Revisiting Design Thinking

Last year, I wrote a post about Design Thinking in response to an article in Brandweek that I felt was misleading on the topic. In it, I pointed to Roger Martin's work as some of the very best at describing what Design Thinking actually means. Last week I got into a Twitter discussion with Steve Finikiotis after he pointed me to a Harvard Business Ideacast featuring Roger and his ideas on Design Thinking.  I agree with Roger's views, however I have noticed some unintended consequences as the terms are put into practice. I boiled down these issues to three main points that I would like to discuss.  

First, I philosophically agree with Roger regarding the need for contextual research, abductive reasoning, and problem posing.  However, what I find in practice is that the term Design Thinking can be potentially problematic in its interpretation. This is because design is a functional discipline in most organizations, just like marketing, engineering, or finance. Most design education focuses on teaching the fundamentals of honing the craft and developing tangible design skills.  The work Roger describes of creating plausible hypotheses and solutions based on contextual research is often done by people who do not have traditional design backgrounds.  As a result, I have seen the term create some organizational confusion regarding work that I have found to be discipline agnostic. 

My second point is related to the first. Roger talks about how designers and business people need each other in a way that should break down silos to allow the necessary connections between their disciplines to be made. Again, I agree wholeheartedly, yet in practice, the term Design Thinking can cause the unintended consequence within an organization to segregate, rather then integrate the disciplines.  Richard Farson, a psychologist who has written quite a bit about design, discusses the need to focus on the "meta" level of all functional disciplines as a way to rise above the executional level within a functional discipline and frame the common problem at hand. When I've presented the "meta" idea to client organizations, it tends to help to philosophically integrate the disciplines within a team, and resolve the terminology issue.  It is something to think about.

Finally, Roger very eloquently speaks of the need to integrate creative and analytical thought. (see abductive and adductive reasoning) Amen to that! However, I find the integration of these two types of reasoning to get us part of the way there, but in order to accurately connect seemingly unrelated concepts we need a different type of cognitive skill.  For example, we certainly need to integrate creative and analytical reasoning to hypothesize a consumer's motivation behind what they say, and to develop new solutions to satisfy those motivations.  However, the ability to accurately translate from a specific plausible hypothesis to a related plausible solution appears to be a different type of cognitive skill that is employed in addition to the integration of the types of reasoning. In the work I've been doing, we're just beginning to scratch the surface of what that is. When I have something concrete, I'll be sure to share it.

I'll end by saying that I'm certainly not intending to criticize Roger Martin's work. On the contrary, from what I've seen he has done a better job than anyone in terms of creating awareness of the need to integrate creative and analytical thought processes and solutions. For that, he has earned my heartfelt gratitude. However, we cannot expect him to do everything alone, or to have every answer.  It is our responsibility as practitioners to raise the issue when we sense inconsistency between theory and practice, and continue to work together to hone these concepts.