A brilliant and comprehensive new book has been launched that brings together the best scholars working in the area of systems thinking and complexity and applying it to health.
The book description can be found here along with a link to the abstract for a chapter I co-authored with Andrea Yip looking at the overlap between design thinking and systems science and complexity. This chapter takes a design lens on previous work developing the CoNEKTR model for engagement in complexity and health.
It’s a big book, but well worth a look if you’re wrestling with complexity and systems thinking in health and social innovation.
Design thinking is hot and under fire. Just as its miracle properties are misleading, so too are the claims that it is dead or dying.
If design thinking didn’t have something going for it no one would talk about it.
In a well-laid out essay on design thinking (and its timely death) William Storage points to the concept’s origins and proceeds from there to point to how it no longer serves a purpose given the panoply of voices arguing its merits.
Design Thinking has lost its focus – and perhaps its mind. The term has been redefined to the point of absurdity. And its overworked referent has drifted from an attitude and guiding principle to yet another hackneyed process in a long line of bankrupt business improvement initiatives, passionately embraced by amnesic devotees for a few months until the next one comes along. This might be the inevitable fate of brands that no one owns, spawned by innovators, put into the public domain, and consumed by consultancies who prey on business managers seeking that infusion of quick-transformation magic.
A related discussion on the LinkedIn group devoted to design thinking on this very topic prompted a lively debate. The impetus from that discussion came from the topic of a panel discussion at next week’s DMI conference in Portland entitled: Is Design Thinking Dead?
Bruce Nussbaum’s oft-cited assertion that design thinking is a failed experiment was one of the higher profile critiques. He asserts that the experiment of design thinking has failed, whereas I argue that we haven’t even begun our research in the first place to make that claim.
Returning to Storage’s essay, he concludes:
Design Thinking is hopelessly contaminated. There’s too much sleaze in the field. Let’s bury it and get back to basics like good design. Everyone already knows that solution-focus is as essential as problem-focus. Stop arguing the point. If good design doesn’t convince the world that design should be fully integrated into business and society, another over-caffeinated Design Thinking book isn’t likely to do so either.
To the first part of this argument, I agree wholeheartedly. Any concept that catches fire as broadly as design thinking that lacks a definitive intellectual home is bound to be tied to the hype cycle (discussed here and here in past posts). I would suggest to anyone interested in design thinking that they follow anyone’s claim about the idea with a question: what do you mean by that term?
Where I have problems with Storage’s argument is in its implication that good design is its own merit and that its benefits are obvious. To this point, I disagree wholeheartedly. The same foolishness is applied to healthcare around use of good evidence: high quality evidence that is “self-evident” is rarely so and even then inconsistently translates into practice with ease. Were that the case, the field of knowledge translation in health wouldn’t exist and evidence-based practice would be a pointless term.
If the benefits of good design were that obvious, every intelligent manager, strategist, executive and front-line staffer would be working towards it. They don’t.
There is little indication that design thinking in a form that would resemble common practice exists in any of the sectors I work in (and no, use of sticky notes and a white board does not equate to design thinking by itself). There simply is not enough reflective and documented practice in design thinking to provide the kind of wisdom to separate out the “sleaze in the field”, yet that isn’t reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We do not have good research to either venerate or denigrate design thinking based on anything other than the popular use of the term and rhetoric.
Einstein, as he often does, provides words to consider:
The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while. – Albert Einstein
The ideas that lay behind design thinking are powerful, yet the wisdom of the field has not yet flourished enough for us to abandon the idea on anything other than the immature notion that it is popular and therefore can’t possibly be serious. In an age where wicked problems are more commonplace, new ways of thinking, seeing and acting are being required of organizations seeking to survive and thrive and design thinking offers some prospects for how to navigate through this. Not all designers deal with wicked problems.
Which leads to my disagreement with Storage’s assertion that design thinking equals design. Designer’s regularly apply the kind of problem exploration and applied creativity that is central to design thinking, but they alone are not design thinkers. Were that the case, then the concept would have found little purchase outside of that discipline. His argument also implies that good design is evident, another point that I contest (and will save argument for another day). Good design is contextual and thus the standards that make it so must therefore be negotiable. It therefore cannot be claimed outright.
