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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]

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  • Rick Cartwright

    This is a very powerful statement: "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."
    Corporate executives are looking for ways to be more 'innovative'.  Most large company websites seem to claim a position as an innovative leader.  This would seem to be a good thing, but what actually happens is these leaders latch on to any codified program w/o understanding what is really required. After a period of time, they give up, declaring victory when in reality they have done nothing more than a dance. 

    The sad reality is that executives will try to institutionalize innovation without dealing with culture and other underlying fundamentals.  Those that 'get it', get more than just design thinking, they get the entire mindset required. 

  • GK VanPatter

    With all due respect to Helen Walters, this well-intentioned article appears to suffer from the innovation time warp effect that is now widespread in the marketplace. Positioned as present and future focused, digesting what is written in this article begins to feel a little like processing vintage newsprint, newsreel or movie footage. Would we want to mistake one for the other? Can historical conceptual frameworks, ideas, images of once present states arrive via RSS feeds? Take a look around. Whether we like it or not, in many innovation and design thinking related conversations today one can see the innovation time warp phenomenon in full swing. Positioning historical notions from by-gone eras as real time RSS news does not change the actualities. What is increasingly becoming obvious is that in spite of massive social and business networking the synchronization of innovation knowledge to real time realities remains a significant local and global challenge. The truth is, often what’s blocking synchronization is politics, not access to network technology. Entitled “Can Innovation Be Reduced to a Process” this article seems to be about half a dozen different tried and true subjects, all of which have been superseded by leading design innovation practices for at least ten years. “A repeatable reuseable practice contradicts the nature of innovation.” Huh? “..the reigns of design thinking lie firmly in the hands of executives” Huh? “…designers need to bridge the divide between their world and business” Huh? There are now many states of design and design thinking. Which is being talked about here? Apart from the layers and layers of very tired stereotyping where is the present state news here? This is the present state of who? Suffice it to say that numerous significant shifts have already occurred that do not appear anywhere here in this Fast Company article. If the even more difficult truth were told it would be that Fast Company itself has for numerous years consistently missed that shifting. As far as we can tell, Fast Company editors still think design is about poster, product, service and experience creation. That's been old news for a very long time. Before we get too depressed, lets acknowledge some real time good news: Unlike the picture that appears in this article’s bubble of logic, design thinking is not stuck and restricted to product, service and experience creation. Ten years ago leading human-centered practices moved beyond that limited “stay in a box” picture. For years those firms have been working at the scale of organizational and societal changemaking. This is not an imagined future state or a tide turning. It’s already a done deal. Unlike the picture that appears in this article, the quest for codified rethinking design thinking knowledge, innovation cocreation knowledge is not just getting underway. Since at least 2002 leading practices have had skill-building workshops running geared towards business and social change leaders as well as the general public. Several leading practices have extensive cocreation and cross-disciplinary team dynamics learning programs. Much of what is already being taught evolves around next generation innovation thinking i.e. how to ensure the inclusion of all disciplines. All of that requires extensive codified knowledge. Unlike the picture that appears in this article, design thinking changes depending on what scale it is being applied to. Design 1.0 thinking is radically different from what is going on in Design 3.0 thinking. Lets embrace that complexity as good news rather then deny it. Design thinking is not a bound in a box subject tied to a legacy system unless we allow it to be. Design thinking is a pattern in motion. In the marketplace it is set in motion everyday.
    Unlike the picture that appears in this article, design thinking can be applied to numerous contexts in addition to the context of business. With the world in such a mess there is no need to restrict reinvented design thinking to business transformation. Leading practices have long since embraced both reinvention and broader applications. The good news is that business design thinking remains a subset of design thinking and not its sum total.

    Last but not least: It seems to be crystal clear to many people on planet earth that we humans have not created a very human-centered, life-centered world and so much work remains in our neighborhoods, communities, states, countries, planet. With the world in such a state show me the challenges that we should consider through the lens of business values and business thinking. Show me the challenges that we should consider through the lens of human-centered/life-centered values and thinking? With the diversity and messiness of complex challenges in mind and with defuzzing key, show me the challenges that would not benefit from reinvented design thinking today?

