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In recent years, “design thinking” has become popular in many industries as established companies have tried to apply designers’ problem-solving techniques to corporate innovation processes.1 Key elements of the design thinking methodology include fast iterations; early and frequent interaction with customers; agile process design with less hierarchy; and a learning-by-doing approach that involves building prototypes and creating mock-ups of any kind as early as possible in the process.
Here’s how design thinking initiatives are supposed to unfold in a corporate setting: A clearly defined innovation challenge is presented to a team trained in design thinking. The team conducts research to better understand the problem. Drawing on their insights, they propose a variety of solutions, start building prototypes, and in the end, identify a fresh, profitable business opportunity.
That’s how the process is supposed to work — but it hardly ever does. Over the past seven years, we have helped more than 20 companies pursue more than 50 design thinking initiatives and have found that such initiatives rarely proceed according to the textbook model. Innovation is an inherently messy process, made even messier because it conflicts in many ways with established processes, structures, and corporate cultures. Fortunately, once you understand the challenges, you can avoid the most common pitfalls.
The root of most of the problems is the disconnect between design thinking and conventional business processes. After all, most companies’ successes are built on delivering predictable products by repeatable means. That means organizations almost instinctively resist bringing fuzzy, messy, and abstract vision into the equation. This antipathy toward design thinking runs deep, all the way from the C-suite to line workers. We find that employees often try to dodge design thinking assignments, shying away from the habits and mindsets the methodology requires.
The organization of the teams themselves leads to a second difficulty. The design thinking methodology calls for egalitarian, self-organized teams, but this isn’t how most established large companies work. In fact, the design thinking teams we have studied tend to have clear process and project owners, usually senior managers. These managers not only supervise the design thinking project but also assign tasks to team members and are responsible for its outcome. To make things worse, these senior leaders often supervise 12 to 15 design thinking projects at a time.
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1. Peter G. Rowe’s book “Design Thinking,” published in 1987, was the first publication to use the term. The book described a systematic approach to problem-solving used by architects and urban planners. The application of design thinking methodologies beyond architecture emerged in the 2000s; instrumental in this were works by Tim Brown and by Roger L. Martin. See P.G. Rowe, “Design Thinking” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1987); T. Brown, “Design Thinking,” Harvard Business Review 86, no. 6 (June 2008): 84-92; T. Brown, “Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation” (New York: HarperCollins, 2009); and R.L. Martin, “The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is the Next Competitive Advantage” (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press, 2009).
2. T. Kelley and D. Kelley, “Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All” (New York: Crown Business, 2013).