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.

The Best Strategy For Big Innovation: Knowing Your Limits

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]

About the author

Born in Tehran, Iran in 1956, Sohrab Vossoughi moved to the United States in 1971. After studying mechanical engineering for three years, he switched to study industrial design.