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Keeping Innovation Flowing Through Design Thinking April 18, 2010

Posted by J. Santana in Uncategorized.

Roger Martin does an excellent job of describing how CEOs and other corporate influentials can strive for a healthy balance of reliability- and validation-focused thinking, and why they should.

Martin describes this philosophy as “design thinking”, a term initially used by Tim Brown of IDEO. Martin illustrates the phases of a corporation as passing, or coagulating, in a “knowledge funnel”. Businesses begin this process by exploring a mystery at the wide end of the funnel – looking at problems from a new perspective, and searching for a heuristic to apply to the problem. Once a business settles on a heuristic, they pass through the heuristic phase of the funnel. At this stage, people become experts in addressing the problem. The company should then hone the heuristic into an algorithm, the final stage of the funnel.


Many companies fail to continue the circular process of identifying a mystery to solve, applying a heuristic to it, turning that heuristic into an algorithm, and reconsidering the mystery from a new angle. Companies that focus on the mystery without growing efficient through the use of algorithms fail to grow their idea into a repeatable solution.  Companies that do not promote the transition from heuristics to algorithm rely on key people with the knowledge and are unable to move that knowledge into a more efficient algorithm for lesser-skilled staff to use, and thus lose out on reinvesting key people into considering new heuristics. These companies fail to become efficient nor innovate at a high rate. Finally, other companies stagnate in algorithms – they identify and hone an algorithm that has proven reliable, but they fail to consider new approaches to the problem. These companies find themselves facing increasing risk from competitors who are able to reconsider the problem.

Martin describes the mystery exploration process as more validation-oriented: what could be, rather than what is or what was. On the other end of the spectrum, algorithms require a reliability-focused perspective. Martin argues that design thinkers – those who are able to balance reliability with validation – are required to ensure that the company moves fluidly through the mystery, heuristic, and algorithm stages and back to the mystery stage to reinitiate the cycle.

Despite Martin’s exemplification of companies with which he has worked (posing a potential conflict of interest), the framework is very appropriate for businesses of all ages to ensure that they are remaining competitive by incorporating design thinking. In contrast, most literature on competitive advantage focuses on established firms, most notably Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma.” By combining Martin’s approach (redirecting former heuristic owners into a constant cycle of applying heuristics to new ideas and modeling algorithms from those heuristics)  with Christensen’s (creating an investment/acquisition subsidiary where ideas and new markets can be considered) , we can recognize that a designated workforce of innovators and design thinkers is necessary to continue a company’s sustainable growth. As a design thinker, I appreciate Martin’s balance of value between reliability- and validation-oriented perspectives. While I recognize the domination of reliability-oriented perspectives on the business stage, it is important to emphasize the role of reliability for those who have traditionally favored validation.

Find Roger Martin’s “The Design of Business” at: http://www.amazon.com/Design-Business-Thinking-Competitive-Advantage/dp/1422177807.