    In terms of understanding present states, at the end of the day it probably comes down to which bubble of logic makes most sense to you, which is closest to where you presently are?...which bubble of logic connects to where you want to be? It’s all just bubbles. Good luck with your bubble choosing. Watch out for that time warp…☺
    More on NextDesign Leadership Network:

  • Helen Walters

    Thanks for the additional thoughtful comments. Don't know if this is useful, but the original headline for the piece (and the thesis of the article) was "the real problems with design thinking." I actually agree that the conflation of innovation and design thinking is unhelpful. I think design thinking can be useful in its place, but I don't agree that you can "just add design thinking" and end up with guaranteed innovation. That's not the way the world--or business--works and simply provides a red herring for all concerned. Again, thanks for all the comments.

  • Design the New Business

    We are currently making a short documentary called “Design the New Business” and we are precisely trying to explore how this two spheres are currently interacting and shaping each other.
    After doing a few interviews we have encountered more or less a consensus about what design has to offer to business and viceversa. But we have also encountered diverse opinions of what design thinking is and what it can do. It’s definitely a wild card that serves to explain and justify fuzzy concepts or processes.
    There is certainly much talking around “design thinking”, “creative intelligence” and so on...  Its necessary and interesting. But is also nice to ignore the buzz and see what some designers and business people are starting to do... Something is happening, we are seeing it and hopefully we will be able to document it.

  • Pete Walker

    I'm not sure how "creative thinking" and "design thinking" differ from "thinking".  What business people tend to want (sorry to generalize, never a great thing) is to grow, but they don't want to have to change.  The management rank wants things the way they are.  Given the populations of these sectors, the inertia can be massive, which gives the creative community its usual fits of frustration. 

    Blue Ocean Strategy is an innovative process developed by its authors W. Chan Kim and Renee Maubourgne, which I am using to launch the Proximity Kitchen System.  I fully expect to be successful, but BOS has streamlined my thinking about how an innovative approach to residential kitchen design will be implemented.  

    I fully expect the full weight of the currently held industry "thinking" (= dogma, really) to oppose my efforts, even though I can easily prove my approach to be far superior.

    I guess my point is that it's not the "Design" part of "Design Thinking" that is at fault here, it's the "Thinking" part - because there isn't any.  If you are in a position to work, and you have a job to do, finding new and better ways to do it is mandatory or you're simply not committed.  

    Insisting on dogma or the maintenance of the status quo isn't thinking, it's refusing to think.

    If the question is "can you teach intellect?" I'd say no.  Can you teach creativity?  Again, no.  Can you teach a process to produce innovative management strategy? 

    I hope so, because I'm betting the ranch on it.

    All the best,

  • Jeffrey Cufaude

    Jeffrey Phillips has made a great distinction in this blog post: shifting your question to "Can a procecs enable innovation?" to which he answers a resounding yes ... and I most definitely concur.  I think you have several lines of thinking woven together in this post crating a complexity that may not be 100% helpful.

  • Jeffrey Cufaude

    "A repeatable, reusable practice contradicts the nature of innovation."  Guess you need to call IDEO and tell them to close up shop.

    Continuity in practice can produce variety in results, so I'm not sure what your problem is here, and at least for me, you didn't articulate it very well.

  • RitaSue Siegel

    I wish I was a word wizard.  When one talks about Design or Design Thinking, one cannot use exactly the same words in each conversation. To make oneself clear, the definitions, descriptions, analogies and anecdotes one needs to craft will depend on the audience and the context. Communication of the meaning is to me much harder with larger audiences because it is so new to so many, one still has to make it relate to the experience or the level of caring or the needs of the listener. So does the effectiveness of the process.  How well or not the process works or how closely one has to adhere to it, depends on the skills, creativity, fearlessness, personalities, preferences, prejudices, knowledge bases, and level of investment/ownership of the collaborators. It's like Olympic class ice skating. One has to make continuous adjustments to appear gorgeously in control.

