Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

5 minute read

Can Innovation Really Be Reduced To A Process?

Helen Walters on the persistent problems with design thinking, and the attempts to graft its processes onto businesses.

Rumors of the failure of design thinking  appear to have been somewhat overblown. At the recent Design Research conference in Seattle, the consensus reportedly held that whether or not you like the term, design thinking is here to stay. At a recent panel discussion in New York, "Design Thinking: Dead or Alive?" it was hard to find any of the speakers (of which I was one) quibbling with more than the fact that it wasn't a very interesting question.

Nonetheless, it's also somewhat hard to find many fervent supporters of design thinking. Designers I've talked to still bristle at a phrase they see as subtly maligning the validity of the rest of their work. Executives meanwhile, still seem baffled by the term, even if they quite like the general idea of adding design into the business mix. 

A repeatable, reusable practice contradicts the nature of innovation.

The latest book on the topic is Designing for Growth, a "design thinking toolkit for managers" and it provides a pretty good snapshot of how people are thinking about the discipline right now. Namely, that the reins of design thinking lie firmly in the hands of executives. In this world, design thinking is shorthand for the process implemented in a more creatively driven type of workshop, one involving visual thinking, iteration and prototyping. In this world, you don't have to be a designer to be a design thinker, and the process has been codified as a repeatable, reusable business framework.

This is all, arguably, fine. But mostly it unwittingly highlights the true tension at the heart of the design thinking debate. A codified, repeatable, reusable practice contradicts the nature of innovation, which requires difficult, uncomfortable work to challenge the status quo of an industry or, at the very least, an organization. Executives are understandably looking for tidy ways to guarantee their innovation efforts — but they'd be better off coming to terms with the fact that there aren't any.

There are certainly ways to make them less of a random shot in the dark, and most companies could use some help in thinking about innovation in a more systematic, organized fashion. But design thinking is no magic key to a secret kingdom of innovation. Coating a veneer of design processes on the top of innovation initiatives that will promptly be stymied by internal bureaucracy or politics doesn't help anyone. In fact, as we've seen, it'll frustrate designers, who find themselves with the unfulfilling role of making Post-it notes look pretty, and it'll disappoint executives, who feel like they've been sold a bill of goods.

Coating design processes atop internal bureaucracy doesn't help anyone.

Another problem: The question of when design thinking is actually appropriate remains unanswered and apparently unclear to many. The authors of Designing for Growth outline their own experiment in design thinking—as applied to the design of their book's cover. It's meant as a cute interlude, but it highlights a huge issue: A book cover is not a design thinking problem, it's a graphic design problem. The last thing executives need is to imagine that they must immerse themselves in a complex program of prototyping when really they'd be better off commissioning someone trained in a discipline for which they themselves have exhibited neither interest nor aptitude. Design is a skill all right, and thank heavens for those who are good at it.

The real problem of course is that when it comes to large programs of innovation, the contrasting practices and systems of business and design continue to be a stumbling block to progress. Until senior leadership figures out how to get teams working together harmoniously, they won't make much of it. Note: The onus for that rapprochement isn't merely on the business side. At that recent panel event in New York, one of the speakers recounted a project in which she and some other professional designers had engaged in a design-thinking exercise. They had all become terribly bored, she remembered. "We were too good!" she said. Too good at what, precisely? Too good at the process of visualizing ideas, maybe. But that's just one part of innovation, which is only successful when it creates actual value, which requires taking those ideas and figuring out how to make them fly in the marketplace.

For designers to have strategic impact, they need to work with managers to ensure that the business elements of a project are being catered to, too. That might not play to the innate strengths of designers, but it's vital for leaders to figure out ways for everyone to get along so that innovation can be a team sport. Otherwise, we'll be left with bizarre stories such as the one that ran recently in The New York Times, with a Smart Design director arguing that the Flip camera was, in fact, just about perfect. Just not so perfect that Cisco didn't decide to discontinue making the product. Executives don't always make the right decisions, of course, and perhaps Cisco management did make the wrong call in this instance. But proclaiming that smartphones had no bearing on that discussion and arguing that all of the design decisions were correct smacks of hubris and myopia. Design doesn't — shouldn't — live in a bubble and designers need to bridge the divide between their world and business, not just lob ideas over the fence and hope for the best. As it stands, it takes a particular type of person who can span those two worlds. Those are the must-hire employees of the future.

The contrasting practices of business and design continue to be a stumbling block.

Perhaps some designers will welcome the passing of the design thinking baton to executives. Perhaps they'll be relieved to see design thinking shaking out as a useful problem-solving approach for executives to use when appropriate. But to me, this shift emphasizes the need for leaders of both business and design to further clarify understanding of who does what, when. Design should neither be aggrandized nor trivialized. But it feels like it could play an infinitely more significant role if only those involved could figure out more convincing ways to articulate its value. For now, the real issue with design thinking is that executives run with it as they see fit, design practitioners continue to shrug their shoulders at the discussion, and corporate continues to trump creative. Given the real need for innovation in every part of culture and society, that seems like the biggest problem of all. 

[Top image by Barnaby Kerr]