This is the second in a multi-part post inspired by Robert Pirsig’s masterwork, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In Part 1 (titled “Reflections on ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ 38 Years Later – Part 1”) I discussed the implications for IT professionals of Pirsig’s musings on ‘classic’ versus ‘romantic’ worldviews, and his struggle to resolve these.

In particular, I noted that people who gravitate to the IT profession tend towards a ‘classic’ attitude to the world around them.  However, extracting value from IT today demands an approach that balances the classic and romantic – what John Naisbitt, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Megatrends referred to as “high tech/high touch.”

I went on to discuss what can be done to ensure that both perspectives are brought to the table.  I observed why the role of business relationship manager is so crucial to the business-IT interface.  This role, in its own way, emphasizes the romantic view, and represents an important counterbalance to the classic disciplines needed to run and maintain computer systems.  Finally, I teed up my observation that this classic-romantic balanced approach is embodied in the “design thinking” movement, popularized by Tim Brown and Ideo and exemplified by companies as diverse as Apple, Proctor & Gamble, Herman Miller and GE.

Design Thinking for IT

I don’t know the degree to which Pirsig was aware of the emerging field of Design Thinking when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) in the early 1970’s.  The first book I can find that used the term was Peter Rowe’s “Design Thinking” published in 1987, long after ZAMM was published.  However, many of the foundational ideas behind Design Thinking emerged in the early 1970s with human-centered design and design engineering as explored in books such as Herbert A. Simon‘s “The Sciences of the Artificial” in 1969 and Robert McKim’s “Experiences in Visual Thinking” in 1973. But I think Pirsig arrived at his reconciliation of ‘classic’ and ‘romantic’ methods from a purely philosophical approach through his attempt to define “quality.”  I don’t think he was particularly concerned with problem solving and solution design.

Wikipedia defines Design Thinking as:

a style of thinking, …generally considered (to be) the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context. While design thinking has become part of the popular lexicon in contemporary design and engineering practice, as well as business and management, its broader use in describing a particular style of creative thinking-in-action is having an increasing influence on twenty-first century education across disciplines. In this respect, it is similar to systems thinking in naming a particular approach to understanding and solving problems.” (Emphasis added.)

Design thinking applies a solution focus that starts with the goal of an ‘improved future’ rather than specific problem. This contrasts with the scientific method and the familiar Plan-Do-Check-Act, or Deming Cycle which starts by defining all the parameters of the problem in order to define the solution.

Design Thinking and the Left/Right Brain

In many respects, the ‘classic’ and ‘romantic’ ways of thinking are related to the ‘analytical’ and ‘intuitive’ approaches discussed by Roger L. Martin in his book, “The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage.”  Consider the image below:

Design Thinking Blends Analytical with Intuitive Logic

Design Thinking Blends Analytical with Intuitive Logic

Which side best characterizes the way you tend to work?  Which side best characterizes the organization you work in?  Would your company benefit from a more balanced approach?  How might that be achieved?

Characteristics of Design Thinking

I came across a post by Victor Lombardi where he listed some characteristics of Design Thinking – see the table below.

Characteristics of Design Thinking

Characteristics of Design Thinking

(Table inspired by Victor Lombardi)

How well does your organization embody these characteristics?  What could be done to bring more of them to bear?

Why Design Thinking in IT Today?

In the ‘good old days’, most business problems demanded custom IT solutions.  Today, there’s a vast wealth of ready made, flexible solutions in the form of Application Software, Cloud-based Application Services and personal “Apps.”  So, rather than starting from scratch – taking a business problem, breaking it down into manageable parts through analytical reasoning and decomposition – we already have available solutions.  In other words, we often need to start with:

  1. A vivid description of a desirable improved future.
  2. A deep understanding of the ready-made solutions available to us and how these might be used to create the improved future described in 1. above.

We’ve all seen the results when 2. above is missing.  For example:

Department A needs an ERP and acquires an Oracle product.  Department B needs an ERP and acquires an SAP product.  Department C needs an ERP and choses a cloud-based solution from Netsuite.  Result?  Lots of money spent, data integration nightmare created, business silos reinforced in concrete!  In reality, all three departments would have been fine with any of these solutions.  But they each did their own thing, often with the blessing of the IT organization!

I’d observe that the traditional analytical methods favored by business analysts and solution designers have tended to lots of ‘reinvention of wheels’ and unnecessary customization and have inhibited software reuse.  They are the antithesis of Design Thinking.  I firmly believe that contemporary techniques such as Service Oriented Architecture and the broad availability of ready made “business objects,” widgets, personal apps and “mash-ups” create an environment that would benefit significantly from a healthy dose of Design Thinking in IT today.

IT Roles to Foster Design Thinking

There are several roles that are key to instilling Design Thinking in an IT organization:

  • Architect
  • Product Manager
  • Business Relationship Manager

I will explore each of these roles and their relationship to Design Thinking in the next post in this series.

Image courtesy of Ideo

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