A “good” chair is dependent upon who is sitting in it, where it is placed, and the resources required to produce it and sustain it. By that argument, “good” design thinking may fall into the same lines. But unlike design, which has wisdom and experience broadly dispersed in society and different fields of practice, design thinking has no such equivalent. What is the evidence that it produces more useful or effective outcomes? What are its central theories? How is it linked to other fields of creative thought and action? Are there fields better suited to applying design thinking? What do effective practitioners look like? These questions remain either unexplored or poorly done so. The process of design thinking has received the treatment it deserves and it is that which has garnered the attention, admiration and scorn of the blogosphere and beyond — the space where the “over-caffeinated” books might sell.
Scholars such as Nigel Cross have done much to advance our understanding of what designerly ways of knowing might look like as practiced by leading designers. But few systematic examples exist outside of design contexts alone. This is changing and books like Wicked Problems by the group at AC4D provide one such example.
It is time to pull design thinking from the embers of hyperbole and placed under the microscope and macroscope of reflective practice and research. Once there, we might better comment on what this idea means for business, social innovation, human services and our overall wellbeing by pointing to something other than an exclamation mark to make our point.
Innovation is at once everywhere and elusive. Understanding what it really is, how to inspire it, and how to avoid losing its real value in the hype might be the biggest and most ironic challenge for innovators yet.
Psychologist, creativity researcher and systems thinker Keith Sawyer recently asked the question: Is innovation just a washed up trend? To support this thesis, he presents the following:
Evidence: The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday May 23, 2012) argues that the term “innovation” is now so widely used, it doesn’t really mean anything anymore–other than a very general notion of “change.” Longtime WSJ reporter Leslie Kwoh says “Businesses throw around the term to show they’re on the cutting edge….But that doesn’t mean the companies are actually doing any innovating.” And then she gives the biggest insult you can give to a trendy business term, in my opinion: she compares the word “innovation” to the washed-up buzzword “synergy.” Ouch, that hurts!
This makes a point. It’s hard not to question the term seeing that it’s almost everywhere. Earlier in the blog he points to how Bruce Nussbaum eventually added an entire section to Business Week on Innovation and Design to match the demand for news on both of those topics. But as Nussbaum himself has written about the term design thinking, the term innovation may also be on shaking ground from over or poor use. Ironically, this all comes at the time when we need what innovation stands for more than ever and the creative problem framing and solving tools that comes with design thinking.
What’s in a name?
The term innovation is generally described as the act of introducing something to new to create positive value. Design is the act of creating something with intent to produce value. It is no surprise that these two concepts go together so well. Design thinking is about applying conscious thought to the act of creating things those products, services, and policies that have value — it is about contemplation and action related to making things that we want and need. These are loose amalgams of definitions that I’ve come across in my research and reading over the past year in support of the Design Thinking Foundations project and capture much of what these words mean explicitly.
However, implicit in this language is a whole other set of values, prejudices and attitudes that extend the concepts beyond the explicit language into something cultural. One of the byproducts of this is found in overuse or adherence to the hype cycle. Now everything is innovative, when really it shouldn’t be. Sometimes what we are doing is working just fine and the need to create something new is unnecessary.
Yet, as change accelerates in many fields and complexity increases, the need to adapt and develop resilience will increase along with it as will the need to innovate in spaces where innovation is not a familiar term. It may not be needed everywhere, but it will be needed in more places more often with increasing urgency as the dynamic complexity of the worlds we’ve created increases. Even keeping things constant will require some adaptation.
To quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s book, The Leopard: ”If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
What happens next?
But what if Keith Sawyer’s speculation is right and the term innovation is on the way out? What happens next? In response to his concerns about design thinking becoming a shadow of itself in the hands of organizations and practitioners who see it as a quick fix or a blunt instrument, Bruce Nussbaum has sought to explore and further develop a concept called creative intelligence. Having spoken to Nussbaum personally about this, I got the sense that his concerns were less that design thinking itself was problematic, but that the concept had reached a stasis in its application that no longer reflected the dynamic force it once did when he first championed it at Business Week.
