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Design Thinking Needs Alter Ego Working with It – Sehoon Min September 23, 2009

Posted by Sehoon Min in Design Thinking.
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I have been a management consultant over 6 years (and will be for some years to come). While the analytical reasoning and puzzle-solving skills that I’ve been practicing over those years are very effective in constructing competitive strategies, I found we consultants are very clumsy at coming up with something new. It has been some years since innovation has become the primary word among managers. Companies nowadays seem to look for the ways to fundamentally rethink, rebuild their business and the ways to build new businesses to help themselves grow out of the trap between price competition from emerging economies and sophisticated offerings from developed markets. And this is one of the reasons I came to be interested in “design thinking” which I found so far very enlightening.

Innovation, however, is one of the most loosely defined terms just like “art” is. Each company and social entity means different things with this word. For me, the interesting ambiguity about design thinking originates from this fact. Since design thinking is packaged as the major approach to innovation, the ambiguous nature of the concept of innovation, in turn, blurs the concept or potential of design thinking. What kind of innovation is design thinking effective for? Is design thinking an effective tool to create innovation only in product/service/customer experience level? Or can it be a great tool to innovate in rather broader/higher realm of a company’s business direction or business domains? Can it be a tool to incur innovative changes to the cause of a social problem rather than just certain symptoms of the problem? Without the rigorous answers to these questions, the true potential of design thinking seems to be quite ambiguous. Should we leave the answers to trial and error of those innovation companies?

In addition, there seem to be a huge potential in the combination between design thinking and traditional analytical strategy works. In a given problem, the frontier of innovation is always too vast. However, the design thinking process, if narrowly defined, seem to lack the front-end activities, meaning the foundational work of defining where we should seek the innovation. For instance, in the reading material, Shimano’s Coasting product system could be effectively developed because Shimano already defined the under-served population as their next growth platform. Defining this domain of innovation can be better done by analytical work than design thinking process. Knowing that much of business problem solving is done in an environment where stakeholders (e.g., bosses, clients, employees, etc.) exist, it is often required to ‘prove’ the scalability of the suggestion and to provide role out plan. These also seem be the places where traditional consultants can add value.

It has been really interesting to observe a firm like IDEO expand the boundaries of work from product design to space design, real estate development, business strategy, and social innovation. Personally, I would like to find the ways to connect design thinking with what I do to expand the potential of both disciplines. “Design Thinking” article was a great introduction for this but not enough to answer some questions that I have.

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1. Sara Beckman - November 28, 2009

You raise some very important questions that need to be answered. Over the years I have observed many companies jump from fad to fad, seemingly seeking the proverbial silver bullet that will magically improve their performance or change their fate. In my opinion, this approach is destined to fail, as these companies overlook some of the fundamentals and instead yank the company around from approach to approach. Design thinking is getting a lot of air time right now in part because of the state of the global economy, the environment, etc. requires us to think differently than we have thought before.
But, design thinking as a fad will ultimately fade just as other fads have come and gone. That does not mean that we shouldn’t learn about it, or that we shouldn’t understand its basic elements – e.g., understanding others, asking why, playing and prototyping, gathering and telling stick stories – and continue to employ them with whatever words or frame we wish to put around them. Similarly, analytical thinking and approaches will also always have a role. To me this suggests that future leaders will have to be adept at balancing both – in essence planning and improvising in some balance as required by what is happening in the world around them.


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