6 Ways to Make the Design Thinking Process Useful

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Perhaps you’ve heard of design thinking? It has become a hot topic in business and innovation circles, but if you are just catching the wave, too bad.  Bruce Nussbaum, contributing editor to BusinessWeek and previously Assistant Managing Editor in charge of BusinessWeek’s Innovation & Design, and currently a respected professor and design thinker, has declared it dead in favor of a new buzzword of his creation. But he’s wrong.  Maybe design thinking isn’t as easy a consulting sale for Bruce as it once was, but that doesn’t make it dead.  The design thinking process is a powerful way to solve very tough problems.  You just have to know what it is, why it can be hard, and how best to go about using it.

So what is design thinking anyway?  Sometimes the best way to understand something is to understand what it is not.  So think of how McKinsey solves a problem.  Now imagine the opposite.  That’s the design thinking process.  It is an alternative process for solving problems.  It isn’t better or worse than the analytical approach: just different and more appropriate for certain types of problems (If you want to get an even better sense of what it is, watch the famous IDEO grocery cart video).

So why is Nussbaum declaring design thinking dead?  There are three reasons.

1. It is a vague and misunderstood name

2. The design thinking process is no longer being used to solve problems

Many people have moved from using it to solve problems to selling it as the objective of organizational change as in “We’ll turn you into Design Thinkers.” The consultancies doing this vastly underestimated the challenge and these projects failed.

3. The design thinking process has been sold as a solution to every problem

From product innovation to customer service improvement and ending world hunger to improving public schools (I’m not kidding). But for the design thinking process to really work, subject experts need to be involved in the process.  No consultancy has deep expertise in all these areas.  So these projects failed too.

This is all terribly sad because even though it has been oversold (originally by Nussbaum himself), the design thinking process is a valuable approach and can yield tremendous results.  It is only dead as a fad.  As a true tool, it lives on. There are many skilled consultancies that use the design thinking process to help their clients solve big problems every day.

To use the design thinking process effectively to help your organization, I recommend following these simple rules.

1. Know Your Strengths and Complement Them

Most business problems require the best of both design thinking and analytical approaches, which requires business leaders to integrate design and business in product planning.  If your organization is more analytical, go outside to get Design Thinking and don’t look to remake your organization in the process. Work with a partner to bring the best of both worlds to the table.  If your partner can’t see how to do that, find another one.

2. Make Sure Your Design Thinking Process Includes the Required Expertise

It isn’t enough to fill the wall with lots of crazy ideas (which anyone can do).  The process participants must be able to judge which solutions are feasible and what it will take to implement them.  Depending on your problem, you may need engineers, technologists, manufacturers, hackers or other experts to help make these judgments. Be wary of the consultancy that claims to apply Design Thinking to any and all of problems.  They are likely to come up with a lot of “great” ideas that are completely impractical.

3. Define Success and Know How to Measure Results

At the end of the day, you are looking for business impact.  Figure out how you want to measure that impact before you start. Choose measurements that reflect actual business improvement, such as share, revenue or percent of revenue from new products.  Don’t be satisfied with metrics like number of new ideas.  It can take a long time to see these results, but at the end of the day, this is how you should judge your own and your partner’s performance.  You will not know if you are successful unless you measure it.

4. Track the Design Thinking Process

Design thinking is a process for reaching an answer.  Just because it utilizes open and creative techniques does not mean that you can’t set milestones.  Leave space for the process to work, but there is nothing wrong with saying, “We need our first three concepts to test by X-date.” Since Design Thinkers tend to be less structured, bringing structure and management to the process is one of the important roles you can play.

5. Always Bound the Problem

An important part of Design thinking is having the freedom to voice and explore ideas that may normally be considered out of bounds.  You don’t want to rein this in, but you also need to set some boundaries.  Your business has a certain identity and therefore some ideas just won’t fly.  Make sure you and your process partner know who you are, what your brand stands for and what your limits for exploration are.

6. Know The Problem You are Trying to Solve

The most critical step in any design thinking process is the fist step: diagnosis.  Everyone may be tempted to jump into brainstorming, sketching and prototyping.  But if you don’t understand the problem, this is wasted activity.  And by understand, I mean understand at a deep, human, motivational level.  For breakthrough problems, start with research that goes very deep with just a few subjects and use it to develop a rich and meaningful statement of the problem and the target customer.

So design thinking isn’t dead.  Maybe the ridiculous over-hyped phase of its life is, but that’s fine.  The design thinking process is an incredibly useful process that can complement more traditional analytical approaches to problem solving.  You just need to know how to use it and avoid buying into the hype.


To learn more about what defines Design Thinking be sure to download our free design thinking white paper on the subject.

Dan Ostrower

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Dan Ostrower