It’s hard not to see parallels to innovation. While I agree with Nussbaum’s charge at what design thinking has become, I also don’t think it’s a lost concept (see the debate on the Design Thinking LinkedIn group to see evidence of this). I also think creative intelligence focuses on something different, not replaces design thinking. (Besides, we still have systems thinking, critical thinking and other forms of problem conceptualizing that have endured much debate). The problem is that it is far easier to talk about something than do it and talking too much can burn something out to the ears. Hence the reason catch-phrases never last long. Innovation is at risk and so, too, is design thinking.
Is this adaptive language use or a case of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater?
If not innovation (and design thinking), then what?
The concern with throwing these terms out is that much of what passes for judgement on their worth is based on little evidence of effect. While innovation thankfully has enjoyed much research, design thinking lacks much empirical examples. However, in both cases, when the terms are most often written about or discussed in the media and popular social discourse it is rarely about evidence and nearly always on rhetoric. I am guilty of this, too. I often tweet or refer people to articles from blogs like Fast Company and FastCo Design that write heavily on design and innovation, yet present few empirical studies and lots of opinion.
To this, I point to today’s HBR Working Knowledge update from five scholars who have done much research on innovation and summarize their points quite well, including the idea that not all of us can or will be innovators (from Clayton Christensen).
What is the answer? Is it time to move on or shall we try to invigorate the discussion of concepts like innovation and design thinking with dialogue, evidence and (self-referentially) some innovation and design thinking to advance not only the discourse on these topics, but also their adoption, study and adaptation to help us tackle the complex, wicked and pervasive problems that seem to be growing in our world each day.
Wicked problems are receiving a lot of attention these days giving much excitement to systems thinkers and designers alike. Yet what these problems mean for planning and understanding social programs and policies is not clear and may be even more wicked that it first appears.
I was excited to learn that Jon Kolko and his creative band of learners at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D) are coming out with a book on wicked problems. As one who studies and helps others to intervene in addressing such problems, this was like being a Star Trek fan learning that Leonard Nimoy was coming to speak at the Trekkie convention in my hometown. It is refreshing to see that the concept of the wicked problem is gaining traction beyond the small band of scholars and practitioners working at the intersection of complexity, systems and design thinking (which, admittedly is where many AC4D folk inhabit, but hopefully their audience will not).
But it’s not just one book. We are seeing transformations in education and science — with calls for a ‘new breed of scientist’ being created at places like Massey University in New Zealand — or spread through the news or business stories in various forms.
The concept of the wicked problem was originally posed by management science scholar and systems thinker C. West Churchman with planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. The Wikipedia entry on wicked problems provides some examples of what these things are:
Classic examples of wicked problems include economic, environmental, and political issues. A problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behavior is likely to be a wicked problem. Therefore, many standard examples of wicked problems come from the areas of public planning and policy. These include global climate change, natural hazards, healthcare, the AIDS epidemic, pandemic influenza, international drug trafficking, homeland security, nuclear weapons, and nuclear energy and waste.
In recent years, problems in many areas have been identified as exhibiting elements of wickedness – examples range from aspects of design decision making and knowledge management to business strategy.
As our social lives become more interconnected through the Internet, globalization, and mass migration, the complexity of the situations we find ourselves in grows. More of anything in diverse forms interacting together is likely to create complexity as new properties emerge and those properties change the trajectory of actions and reactions of the parts dynamically.
As one who is interested in wicked problems and works with people to address them, I should be thrilled to see the term used so widely. I am, but cautiously so. There is a risk that in the enthusiasm to embrace the lexicon of complexity that the meaning gets lost, which is what one gets from the hype cycle (See below).
The hype cycle is described as phenomonena initiated by a technology (or idea) and, once caught on, spikes the expectations beyond reason leading to discouragement, mass abandonment of the idea, and then — hopefully — a return to a level of reasonable return.