  • Paula Thornton

    I'm not sure if Jeanne and Tim could have done that much more to offer their respect for designers, with references such as "we can guarantee 
    that your appreciation for what the Jonathan Ives of the world do will have grown rather than diminished".

    We're thrilled that they were able to codify what they did to indeed help all of those who have no access to designers and likely won't even if they ask. But that is slowly, slowly changing now. I feel the turn in the tide.

  • Daniel Lombardi

    As one of the designers involved in the interior design of this book, I would like to thank you for defending our profession! I also can't speak highly enough about Jeanne and Tim's respect for our industry. They definitely "get" it.

  • Helen Walters

    @Jeanne Liedtka Thanks so much for your comment, Jeanne. I, in turn, agree with you that managers who understand the complexity of design often value it an awful lot more than those who think it's a matter of making the cake look pretty. I also think you highlight a huge issue in the corporate world, and one that too often goes under-reported by those of us writing about design in that context. Namely what happens once you get away from looking at those companies that do "get" it and focus on the reality that comprises the rest of the world? What role does design play there? How can or should executives think about incorporating design into their business? Too often, these become philosophical discussions when in reality even a small amount of clarity would help. A while back, I asked my Twitter followers if they thought a designer should be included on every project. If yes, how could a manager justify his/her inclusion, when budgets are tight, teams are lean and members have assigned roles? There was little consensus, though one person did make the case that innovation can't happen without a designer on the team. There's a lot to be said for the strategic value of design in innovation; it's high time the industry leaders developed a way of arguing this case convincingly, both internally and to those outside of design. PS I thought the brainstorming section of your book was the best I've read on this topic.

  • jeanne Liedtka

    I really enjoyed reading your piece. I don’t even think that you and Tim and I disagree if you parse out what we each mean by “innovation.”  Managers, who are design literate, in my experience, value real designers and the magic they do more, rather than less. That’s if they have ever even met a designer in their organization. The book was written for an audience of operating managers (designers certainly don’t need it) to help them find related revenue growth. They aren’t in R&D or marketing or working for P&G – places where real designers are part of the landscape. And the kind of innovation we are talking about is really is the low hanging fruit of creating better value using existing resources, mostly by focusing on developing a deeper understanding of  customers better and learning to experiment – borrowing some of the tools used by designers.  

     As I read this, I think that maybe Tim and I didn’t work hard enough to make our respect for designers evident enough in the book – or help managers think more clearly about tackling the issue of where that line is where you need the real experts that you point to in your piece.  Honestly, I think the question you pose was not really on my radar screen: so few of the managers I work with have any kind of actual access to real designers. They aren’t replacing designers - they are flying blind without access to them. Which is a huge loss, I believe, because design has so much to offer that would help your average manager be better at building their business.

  • Helen Walters

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. This was a hard piece to write and I'm glad it's sparked some debate! @Ken Peters, I couldn't agree more with your assertion: "collaboration is the catalyst for real innovation." Figuring out how to drive that collaboration effectively is a real challenge that managers need to face explicitly. @Michael Dila, while I do reference it, I hope it's clear that this piece is not intended as a review of Designing for Growth, which really acted as a helpful catalyst for me to try and tease out some longheld thoughts. Ftr, the book certainly includes some useful advice and tips for those not familiar with design ideas or processes. (Thanks for the gracious comment, @Tim Ogilvie). I'm certainly not advocating that anyone needs to choose between creativity or rationality. In fact, I rather thought I poked both sides of the business/design divide (sorry, @Sean O'Connor, I do hear your weariness at this construct). Fact is, both need to do a better job of working together. @Matthias, I look forward to reading your future thoughts. All the best, Audrey. I mean Helen ;)

