Three hands surrounding picking individual pieces of a circle broken a part.
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When not to use Design Thinking

Every method and practice has a problem-fit. Design Thinking is optimal for a certain type of opportunities, do you know which?

9 min readOct 9, 2022

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Design Thinking has unlocked the customer and introduced a creative approach to problem solving for countless of organizations. As with every solution it needs the right problem to solve. So when is the answer Design Thinking and when is it not?

#Introduction — two perspectives

These are two great introductory articles on Design Thinking. One embracing it and arguing for all its benefits the other more critical pointing to some of the learned shortfalls — and how to improve them.

1.Design Thinking is a social technology “addressing the biases and behaviors that hamper innovation” (1)

“Along the way, design-thinking processes counteract human biases that thwart creativity while addressing the challenges typically faced in reaching superior solutions, lowered costs and risks, and employee buy-in. .. design thinking emphasizes engagement, dialogue, and learning. .. garners a broad commitment to change. And by supplying a structure to the innovation process, design thinking helps innovators collaborate and agree on what is essential to the outcome at every phase.” — Why design thinking works, Jeanne Liedtka

2. “Design Thinking Is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo” (2)

“ .. design thinking ”is poorly defined; that the case for its use relies more on anecdotes than data; that it is little more than basic commonsense, repackaged and then marketed for a hefty consulting fee. .. It is, at its core, a strategy to preserve and defend the status-quo .. privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process .. it limits the scope for truly innovative ideas, and makes it hard to solve challenges that are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty ..” — Design Thinking is Fundamentally conservative and preserves the status quo, Natasha Iskander

Although Iskander continues:

“.. Design Thinking works if it’s not bought, but owned. If it includes the whole team as designers, a design is a way of thinking, not a role. And if it never stops learning from the direct interactions with its customers and environment.” (2)

Screenshot of Harvard Business Review online from the two articles mentioned in the text.
Screenshot from Harvard Business Review (hbr.org)

My list of questions helping the team decide when Design Thinking is right for them:

Question #1: does the organization need an event or a way-of-working?

Does the organization need a brilliant solution to one specific opportunity or a way-of-working that spawns great ideas all the time?

Design Thinking is an event. It leads to one or a string of outputs, and then the team goes back to normal. It gives the team a fish but it doesn’t teach them how to fish.

Illustration of a fish hook, with the words “bite me”
Illustration by 31919733 on freepik.com

Many teams are brimming with ideas coming from anyone, anytime, anywhere. But they work in a process that doesn’t capture, qualify or fertilize these ideas.

Design thinking doesn’t remedy a broken way-of-working. It is often used as an innovation event applying a concentrated work effort getting to one or a small number of ideas — once.

The team needs to make sure if the problem to solve is finding the one awesome creative idea or engineering a system that fertilizes brilliant ideas every day. In case of the latter building a culture of experimentation (3) might be a better option / approach.

Question #2: Will the idea require an entirely new operating model?

Design Thinking is disconnected from the way the organization works. Its job is to challenge or transform the opportunities the organization is seeing. But it doesn’t solve the ‘how will this work’ part. It only solves the ‘big idea’ part.

Design Thinking too often ends up creating great ideas the organization is not fit to deliver.

Too many times I’ve met with teams showing me the great output of their Design Thinking process and what I’m shown is the workshop outputs .. it never travelled past the enthusiasm and the energy and into an organization designed to take advantage of it.

Two guys pushing to puzzle pieces together. One piece representing great ideas and the other way-of-working.
Illustration by user3711875 on freepik.com

Either Design Thinking needs to come with an operational or change leadership part or it needs to stay within the boundaries of what the current organization can deliver (which kind of defeats its purpose of being transforming).

Question #3: Do you want a creative output or a creative culture?

Does the organization want to reduce the distance to the customer and become more customer centric or do they want a creative result? These are two different wants.

Design Thinking works with the customer to imagine new opportunities for the company often applying new tools and methods the team has not previously used. But it doesn’t give them to the organization, it keeps them secured within the project.

An abstract depiction of customer shapes and forms.
Creating a customer culture. Illustration by Ahmadsafarudinel on freepik.com

Design Thinking is an isolated process. It is not used to create a more permanent cultural change. It does not bring in and establish a customer way-of-thinking with the right methods and process. It’s a one-shop creative process.

If you want to reduce the distance to the customer implementing customer methods and tools like jobs-to-be-done (4), business experimentation (3) or customer value propositions (5) might have a better long term effect than a Design Thinking event.

Question #4: do you need speed and scale?

Design thinking is a high quality, but meticulous and slow process that produces a limited number of solutions (or even only one). This is what it is designed for and might be what the organization needs?

But if the team is trying to get better at competing in a complex fast moving world then Design Thinking might not be the best fit.

Illstration showing a linear design thinking squiggle compared to a complex environment squiggle
Illustration by Helge Tennø

The classic Design Thinking approach takes months and solves a single problem that exists at one point in the process — it doesn’t rapidly change or create a continuous improvement mindset (7). It doesn’t grow, but narrows the closer it gets to the end of the project timeline.

(Alternatively you could use a Design Sprint (8), but it only solves for the speed part, not the complexity or the scaling).

Question #5: do you need leaps-of-faith or learning?

Design Thinking is a creative process that ‘checks in’ on the customer at certain stages making sure ideas are designed based on captured customer insights not “instincts” (9). It is a huge improvement compared to not including the customer at all, but it also falls short as it often relies on slow, expensive and non-scalable methods for customer input. Customer co-creation is often promoted as the key quality of Design Thinking, but with our 2022-glasses on the customer input is scarce.