While the “cycle” (it is not a cycle) has limitations, the analogy here is well suited to fads of various types and the rapid ascension of the concept “wicked problem” in past years is indicative of a trend. Below are two representations of the amount of citations of the work “wicked problem” and “wicked problems” from Google’s Ngram service:
It appears that wicked problems (plural) are increasing and reference to a single problem is staying the same.
Regardless, an upward trend is evident. What it means is another matter…
If wicked problems are becoming talked about more often and by more people, it is appropriate to ask what kind of impact that this new thinking will have on not only the way the problems are posed, but how people seek to address them.
To that end, it is worth envisioning the future with caution. One of the reasons for this is that wicked problems are often not wholly wicked in their composition or the strategy required to address the problem — which ironically makes these types of problems even more wicked.
This has to do with the interconnected, multidimensional, and embedded nature of the problems themselves which contain within them many interconnected non-wicked problems. I’ve started to see difficulties with organizations developing strategy that fails to consider this. It is, as I’ve discussed before, an artefact of either-or thinking. Tackling the kind of wicked problems like poverty, chronic disease, and global finance require a meta-level strategy that recognizes, shapes and adapts to complexity, while accounting for micro-level issues that are indeed, very linear and simple.
Finding, training and retaining the right talent to work with diverse communities on problems that are poorly supported or funded from many sources is wicked. The human resource needs for payroll, supply management, and field support might be much less so. Yet, both are joined-up and require strategies that can extend beyond traditional management and strategy, but also embrace some of the very ‘best practices’ that seem at the outset to be antithetical to complexity.
Just as I shake my head in frustration at seeing complexity dealt with using amplified linear strategies that ‘do the wrong things righter‘, I have surprised myself by how much I’ve been twitching at hearing recent converts to systems thinking rail against the traditional ways of planning as if anything other than seeing problems as complex would be wrong.
At issue is that wicked problems are made more so by having both complex and non-complex elements working together, requiring a level of strategy development that is far more sophisticated than many first thought. Even a review of the better management texts using complexity give short shrift to the relationship between the complex, the simple and the complicated working simultaneously in environments and how we plan for that. The Cynefin Framework provides a start, but just a start.
Until we recognize this complexity — no pun intended — in the way we plan, there is great risk of replicating the hype cycle when our sole use complexity-based models yield poor results of a different nature than the poor results we are seeing from traditional linear, reductionist thinking models applied to many of the problems we deem as wicked today.
Picture credits: A Close Up on Knotted Rope by Sundariel used under Creative Commons License from DeviantArt
From August 19-20th, dozens of design-oriented people from different backgrounds came together in Vancouver to meet and discuss the concept of design thinking: its meaning, its application, and its future. These are some reflections on what I took away from the two day event.
Design thinking is becoming a hot topic — or term — and while there are those who argue that it has jumped the shark (i.e., outshone its utility and over-reached — see Bruce Nussbaum’s thoughts on this) the past two days showed how clearly this is not the case.
A cluster of passionate people from various worlds of design, architecture, education, business consulting and even public health came together to listen to examples of how design thinking is being applied and conceived of (day 1) and work through the issues in small discussion through an unconference (day 2).
Throughout the two days a few patterns emerged from the Design Thinking Unconference 2011, which I will summarize here.
1. The language of design thinking is ripe for evolution. Bruce Nussbaum aside, there has been much written on the concern with the term “design thinking”, most notably that it focuses on thought and cognition and not action, which is what design is also about. Rather than re-ignite this discussion, a more interesting turn was initiated by Sudhir Desai, an innovation strategist based in Cambridge, MA, who noted the problem of using terms that were intended for something else to mean what we mean with design thinking. Quoting the work of Management scholar and pracititioner Dave Snowden (of Cognitive Edge):
We cannot use the same words to describe our solution with those used to define the problem
Through his brief presentation on Friday and the unconference session he convened Saturday, Sudhir succeeded in inspiring dialogue on whether we need a new term altogether — something that might not even be one that we know of at present. Terms like ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ were thrown out, but they met with criticisms and a sense of dissatisfaction. No viable term was proposed, but the seeds for a contemplative discussion on what that should be, whether we need one, and what the challenges of language are for design thinkers was made clear.
