About 3 years ago I first become aware of what can best be called a ‘movement’ dedicated to “Design Thinking,” when the term started showing up in some of my favorite blogs (e.g., Idris Mootee’s Innovation Playground).  The concepts became clearer and more compelling to me in June, 2008 when the Harvard Business Review published a wonderful piece on Design Thinking by Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, the world-renowned innovation and design firm).  Since then, several books as well as some remarkable shifts in company fortunes have reinforced my interest, including Tim Brown’s ‘Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspired Innovation‘ and ‘The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage‘ by Roger L. Martin.

Most recently I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how Web 2.0 might help foster and enable Design Thinking.  I’ve been doing this as part of a new multi-company research project I am leading.  And I’m very excited!

The Case for Design Thinking in the U.S.

The insightful Thomas L. Friedman, in a New York Times Op-Ed column on March 2, 2010 titled, “A Word From the Wise” noted comments in a speech by Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel, who was in Washington to talk about competitiveness:

that a 2009 study done by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and cited recently in Democracy Journal “ranked the U.S. sixth among the top 40 industrialized nations in innovative competitiveness — not great, but not bad. Yet that same study also measured what they call ‘the rate of change in innovation capacity’ over the last decade — in effect, how much countries were doing to make themselves more innovative for the future. The study relied on 16 different metrics of human capital — I.T. infrastructure, economic performance and so on. On this scale, the U.S. ranked dead last out of the same 40 nations.”

Too many companies (and the governments that shape corporate behavior through taxes and regulations) have become too comfortable with exploitation, and not sufficiently adept at exploration.  They have come to rely too much on analytical thinking, and not enough on intuition.  They have become so bogged down in their business core, they have all but ignored the edge where customer problems meet the creative process to create new products and services.

In the next few posts, I want to share what I have discovered and learned so far, and hopefully stimulate some constructive discussion and engage you, my readers, in shaping the upcoming research.

Does Your Executive Management Know What They Are Doing?

In a 1998 HBR article entitled, “Interpretive Management: What General Managers Can Learn from Design,” Richard K. Lester, Michael J. Piore, Kamal M. Malek, observed:

Today’s markets are increasingly unstable and unpredictable. Managers can never know precisely what they’re trying to achieve or how best to achieve it. They can’t even define the problem, much less engineer a solution. For guidance, they can look to the managers of product design, a function that has always been fraught with uncertainty.”

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”  Marshall McLuhan

So, the big question for me is how can the tools we have shaped into Web 2.0 enable ‘Design Thinking’ to help us realize dramatically higher business performance?  It seems that we have a whole new and powerful set of capabilities – social networking, crowdsourcing, innovation jams, social and semantic search, collaborative project, program and portfolio management, polling, listening feeds and activity streams, tags, 2D and 3D modeling, prototyping, virtual worlds, workflow modeling and automation, and on and on. And yet, aside from knowing that a distant friend is having a bad hair day, most of these tools and technologies are still looking for a meaningful business purpose.

So, What Is “Design Thinking”?

There are many definitions and descriptions, but the ones I’ve found most illuminating are:

The methodology commonly referred to as design thinking is a proven and repeatable problem-solving protocol that any business or profession can employ to achieve extraordinary results.” – Mark Dziersk, Fast Compan

A discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.” – Tim Brown, Ideo

Design thinking is always linked to an improved future.  It is a creative process based around the ‘building up’ of ideas, rather than critical thinking which is more concerned with analysis and the ‘breaking down’ of ideas.   Design Thinking moves design from a downstream (tactical) step to upstream (strategic) – vests everyone involved with the role of ‘designer.”  At its best, Design Thinking balances art and science, intuition and analytics, validity (doing the right things) and reliability (doing things right), exploration and exploitation

Design Thinking Has Profound Organizational Implications

Design Thinking has profound implications for:

  • Organization structures
  • Rewards, recognition, compensation
  • Portfolio management and strategic alignment
  • Governance and leadership style
  • Talent management and global sourcing

I believe that it also presents a significant opportunity …

  • For IT, HR, Finance, Facilities, Legal, etc. to step forward and make a real contribution to business success
  • To re-think ‘staff /line’ roles and responsibilities
  • To learn to love matrix management!

How is Design Thinking playing out in your organization?  How have Web 2.0 capabilities helped (or hurt) these efforts?  How do you see this playing out over the next couple of years?

To be clear, Design Thinking is essentially human centered, and there is something potentially incongruous in discussing the use of Web 2.0 to enable it.  However, I still firmly believe that these collective and collaborative technologies have a role in “greasing the skids” to make Design Thinking more accessible.  I will pick this up and drill down a bit further into this realm and discuss  ideas on how Web 2.0 can play a positive role in Design Thinking.

Graphic courtesy of IDEO

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