Why Design Thinking in Business Needs a Rethink

To reach its full potential, the popular innovation methodology must be more closely aligned with the realities and social dynamics of established businesses.

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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.



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).

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Comments (19)
Peter Hahn
Can't agree more about how important it is to get design leaders to the most senior level.
I run a small business. And everywhere I hear about design thinking. And therefore I want to know if this knowledge can change the course of familiar business processes.
Design Thinhink will be discussed during Innovation week Online created by Future London Academy. A 5-day online programme specially created for experienced innovation professionals, service designers and business leaders who are constantly looking for new approaches, tools and fresh case studies. Sounds interesting! What do you think?
Jörg Reckhenrich
Hi Wendy, point well taken. What the design thinkers invented was definitely a very fine and also simple to do, process. To make things simple, easy to access is a huge effort and needs stamina. Therefore the flood of design thinking initiatives is unbelievable. We saw often in our research, that organizations are simply attracted to work differently from the stiff work environment. There must be a different way is the promise of D-Thinking approach. Unfortunately, we saw that organizations simply "play" innovation.     

That is the what needs to be done: rethinking your own approach to reach out to the next level of a positive challenge. You have to do this in the arts, in every successful business and of course for D-Thinking as well.
wendy rich
its been a copy paste work nowadays designers need to reinvent themselves
Michael Wiley
Much depends on the industry and environment that a company resides in.

Design thinking is well-suited in companies that employ an adaptive strategy. In such a setting, experimentation and fast learnings are essential for survival. 

A perfect example is Telenor and its adaption to changing conditions moving from fixed lines to cellular. 

This environments are hard to predict and hard to shape. 

The problem is that most large companies still operate in the traditional classic mode.
Sharath Chandra Kogila
The article provides good reason why Design Thinking as a method may fail to integrate into established business set-ups. One important reason i think is motivation to comeback after an initial failure of employing the process. 

