. As a re­sult, de­sign thinkers reg­u­larly get caught be­tween the per­spec­tive of an in­di­vid­ual user and that of the sys­tem as a whole.

This ten­sion ap­plies in both the pub­lic and the pri­vate sec­tor, wher­ever there are mul­ti­ple stake­hold­ers to con­sider. Since the early 2000s, the Dan­ish Gov­ern­ment’s Mind­lab has worked to de­velop projects for cit­i­zen en­gage­ment and sys­tem im­prove­ment. Since its found­ing in 2002, Mind­lab has found that it is not enough to fa­cil­i­tate idea gen­er­a­tion. It is also es­sen­tial to en­gage the bu­reau­cracy. As a re­sult, Mind­lab has pro­gressed from work­shop fa­cil­i­ta­tion to strate­gic part­ner­ship with gov­ern­ment de­part­ments, and ul­ti­mately as­pires to be an en­abler of sys­temic and cul­tural change within the broader bu­reau­cracy.

In clos­ing

To be a de­sign thinker in a large or­ga­ni­za­tion to­day is to live with para­dox. It en­tails cul­ti­vat­ing re­la­tion­ships and con­duct­ing sub­tle ne­go­ti­a­tions around tricky is­sues. De­sign thinkers need to be as cog­nizant of the work­ings of their or­ga­ni­za­tional sys­tem as they are with the realm of prod­ucts and users—and be pre­pared to get in­volved in the de­sign-think­ing im­ple­men­ta­tion process. Put sim­ply, they need to be both user-cen­tred and sys­tem-cen­tred.

My own per­sonal ten­sion around the term ‘de­sign think­ing’ was ul­ti­mately re­solved by by­pass­ing its var­ied def­i­ni­tions and fo­cus­ing on its sub­stance. Most of the or­ga­ni­za­tions I spoke to were liv­ing with the three ten­sions ev­ery day, and fig­ur­ing out ways to make it all work. While there is no sin­gle, de­fin­i­tive way to re­solve the three ten­sions, the best de­sign-think­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions — like the Mayo Clinic — have de­vel­oped prac­tices for deal­ing with them that we can all learn from. David Dunne (Rot­man PHD ‘96) is a Pro­fes­sor and Di­rec­tor of MBA Pro­grams at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria and Pro­fes­sor of Mar­ket­ing Emer­i­tus at the Rot­man School of Man­age­ment. He is the au­thor of De­sign Think­ing at Work (Rot­man-utp Pub­lish­ing, 2018), from which this is an adapted ex­cerpt.

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