What they don't tell you about design thinking

There are no easy wins in disruptive innovation, says academic David Dunne.

by David Dunne
Last Updated: 11 Feb 2019

Disruption is like pornography: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. A lot of companies are seeing it, everywhere. If they don’t actually see it, they know it’s coming. And that creates a gut-clenching tension: sit and wait, and you’ll be disrupted and become yesterday’s technology, consigned to the same dumpster as the typewriter and the rotary-dial phone.

Every industry, it seems, is "ripe for disruption". Many look to design thinking, an approach to innovation that uses empathy, logic and imagination to understand users’ problems and develop solutions, to head this off.

If you listen to its evangelists – and there are many – design thinking can solve just about any innovation problem. Not only that: it’s easy, fun and can come up with truly disruptive ideas. Is design thinking too good to be true? Or is there a downside?

Design thinking isn't easy

My research shows that, while design thinking has benefits, it’s tough to make it work in a large organisation.

For my book Design Thinking at Work: How Innovative Organizations Are Embracing Design, I interviewed design thinkers in large organisations in Canada, the US, Denmark and Australia. The stories they told me were remarkably similar.

For all its potential, design thinking raises some tough questions for organisations: do you build your design program inside the company, or keep it away from day-to-day business? Innovate incrementally, or disruptively? Focus on users, or systems? There’s no straightforward answer to these questions. That’s why I call them the three tensions of design thinking: they are pain points that never really go away.

If your program is embedded within the company, it’s tough to be really disruptive; if it stands out too much, it risks being isolated. In one large retailer, design thinkers were located far from head office and thought of as reality-challenged "crazy cowboys". Naturally, this kind of reputation doesn’t help you get disruptive projects implemented.

Internal design labs often start with low-hanging fruit – incremental projects to build their credibility, such as a tweak to a web interface or service experience. Trouble is, success with these projects means you get asked to do more of them. The result: you’re left with little time for truly disruptive innovation. Many of the internal labs I spoke to were overwhelmed with incremental work and felt unable to progress with more disruptive projects.

Designers tend to resist top-down innovation, favouring an approach grounded in user experience. It makes sense to design products and services around users – but today’s delivery systems are just too complex for a completely user-centred approach.

Take an apparently simple product like bottled water. If you want to improve the user experience by developing, say, a new easy-chug bottle, it isn’t enough just to design a cool bottle: you’ll have to take into account the interests of bottle suppliers, mould makers, your own engineers, distributors and every type of retailer, from large supermarkets to burger stands. And that’s without even considering your impact on municipal recycling programs, the planet and school kids who raise funds through bottle drives. You need to think about users and systems at the same time.

Design thinking isn’t a panacea for that gut-clenching tension. It brings tensions of its own – but no disruptive innovation will happen without a degree of tension. Are you ready?

David Dunne is professor and director, full- and part-time MBA programs, Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria. He is author of Design Thinking at Work: How Innovative Organizations Are Embracing Design from Rotman-UTP Publishing

Image credit: kaboompics.com/Pexels

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