Written by Marc Bolick
Design thinking is one of the red-hot shiny objects that many organizations pursue in the elusive search for innovation. It has become a go-to structure for companies to solve complex problems during eras of rapid, accelerating change. So… let’s outline three essential rules that will provide a 100% guarantee* that every project will be a complete success. What’s not to love about that?
*Ok, I’m not serious here. Read on and you’ll find there is no guarantee of success! Innovation is hard as hell, and anyone who implies that design thinking is an easy solution to all your problems is a modern-day snake oil salesman.
The First Rule of Design Thinking is that you do not talk about design thinking. Yes, inspired by the movie Fight Club, the First Rule is essential. The most important factor of success of a design thinking effort is to just do it.
Don’t talk about how you’re going to “take a design thinking approach to this project” or “run a design thinking sprint” or invite people to a “design thinking brainstorm.” Who really cares what your method is? People want results and they want to know the purpose for using their precious time. They want to be reassured that their investment of time and treasure will get them results.
So, instead of trying to sell the methodology and how it’s worked for fancy brands, use the superpower of empathy to engage project stakeholders in a set of structured conversations that serve to co-create the right approach for the challenge at hand. I think the biggest mistake you can do as a practitioner is to oversell design thinking.
We define design thinking as a flexible methodology, a set of activities and tools to structure conversations, and, most importantly, a human-centered mindset. Use that mindset to empathize with the teammates and other stakeholders involved in the project. Carefully design a project approach that is engaging and meaningful for the people participating.
Don’t talk about doing design thinking — that’s just design talking. Instead, lean into design doing!
To all those Fight Club fans out there, my apologies. The Second Rule of Design Thinking is not a repeat of the First Rule, as important as the First Rule is. The Second Rule of Design Thinking is that anyone can do design thinking.
Building on the First Rule, the true beauty of design thinking as a problem-solving methodology is that it democratizes the thinking of designers. As an engineer with an MBA and no formal design training (but plenty of practice designing solutions for humans and many years working with various kinds of design professionals), what fascinates me about good designers is their ability to approach problems in a very different way than analytical or business thinkers. The core value of design thinking is that it has helped make this unique approach to problem solving accessible to people outside traditional design fields.
Like any profession that people invest their lives mastering, designers are proud of their accomplishments, of their craft, and their unique abilities honed through formal training and experience. I get that. I don’t claim to be a designer in that sense. People should not oversimplify the idea of design. But I take issue with Natasha Jen in her talk Design Thinking is Bullsh*t.
I think it’s critical to share and open-source those principles that designers use to approach problems: curiosity, tolerance for ambiguity, empathy, convergent and divergent thinking, visualization and modeling concepts. We need these things to help find solutions to the wicked problems that we humans and our planet face.
And, yes, it should include the critique of ideas, Natasha — that’s an essential part of the process of bringing anything new to the world. For many people, design thinking introduces the idea of “sh*tty first draft” prototypes that can be powerfully liberating for people stuck in a paradigm of linear problem solving.
Design thinking is a structured and collaborative way for humans to better serve other humans. There should be nothing exclusive about it. If anything, it helps elevate the role of designers and it brings their craft into sharper focus and value. Design thinking is for everyone!
Third Rule of Design Thinking
The Third Rule of Design Thinking is that there are no rules of design thinking! Yes, if you read this far and you were hoping to take away the only three things you need to know about design thinking, I’m sorry. This Third Rule is perhaps the most important. Even though it’s really not a rule. Because, well — there are no rules.
Why? Design thinking is a way for groups of people to coordinate their efforts to solve a common problem or challenge. It has the particular distinction of being associated with innovation, but there’s no guarantee that using design thinking will get you to innovation. There are other methodologies that are also associated with innovation as I’ve written in this post. The best strategy is to blend different tools and approaches, those that work best for your particular team and context, into an ‘innovation system’ that works for you.
Design thinkers have to develop their own flavor of design thinking. They should not blindly take a set of steps and canvases from a course and apply them to every problem they face. Anyone who has embarked on the journey of learning how to be a design thinker knows that this simply doesn’t work. Instead, just like the design process itself, you need to formulate your own process, curate your own approaches, blend those with existing ways of working in your organization and experiment with things as you settle into your own version of design thinking. There are no rules of design thinking!