Design Thinking: Mastering the Tensions
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.
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.