on Design Thinking

Let’s dive in. What is Design Thinking? Why is it so powerful?

There’s a lot of writing on this subject (a good place to start). Another basic search will lead you to the ol’faithful. But I think this over complicates a deceptively simple way of thinking – a way of thinking that has been used over the ages, but has only really become ‘conscious’ recently.

One reason for this is that we’ve become muddled with the idea of creativity, and the romantic notion of the lone creative genius.  The mystique that has grown around the notion of ‘creativity’ has clouded the discipline of thinking in order to innovate. As a consequence, the lone creative genius meme has, I think, mutated into a geek.

Similarly (and ironically), Design Thinking suffers from being misunderstood. Redhat is right to say that Design Thinking is seen as the last resort in business circles, when everything else has been exhausted (i.e. good old fashioned fighting-tooth-and-nail competition).


Design Thinking appears brash if not handled carefully. It also has the habit of making the old culture or way of doing things in an organisation redundant very quickly. And, who wants that to happen? One half-hour insight meeting can make 5 years of work look like a complete waste of time (yes, I have been in a meeting like this – and yes, it takes a big leader to fully accept this).

This links (somehow) into explaining good explanation as discussed by David Deutsch in one of his TED presentations. The two processes complement each other. Some may think it counter-intuitive when Design Thinking is teamed with scientific reasoning. It changes something that has a ‘flashing bow-tie’ reputation to something that can be ‘applied’ and then its outputs assessed, made definite – as a way to explain the ‘things [previously] unseen’. Some think this assessing phase this is part of Design Thinking, but I think this an unhelpful diversion that tries to incorporate all into one master plan (and in the process identifies a constraint in Design Thinking).

Design Thinking really does need to have more than a day release from the hospital, it needs to fully integrate with other ways of thinking for it to become a trusted, (and I use this word cautiously) repeatable business tool.


Design Thinking is the life blood of innovation. But – importantly – it is not innovation dissected. And ironically (again) this is why it is not easy to adopt – it’s benefits can not be explained to a board team in a set of dry powerpoint slides. It requires excitement (EMOTION) and on some level a collective leap of faith. It is about accessing what’s in people’s heads. It’s about what’s not been done yet. But importantly it’s also about strong leadership.

Yes, there are long drawn out management processes used to explain Design Thinking, but these are used that same way that a teenager tidies her bedroom before finally settling down to do homework. There are no tricks or little lazy deceits that people can use to put Design Thinking off, just take on a few key points and get on with it: seek to first FULLY UNDERSTAND, THEN create, THEN analyse, THEN deliver – this is where we need to integrate: where we can start defining and explaining so others get it, and so you don’t end up looking like a geek.


2 thoughts on “on Design Thinking

  1. Highly useful and balanced observations – in particular your points about “accessing what’s in people’s heads” and that not everyone will welcome the disruption. From the perspective of someone who has been thinking about design thinking for several years, I agree DT has been with us over the ages and now its (conscious) time has come. Integration with other ways of thinking is vital to avoid fad-dom. And, similar to you, I’ve witnessed how “one half-hour insight meeting can make 5 years of work look like a complete waste of time” so the reality of working through resistance needs more attention by advocates.

  2. Thanks Sharon – wise words. Interesting point re fad-dom: the fact that Design Thinking is difficult to pigeon-hole is both it’s strength and it’s weakness.

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