You would have heard everyone’s jaw drop after I mentioned this on Twitter over the weekend.

A fellow designer and I were discussing this in detail and jointly came to this conclusion with much disappointment. It was quite a significant conclusion and likely to be correct, as not only are we both in positions in managing design processes and teams; we are also in positions to shape and influence design centric business strategies.

I do not think that this epiphany happened as a result of this discussion. This was been something that has been cooking at the back of my mind. Ever since design thinking started gaining traction in the competitive corporate environment, I have been thinking about its impact, its fallout, and definitely its side effects.

This was really not an easy post to write, as there was lots of information for me to reorganize and sort out. But with as with any story, lets start from the beginning. Lets look at why design thinking was needed in the first place?

I think A.G. Lafley says it best in the following two quotes on the difference between business and design thinking.

“Business schools tend to focus on inductive thinking (based on directly observable facts) and deductive thinking (logic and analysis, typically based on past evidence), …”

“Design schools emphasize abductive thinking—imagining what could be possible. This new thinking approach helps us challenge assumed constraints and add to ideas, versus discouraging them.” ~ Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley

(From The Game-Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation, Business Week 28 July 2008)

Businesses finally realized that, in this hyper competitive environment, design thinking could be the Holy Grail responsible for creating the next big thing. Considering all the hard lessons we learnt during the recent recession, businesses were more than ready for this change.

So designers (well at least some) are rejoicing that design thinking has finally reached a tipping point. The evidence is everywhere. Any business periodical worth its salt has some form of design coverage, not only that, their online presence has a design blog or at the very least a “design” tag.

Everyone was happy. We were even happy to roll with the confusion of the difference between big D Design and small d design. There is no denying that design, both the verb and noun, has finally got the recognition it needs and firmly entrenched into the echelons of the board room.

But at what cost?

For design to be so integrated into business and their processes, a huge divide had to be crossed, different mindsets had to meet and meld. It almost became a prerequisite that design thinking had to be communicated in a language that the business can understand.

That, in my humble opinion, was the beginning of the end.

As design got closer to business, and design thinking evolved to meet business thinking across the chasm, design thinking started to inherit the problems that the business organizations so hoped design thinking would solve and move beyond.

For one, design thinking’s consumer focused methodology was used to validate ideas and concepts as we explored in the post “user centered design is dead”. We were now asking consumers “What Next”, instead of leading with compelling and meaningful solutions. We just kept on optimizing rather than innovating.

Design could have stepped in, but I believe, instead of getting easier, it got harder. Perhaps now design and business are just too close, and being too close has its disadvantages as people start taking each other for granted.

The gain in popularity of crowd sourcing did not help. Together with the Internet, market research now becomes scalable with truly statistical significant data. Now suddenly, and logically, businesses have access to large amounts of information and data, and old habits die-hard. The real failure here is when businesses validate propositions and solutions anchored by a design thinking processes with data compiled from existing solutions.

In the 5 or so years since design thinking got big in the boardroom, I’ve experienced, over and over again, business ROI getting the better of design thinking. Awesome product propositions anchored by critical insight, technology, and business potential, gets killed or watered down because risk adverse businesses believe they can’t sell enough to justify the product’s existence.

Sigh. At the end of the day though, a well-informed designers can still negotiate around and resolve such hazards.

The last straw came when I realized that the design thinking process had become a nice little packaged “product”. A product now taught in schools and universities, spread in droves by business consultants eager to jump on what is now established as the next big business trend. Just like JIT, Six Sigma and ISO etc. that came before, design thinking is now being deployed structurally like another other business process in organizations far and wide.

But that is not really “it”. “It” really is when people from such design thinking integrated organizations are repeating the process back to me in rote, and debating which is the right or wrong way of conducting Design Thinking. I almost wonder if they forgot that it is really not so much about a right or wrong process but a right or wrong solution instead.

Dictating design as a 1-2-3 step by step process is ripe for failure in the creativity and solutions department. This is probably why after half a decade; the companies responsible for creating innovative products continue to be the usual suspects. The same old brands that have been doing so even before Design Thinking had its day. Therefore I feel design thinking is not producing the results the business has been hoping for. I believe, despite our best efforts, design thinking will continue to be something only a few can do well.

It also looks like design thinkers that have not been classically trained in design doing might be missing that great innovative solutions don’t come at the end of the process; the innovation comes from any part of the process.

Design is an iterative activity that has broad guidelines but no fixed common process. What’s really more important is that critical insight, sensitivity to consumer needs and the beautiful solution comes from the creative chaos encouraged by an open process. All that got killed when the business mindset required Design Thinking to have structure, repeatability, and reliability.

Moving forward, what’s next?

I think its time for all of us to move on, Design thinking should not be seen as the end all, but part of a number of design tools businesses can employ. Therefore I have always contested from the beginning that designers should lead all design thinking and related efforts. This is because classically trained designers have it in their DNA the mindset to able to deal with chaos and manage risk. Something the Business has trouble and need help with, as it is in that chaos where paradigm-shifting ideas will come from. That is where the Holy Grail really resides.

Phew! What a beast of an article, but as always I’m looking forward to your feedback.

Image source: kevindooley

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