Is design thinking really a hot business concept?

Reflecting on language is always fun.  What we label an idea is amazingly important to its success and evolution.  We all struggle with the word sustainability — to use (because it has been around since Gro Brundtland in 1987 and there doesn’t seem to be another good word) or not to use (because it has been mis-used and abused — like many words we over-exercise).

I am reflecting 24/7 (at least it feels like it) on the idea of design thinking in business.  Which is why the January-February 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review’s “Interaction” column caught my attention.  The header is:

Why Design Thinking Won’t Save You

Peter Merholz writes in the blog:  “Whenever I see a business magazine glow about design thinking, as BusinessWeek has done recently…it gets my dander up.  Not because I don’t see the value of design…but because the discussion in such articles is inevitably so fetishistic, and sadly limited…Replacing the spreadsheet crowd with creative types is no panacea.”

Then Jeff Kehoe, HBR Senior Editor responds:  “…smart people who think and write about design thinking would never pose design thinking in binary opposition to business thinking.  To the contrary, most would agree that design thinking involves an interdisciplinary and synthetic approach to problem solving and innovation.”

To which Merholz replies:  ” if design thinking is interdisciplinary and synthetic, then “design thinking” is a disingenuous term…part of my point is that the phrase “design thinking” is simply marketing — marketing for design firms. The kind of interdisciplinary thinking we seek is not simply the purview of designers, and shouldn’t be considered as such.”

And then Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Business in Toronto and author of “The Design of Business” responds:  “I believe there is a form of thinking — analytical thinking — that dominates thinking in business… in opposition to analytical thinking is not design thinking but rather intuitive thinking — knowing without reasoning.  Intuitive thinking imagines the future.  It is about invention, the most disruptive and unsystematic form of thinking.  To me, design thinking is the productive combination of analytical thinking and intuitive thinking.”

Can’t yet decide if I agree with Roger Martin totally — I do think that design thinking is an integration and balance of critical and creative thinking.  But is creative thinking only intuitive?  Not sure about that.

I am also following a number of groups on LinkedIn — one called DMI – Design Management Institute.   One of the threads is based on the question:  Will design thinking revolutionize the business world? The consensus is probably not, but it does have the potential to increase the range of thinking and bring a balance to a set of disciplines that has tended to lean on the “proof, analysis, reliability, towards a degree of flexible, exploratory, validity-based thinking” (John Stevens, PhD research Cambridge University).

I also find I am experiencing overload as I immerse myself in all the writing and discussions around design + business.  An opportunity to be part of the College of Environmental Design Speaker Series on Feb 24 has now given me a date to sort my thinking out.  My proposed title is: Rethink. Redesign, Rebuild:  Design Means Business.

More soon.

2 responses to “Is design thinking really a hot business concept?”

  1. jay higdon

    Hi, Moura. I’ve been following the threads in LinkedIn. Yes, of the quotes above, Mr. Martin is probably the closest to describing the core of your curiosity and its application, “design thinking.” As I listen to many of these conversations, what appears to be coming to the fore, because the issue is never clearly raised, is that current methods of doing business are broken, cumbersome and inefficient. And there is a rapidly growing consensus a new way of conducting business is needed. Would it be fair to lay this description over education, family, religion, and politics, too? Is this fair? If it is, do they impact your central focus, “design thinking?” I don’t really intend to move off the point with this question, but only wish to broaden the scope of the issue as a consideration. How is it we are at this point?

    As Mr. Martin mentions, “Intuitive thinking imagines the future. It is about invention, the most disruptive and unsystematic form of thinking.” Right brain. And as Mr. Martin also says, “I believe there is a form of thinking — analytical thinking — that dominates thinking in business.” Left brain. One can keep analysts in a corral, but the rest are like herding cats. Yes? I read a book by a man named Gordon Mackenzie called “Orbiting the Giant Hairball.” He worked for Hallmark Cards, a creative company, and was one of those intuitive by nature. Some of his words are below.

    “On the way to getting big, most companies turn into Giant Hairballs. Not on purpose; it just happens. Two hairs get tangled — not because they don’t work but because on some level, for someone, they work just fine. As it is joined by more and more hairs, each of which worked well enough somewhere for someone, the tangle becomes more complex and larger. Before you know it there’s a ball of hair so big it has it’s own gravity field strong enough to pull . . . almost anything . . . nearly anyone . . . into its mass.”

    “To take the ability to create, you must spiritually soar into the thin air of the stratosphere — blue sky — where it is possible “to bring into existence” from nothing an original concept. Hairballs detest thin air like nature abhors a vacuum. A concrete world where precedents take precedence is a reality more to a Hairball’s liking. A world honeycombed with the established guidelines techniques, methodologies, systems and equations that are the heart of a Hairball’s gravity.”

    An interviewer asked him, “Tell me about your job at Hallmark. Creative paradox?

    I don’t have a job description. I’m doing it right now. My job is to put myself out in front of you or whoever and risk to grow. Really to risk and stretch and walk out on some thin ice and say, “I wonder if I can stand here.” (Note, Creative Paradox was the title on his business card).

    (Rethink) why and how business is done. (Redesign) interpersonal relationships. (Rebuild) personal and corporate skills/responsibility: (Design) is word that has many meanings, but yes, it can be a (means) to a successful/productive blend of analysis and intuition for (business).

    I hope, desperately, this makes some sense. This subject is of great interest to me and would like to continue to listen as you proceed on your quest.

    With highest regards. Jay

    Apologies for grammatical errors. : )

  2. Adal

    akh joooon hanuz daghe un emaehtna tamum nashode in yeki mikhad shoru she! be nazare man felan hamin bashe badan mindazim aghab!faghat age jaye adabiat o enghelab avaz she fek konam behtare chon migan adabiat aghlab 20 an,vase hamin vase unaE ke behdasht oftadan behtar mishe albate age baghie am razian Daste shomam dard nakone vase namayandegie khubetun o daste mr.tadbiri vase adamakaye jadid,mese ini ke man kheili dusesh daram!

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