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The Best Strategy For Big Innovation: Knowing Your Limits

It may not be a silver bullet, but design thinking can yield results if companies manage their expectations and commit themselves to implementing good ideas.

Before we announce the death of Design Thinking, we ought to at least agree on what it meant — or rather, what it means, since, although maligned, the practice is alive and well and continues to help churn out innovative solutions to intractable problems for the few organizations that get it right.

The fundamental rationale is sensible: In a marketplace full of efficiently produced goods and services of reasonable quality, the only way to compete on anything other than price is to innovate in a way that's relevant to consumers. Design thinking is simply a way of coming up with better ideas, by taking a middle path that embraces exploration and verification in equal measure.

Ideas are a dime a dozen; it's implementation that decides triumph or failure.

But the name is wrong on two counts. "Design" implies that only designers can do it, when many of the most effective design thinkers have no design training at all. And "Thinking" suggests that coming up with the right idea is the crucial step in innovation. It's not. Any seasoned designer can tell you that ideas are a dime a dozen; it's implementation that separates triumph from failure. These two misconceptions teamed up to form a popular mythology that swept the business world after the dotcom meltdown, in which the brilliant designer or consultancy steps in, performs an Act of Design Thinking, and transforms the client company into a design-driven leader. No wonder there was a backlash.

While eager CEOs and a hype-prone business press are partly responsible for promoting this myth, design firms themselves must share some of the blame. But the idea of balancing intuition with logic at a corporate level didn't originate from any of them. Both design thinking and its broad predecessor, integrative thinking, were first widely promoted by Roger Martin at University of Toronto's Rotman School in the late '90s as antidotes to a linear business culture that obsessed over efficiency at the expense of effectiveness. But design thinking was quickly picked up by creative consultancies, who saw an idea they could own and sell and could leverage to get a seat at the decision-making table. "You want design thinking?" consultancies asked. "Well, we're the designers. Listen to us, and we'll give you some."

For many businesses, Design Thinking looked like a silver bullet. To management professionals who'd run out of options, it seemed like a quick and cheap path to a competitive advantage — an accessible way to becoming the next Apple or Facebook. But as Mark Zuckerberg (apocryphally) said to the Winkelvoss twins, "If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you would've invented Facebook." In other words, coming up with the right idea — even if it's a brilliant one, straight from the whiteboards of a high-profile design consultancy — means nothing without the ability to make it real.

This is where the myth falls apart. For much of the past decade, the business world approached design thinking with the wrong expectations, and designers had little incentive to correct them. The result has been a decade of innovation-seeking that mostly failed. There have certainly been great success stories in that time, but in almost every case, the crucial factor was not how "creative" the designers were but how well the corporation aligned its expectations with the often difficult realities of implementation.

To work, design thinking must meet with realistic expectations.

Ziba has experienced hits and misses with our clients over the past 26 years, and some of the most innovative solutions we've developed never made it to market. This is typical. Our truly productive partnerships have been with clients who came in ready to take on the task of innovation themselves. They had a clear understanding that the concept was just the first step and that design is not something that can be compartmentalized or tacked on at the end. They came to us ready to be changed.

When Ray Davis of Umpqua Bank approached Ziba in 2001, he already knew he wanted to re-invent the community bank. FedEx and Procter & Gamble, two longtime Ziba clients, have been building their own cultures of innovation for over 15 years. For each of these category-leading companies, we've provided some crucial services — identifying target customers, defining new offerings, building strategies for a more meaningful experience — but they've met us more than halfway. They went into the relationship ready to do something different. They sought out disruption and questioned core assumptions just as much as we did.

These realistic expectations are what make design thinking work. Perhaps companies would have better luck if they spent more time formulating the right expectations at the outset. For our part, creative consultancies have an obligation to explain more clearly what we can't do — that a great strategy doesn't solve a problem by itself. It can be daunting, even painful, to tell our clients this truth, but doing anything less is asking to fail.

[Top image, of ink in water, by Leonardo Aguiar]

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  • Matt Snyder

    Design Thinking can't exist within organizations that don't support it culturally.  Tuija is right – design thinking takes courage and risk.  Trying to situate innovation within complex systems of sales, shareholders, and profit - quickly becomes a challenge.  I spend find myself spending 40% of my time at my job influencing the environment/people around me so that my ideas can stick, grow, and spread. "Design thinking" for me, is more than just an idea or an expression of an idea... I thoughtfully choose words, tools, and mediums that can best express my ideas.  Sometimes it's a sketch - sometimes it comes in a metaphor during a lunch conversation – but I'm always thinking about how to communicate ideas.  Some designers, are only comfortable expressing ideas using the tools/processes that they are familiar with, and they fail to recognize that tools used for "idea creation" are sometimes not the best tools for "idea expression".  Good design rational, should account for the expectations and limits expressed in your article.  It means understanding other people, their values (internally/externally) and formulating a sound solution that can resonate with stakeholders - people can be convinced to take risk - but design ideas rarely account for this risk. Finally, design includes accountability: it means mediating the risks associated with innovating and it means evaluating them and learning from successes and failures.  Again, this involves cultural change – one where companies and organizations create the DNA to take time and evaluate appropriately.  Most designers I know don't have formal design training – sad, but true.  Society thinks designing means getting your hands on a copy of Photoshop, growing a beard, and wearing hip T-shirts... I think "design" has been held hostage by individuals that aren't disciplined and work without rigor.  I call these designers, "design keepers".  Most school design programs don't teach real discipline, and most designers can't talk about design outside of "cool".  I personally, am still trying to keep "design thinking" alive, but it's hard as hell.  It involves a lot of convincing and time away from my own computer and ideas.  I write more about this philosophy in blog/post:

  • paul gorlach

    The hypocrisy of today's corporate world and design thinking is evident in this article especially. If you think about it, in renaissance culture no one opined about design as much as they do today, but they sure did create some of the most relevant and beautiful design ever. Today corporate designers talk but don't do, that is the problem. If companies just hired more designers and gave them more freedom and made the job more fun, and created more fun and imaginative products alongside their obviously practical ones maybe the economy would be more vibrant as a result. But today the public does not even know what the heck is a industrial designer and that is a shame and fault of the education system too concentrated on money and influence. As the age old saying goes man does not live on bread alone, so goes the same for design, let me educate, design does not live by bread (practicality) alone. Design is also for inspiration purpose, to give meaning to life as man's history is primarily art history, but according to todays world it is not and it is not taught in schools that art and design is the foundation for culture, wealth and civilization like no other field. You can talk and talk but visual thinking can not be translated into words, it is easier to translate words into visual form than vice versa, and the visual is what humans are about primarily as we are  visually very sensitive, evidenced by history and mans love for the human form and nature,  but todays world ignores that, at a great price, which is the well being of the modern man.

  • Tuija Seipell

    I agree that we should not throw the ill-named design thinking practice out - although I don't mind dissing the terminology. Game-changers, such as Walt Disney, Guy Laliberte, George Lucas, James Dyson and many others have lead their companies this way long before Martin and other academics started putting words to it and promoting it as part of business-school curriculum. In real life, "design thinking" is creative problem-solving: the courage to freely generate ideas, evaluate and select the best and then execute. It may or may not have something to do with design. The most diffcult part of the process is still not so much in generating the ideas, but in evaluating and executing. Takes a lot of courage. And isn't that what entrepreneurial risk is all about?