Another area that needs insight and requires research is. Does organizations needs a behavioural change management program before Design Thinking is employed as a process. It is important to package these together for DT to be effective
Narinder Sahota
Thanks, good article. I think Karl Burrow highlights the critical convergence that is occurring around design thinking, lean startup and agile practices (with experimentation climbing the hype cycle). Yet at the heart we see the same challenges that limited many  Enterprises embracing Agile practices in the first wave some 3-5 years ago. The human factor and the corporate middle management tier's desire to maintain the status quo is the achilles heel Exec leadership need to overcome either through inspirational leadership that generates a focus on a new compelling purpose or communication of a genuine  existential threat from disruption.
Yeuj Mak
Hi Martin,  You are seeing what you see because agility has not been able to scale to the height of enterprise level, remaining mostly at teams level where design thinking has been fully embraced no doubt.  In todays' 4th industrial revolution, management has to let go of control and the mindset that an organisation can be controlled like a machine.  It needs to the whole range of skills to manage investments, projects in all 3 horizons of defending status quo, growing new businesses and exploring opportunities.  Design Thinking is most crucial and appropriate in the latter because no one can predict the future in todays' complex and uncertain environment.  Parallel fail-safe experiments must be carried out in a sandbox while the plane is flying (business as usual).  Complexity-based approach is thus unavoidable as explained here https://vimeo.com/235139657.
Martin Kupp
Dear Anna, thank you very much for your comment. We fully agree. Once I was working with a large insurance company and had the possibility to visit their innovation space. The first thing I noticed was a poster with a set of rules like: Please do not remove the furniture from the room; Please check in and order the material that you need in advance; Please write only on the designated areas and only use appropriate pens; Please clean the surfaces that you used for writing ... and so on. When I laughed and took a picture of the poster, some of the participants did not even understand what I was laughing about. Many companies still have a long way to go!
Anna Glaser
Very interesting research! The best corporate innovation tools often fail to lead to success because management is not aligned. You can learn fast how a new tool works but it lasts a long time to change behaviors and management practices. Creating “egalitarian, self-organized teams” is not only important for design thinking but also for several other “hot” management topics like the “liberated company” or “corporate fab labs”. A lot of companies that I visited, for example just use the term “liberated company” and try to train their managers how to consider the opinions of their staff but at the end of the day fall back in control behaviors with little individual freedom of expression. Or companies create “corporate fab labs” where employees should go to “play”, but they don’t give them enough time to experiment. I think you point to an interesting research gap that is not enough explored in the literature: the gap between the theoretical concepts the managers try to implement to increase innovation and the reality. How long does it take to close this gap? What are the reasons that some management teams are reluctant to these changes and others are not? Thank you for this good article which got my neurons stimulated!
Martin Kupp
Dear Richard, thank you very much for your comment and your observations. I am actually working on some research on creativity in ethical decision making. We see that especially in ethical decision making, creativity is absent or even seen as a bad thing. In executive education classes we use a number of cases to make people aware that sometimes better solutions exist and that you need creativity to come up with them. A good case for this is for example the Vodafone in Egypt case by my dear colleague and friend Urs Mueller. You will be able to check it on The Case Centre website.
Martin Kupp
Dear Karl, thank you very much for your comment. I agree with your observation. We did not focus in our research on innovation catalysts. But I did a large corporate MOOC program for a large telco operator about three years ago. The program was developed around the design thinking principles. With 3000+ participants in the MOOC, we had a good insight into the design thinking capabilities of the participants and were able to detect future evangelists (or catalysts). This is also a very good way to spread such an initiative.
Richard McCracken
Thank you for sharing a very interesting snapshot of your experience Martin, Jamie and Jorg.
It seems to me that a large part of the difficulty lies in a general view that creativity is somehow separate and outside normal life - only 'special' people are creative and creativity is something to be deployed in special circumstances when 'normal' approaches fail - developing a new product, for example. This otherness of creativity reduces both frequency of use and effectiveness when it is unpacked for the special project.  It needs to be mainstreamed and like any muscle imbedded into daily practice to operate at its peak. Everyone is creative, and these design approach can and should be used to improve existing practice, systems, daily working life and not just reserved for that 'creative' new project.
Do you think case-based or similar approaches such as action research might have a part to play in normalising creativity among staff who do not think of themselves as creative?
Karl Burrow
I agree with this article Organizations are facing a shift where lean, agile, and design thinking are intersecting  within  organizations to drive innovation and transformation. Innovation catalysts are key to execute this for progress. Cross functional and cross departmental team alignment is a must.

Just had a discussion about this with Tom Kelly of IDEO in Tokyo which we touched on this in detail.
Jörg Reckhenrich
The article is based on an intensive and long project with a global pharmaceutical company, which has a site in Germany. The impact of cultural alignment was most insightful and crucial to the success of the project. The role of CEO acting more as a facilitator, defining a frame in which the team could develop ideas and solutions, created the difference.
Martin Kupp
Dear Sylvain, thank you for your comment. I fully agree with your observation regarding the different languages being spoken and I think that this would be a very promising avenue for further research.
laure helfgott
Very interesting, thank you!
Re-thinking the metrics is a huge topic indeed: we are trying to evaluate non-existing ideas as we do for existing products, forgetting that intuition and inspiration mainly spring from non-productive moments, without precise objectives, and in unexpected situations ... ;-)
Sylvain Bureau
Thank you for this paper which raises key issues. I share the same observations with a growing tension between the impressive diffusion of design-thinking within large corporations and limited changes in the way people work... I guess that one key challenge is also related to the language people use within companies. Language tends to remain bureaucratic and far from the language spoken by designers.
M L Bhatia
About "Why Design Thinking in Business Needs a Rethink", I have not been able to read the full article as I had already exhausted my monthly quota of three articles. I shall attempt to read it next month and then shall be in position to offer comments unless the rule is relaxed and I am permitted to read it this month..
M L Bhatia
The articles are based on hard research work and provide useful insights on innovation which are very helpful to me as an academic, consultant, and author on Technology Management. My recently published book is:
Essentials of Technology Management by M L Bhatia, New Age International Publishers (London, New Delhi, Nairobi), www. newagepublishers.com