  • paul gorlach

    This article is on to something. As a industrial designer, I and my classmates have always been stymied by the difficulty level of getting a job and keeping a job. I always believed and thought it was common sense that design firms would hire a over abundance of designers to have a abundance of ideas both practical and not, to maintain excitement and creativity in the design process. Today creative persons are hired and fired for no obvious reasons, mainly because of the failure of management, since after all the base of the company's success is a creation of industrial design. Today people do not even know what is a industrial designer compared to the 1050's when idustrial design offices were creative and innovative, you did not have to be a computer programmer to get a job, you had to draw and sculpt well and have inventive out of the box ideas.  Today everything looks the same and if you do not do it that way you are out, it is a shame, because lots of good work is tossed aside by managers who believe a hoard of accountants is better than hiring more designers and allowing them to have fun.

  • Michael Dila

    From the outset, I should say that I have no stake whatsoever in the term "design thinking". Though being a great believer in both the value of  design and of thinking it continues to disappoint me that people find so much to object to in their combination. Ah, well.

    There are two things here, however, that I'd like to quibble with.

    First, I think that this post gives far too little consideration to a book that I think is one of the first practical and pragmatic guides for the application of design thinking by managers. I think the promise of Designing for Growth is its observation that there are strong design patterns that can support systematic approaches to innovation. Full stop. I don't think Liedtka and Ogilvie believe that design thinking is either a panacea nor a complete innovation solution. Nor do I think they believe that the process they outline in their book is the only one that could support successful innovation in organizations.

    Second, I do think that Designing for Growth advocates a way to design a process that gives people reliable and repeatable "protocols" for doing elements of innovation work. This seems to me analagous to the collection of protocols that make up a scientific research area like microbiology. None one confuses  test like polymerases chain reaction (PCR, a technique use to amplify samples of DNA in genetic research) for discoveries like the human genome sequence or genetically modified hybrids, but neither could exist without reliable & repeatable protocols.

    Is there a strong analogy between scientific discovery and innovation? I think there is. Careful study of the detailed and brilliant work of historians and philosophers of science shows that discover is a much messier and ad hoc process than many people think. It is also rife with the tension between creativity and discipline. But the empirical study of breakthrough science bears out the hypothesis that the choice between creativity and reliability/repeatability is a false one.

    Design is not hopelessly or intractably mysterious (though perhaps designers are). That neither means that every part of every great design arose from a process that could be codified, nor that the journey is 100% intuitive with no reliance at all on things that are learned and learnable.

  • Daniel Ostrower

    In general I would agree with the article. I think that with the growth of good quality research techniques to seed ideation, and with the availability of ideas through open innovation platforms, that there is no longer a dearth of creativity in the innovation process. What is lacking is the discipline to ensure that the creative processes yield something relevant to consumers, feasible to produce, differentiated from the competition and aligned with the organization. We must always remember that the design process (no matter what you call it) is a means to an end, not an end itself.

  • Tim Ogilvie

    Helen, love the critical feedback on Designing for Growth. YES! We agree that there is a real need for better communication and collaboration between designers and managers, that's one of the reasons we wrote a book explaining how many tools in the design process fit into business strategy.

    We'll have to agree to disagree on whether or not clarity into the design process increases the likelihood of innovation success. Ah, "Process." It's a healthy debate that divides many design schools and design consulting firms as well!

  • ralph dopping

    Totally agree with Ken.

    Collaboration is the key to innovation. Brilliant (linear) business minds linked to highly creative (non-linear) thinkers collaborating in an open minded environment is where the magic happens. These types of environments are not only difficult to find, they are difficult to manufacture.

    Perhaps Design Thinking can be applied to create a "process" to "design" a platform where both "sides" of business and design can feel comfortable enough to truely collaborate.

  • matthias brendler

    Correction, I mis-wrote your name Helen. Sorry! (Lost in the ideas you raised I guess)