The ongoing debate about the phrase design thinking has been a source of amusement: Designers seem to get tired of their own vocabulary well before the rest of the world even knows what they are talking about. There are many who dismiss design thinking as an inaccurate description of a more strategic use of design. Others will say, like Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, that “what is being labeled as ‘design thinking’ is what creative people in all disciplines have always done.” This may be true, but the growth and influence of design thinking and its application to larger strategic problems continues to achieve a few important things in organizations:
- Changing perspectives: For many, design is no longer a department to help “make pretty,” but rather a resource that can serve as a powerful component of the strategic toolbox for uncovering needs, reframing market opportunities, designing new business models, visualizing strategy, reducing risk, and making a major contribution to the top and bottom lines.
- Integrating organizations: Design thinking has helped many organizations see designers and design methods as an integrating force to break down traditional boundaries and silos in ways that release creativity and enable organizations to better adapt to the necessity of change.
- Expanding disciplined creativity: By shifting the conversation and context of design from products and communication to systems, services, and strategic solutions, designers are making their presence felt far beyond the borders of corporate design departments by tackling “wicked problems” that governments and traditional bureaucracies have been unable to resolve.
At a time when the pace of change and market disruption is increasing, the ability to reframe problems, uncover new opportunities, and deliver creative solutions is a business imperative, not just a market differentiator (just ask AG Lafley, who is featured in the most recent DMI Review publication, and has recently returned as CEO of P&G). There is a reason that design and innovation clubs are thriving at all the major business schools. Students are demanding to be taught more about creativity and design in order to become better entrepreneurs and business leaders.
This desire for creativity to uncover opportunities and innovate effectively also points at an interesting parallel between entrepreneurial thinking and design thinking. Although many discount the concept of design thinking as ill defined or “designer mumbo-jumbo,” there are four important aspects of design thinking that are very attractive to business and consistent with successful entrepreneurship:
- Empathy. Developing a 360-degree understanding of the challenges for all stakeholders, including those who produce and deliver the product or service, in order to creatively question the status quo and reframe the problem.
- Creativity. Taking a diverse and divergent approach to generating ideas, synthesizing complex issues, and visualizing solutions in order to support better decision-making.
- Efficiency. By providing a more disciplined approach with proven processes, tools, and exercises, design thinking is making organizations more efficient and consistent innovators. Just look at the top 10 innovators in Booz & Company’s annual innovation study. They are all design-driven companies.
- Efficacy. A thoughtful approach to design thinking (and doing) that includes rapid prototyping, testing, and shorter time to market also makes organizations more effective competitors and reduces risk of failure.
Whatever you choose to call it—innovation, design, creativity, design thinking, design intelligence—let’s agree that what the world needs is more Chief Design Officers. CDOs place the integrative power of design alongside the CFO, COO, CIO, and CMO functions to help CEOs make organizations more united, more responsive, more creative, more adaptable to change, and more purposeful in their business pursuits.