Every design thinking process I’ve been a part of mostly relies on the creativity of the hired designers, while the customer contribution is seldom and far between, if any.

When Design Thinking was popularized by IDEO in the 1990`s (10) this was the best one could get. It was an awesome way to include the customer in the creative ideation and at some cadence check in with the customer to qualify what you were doing.

metronomes by the Noun Project

But with today’s volume of real-time-data, agile work practices and methods for rapid experimentation Design Thinking is not a miracle, it’s an old process designed when the world was without its current opportunities and what was fast and frequent is now slow and sparse.

We’ve also come to the understanding that it’s not only the organization that needs to learn what the customer wants, but the customer herself needs to learn what she wants — and that is a much slower and iterative process.

“A distributed network doesn’t know what its going to do until input hits it. And when you are the input variable you are always forcing it to move faster than you’ll be able to react..” Chris Fussell, McChrystal Group, Aerials Conference Toronto, 2015 (11)

If the organization wants a creative or design process which is different and inspiring then Design Thinking gives most business organizations a breath of fresh air. But due to it’s lack of customer interaction I would assume most processes only check-in with the customer once or twice within the project timeline. Which leads to leaps-of-faith in terms of what the company thinks the customer wants and the customers themselves learning what they want.

A truly customer driven process would have much smaller, faster moves compared to the common Design Thinking process (12).

Watch the first 40 seconds of this video with Aaron Dignan on The Responsive Organization.

#Question 6: What can and cannot be changed?

In his book A New Way to Think (14), Roger L. Martin argues that:

“A purely scientific approach to business decision-making has serious limitations, and managers need to figure out where those limitations lie” — Roger L. Martin, A New Way to Think (14)

Martin suggests that every situation is dominated by either necessity: we cannot change the need, but optimize it through a scientific approach. Or possibility: we can reimagine the need and the approach.

Martin uses an example of a plastic bottle maker molding bottles. The thermodynamics of the process (e.g. the temperature, pressure and time needed to mold and harden the plastic) are all unchangable. But what you use to mold it (the industry standard is air pressure) can be reimagined. And e.g. LiquiForm figured out how to use the content of the bottle itself to fill and shape the form at the same time.

Colorfull 2d-illustration of plastic bottles
Illustration by barsrsind on freepik.com

Martin argues that managers need to know what can and cannot be changed and apply the right process to the right possibility.

Design Thinking helps organizations reimagine the need of their customers and challenge their own approach for how to deliver the need. It is not as much a process to interrogate current solutions for incremental improvements.

But, where Martin uses the example of a bottle factory I would argue that customer problems are never this binary. And so there will always be a degree of interpreation by the team.

#Question 7: Do you need everything?

Design Thinking is a portfolio of tools. And even if some of them are just what you need, do you need all of them? Design Thinking can be redesigned, improved, taken apart, deconstructed and reassembled into .. Design Thinking or something else entirely.

What is the nature of the environment and climate (15) the organization operates in? What is the team trying to solve, what is the level of complexity, who is on the team and what is the timeline?

All these things matter when the team is trying to understand what methods and practice has the best problem-fit.

The team might benefit more from identifying the elements of Design Thinking they need and refit those into a different type of process or way-of-working (6).

An illustration of the list of benefits available through different creative processes.
List of benefits from different creative processes collected into Agile Customer Thinking.

My suggestion is to break Design Thinking apart. Find the components that fit the problem, bring in elements from other methods and practices and tailor something that works for you.

Good luck!

Animated Rubiks Cube being solved
Image by joaqboch on giphy.com

Sources:

(1). Why Design Thinking Works, Jeanne Liedtka, https://hbr.org/2018/09/why-design-thinking-works

(2). Design Thinking Is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo, Natasha Iskander, https://hbr.org/2018/09/design-thinking-is-fundamentally-conservative-and-preserves-the-status-quo

(3). Building a culture of experimentation, Stefan Thomke, https://hbr.org/2020/03/building-a-culture-of-experimentation

(4). Jobs-to-be-done theory, Ulwick, https://jobs-to-be-done.com/what-is-jobs-to-be-done-fea59c8e39eb

(5). The Customer Value Proposition, https://blog.startupstash.com/how-to-write-a-customer-value-proposition-part-1-introduction-b28221718fd8

(6). Agile Customer Thinking, https://www.agilecustomerthinking.io

(7). Customer Experience through Continuous Improvement, https://medium.com/everything-new-is-dangerous/customer-experience-through-continuous-improvement-f4f27c55cec1

(8). Google Design sprint, https://designsprintkit.withgoogle.com/

(9). Design Thinking by IDEO University, https://www.ideou.com/pages/design-thinking

(10). Design Thinking, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_thinking

(11). Christopher Fussell, https://www.mcchrystalgroup.com/people/christopher-fussell/

(12). Aaron Dignan, The Responsive Organization (watch the first 40 seconds), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYq8ozcPNII&t=15s

13. Miroslav (Mirko) Azis on design, IBM Design, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRt9DBjJvz4

(14). A New Way to Think, Roger Martin, https://store.hbr.org/product/a-new-way-to-think-your-guide-to-superior-management-effectiveness/10565

(15). Wardley Maps introduces the language of environments and climate to describe the uniqueness of each organizations context in which they operate, https://medium.com/wardleymaps/on-being-lost-2ef5f05eb1ec

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