2. Design thinking and design tools are not the same thing. Another strong theme was a railing against the popular held notion that design thinking is all about what it does. This is another twist on the argument about design + thinking, but one that instead focuses on the way of approaching problems, not just the tools to solve them. Although there was much interest in tools and strategies, there was also agreement that design thinking is about practice, a way of approaching problems, and manners by which tools and strategies bring them together as a whole, not as a series of parts.
Which brings me to the next point…
3. Design thinking is (very often) systems thinking. This is something I noted even if it wasn’t made as prominently explicit among the discussions. Design thinkers might be one of the best groups I’ve been associated with at systems thinking; that is part of what they do. Whether it was something about this group or something about the discussions that took place, there was a real, palpable sense of looking to the past, the present and future of any design project and exploring the wider system of where design takes place. On Friday, Trevor Boddy, a Vancouver urbanist and author (PDF), took a group out on a walking tour of the city to show how the landscape was changed and transformed over time through a series of successive steps and interconnected actors and policies. This way of seeing Vancouver permeated through the ways in which the attendees saw their issues as part of systems, not just isolated activities.
4. Context is everything/designers have to be excellent listeners. The resistance to the idea that there is a recipe — something that many attendees voiced wanting to get at the start of the two-day event — for design thinking was made visible and loud. Context counts more than almost anything else and designers cannot succeed with cookbook strategies to generate solutions to design problems. Context, context, context was plastered all over the place during the summary session yesterday after the unconference.
At the same time, there was a quieter, but equally powerful push for designers to be good — indeed great — listeners.
The need for design thinkers to engage in deep, contemplative listening was something that permeated a lot of the sessions at the unconference that I was a part of (and not necessarily because I brought it up). The challenges and ironies associated with deeper listening were also noted as many noted that there is such a push, particularly for those working in corporate environments, to do more and do it faster instead of slow down and think. To this end, I am reminded of the work of Ezio Manzini and his push towards a culture of slow in support of sustainable social innovation and the work of the Centre for Contemplative Mind in Society who work to promote mindfulness in academia and education.
As we wish to speed innovation, sometimes slowing down is the way to go faster.
5. Design thinking is best done visually. Visual communication — sketching, digital rendering, mock-ups, art in various forms — was presented repeatedly as a means of conveying the complexity of the information that is often generated from tackling the problems design is called on to address (see below). Thankfully, a room filled with creatives generated a lot of visual media to support ideation and synthesis. Sketching on notepads and craft paper, model building (literally, with fruit and food sometimes!), and graphical presentations featured prominently in the conference; not by design, but by necessity. Building on the points raised earlier, it was evident how challenging our current language is in describing design problems and situations. I’ve elaborated on this in previous posts, but these two days only served to strengthen my conviction that we need more creative means of expression introduced into our work and people who can render ideas in visual forms on our teams.
6. Design thinking is wicked. The conference began with a discussion of the wicked problems that designers are frequently employed to tackle and over two days it was obvious that not only are the problems wicked, so too are the design thinkers involved in those problems. By wicked the reference is to a set of conditions that are unstable, non-directional, dynamic, context-sensitive, and in need of diverse, coordinated, flexible responses. This is design thinking to a tee.
To paraphrase the great Winston Churchill:
This is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.
Much more will come in the months ahead and the networks forged and extended because of this event, for which I am grateful for the opportunity to attend, will advance and so too will the ideas for what is design thinking. For readers interested in engaging in this discussion and learning more, check out the Design Thinking LinkedIn group that is the hub and the source for this entire two-day event.
For the last two days I’ve been attending the Science of Team Science conference at Northwestern University in Chicago. It is what I can only imagine is the closest thing to the Super Bowl or World Cup of team science (minus the colourful jerseys, rampant commercialism, and hooligans — although that would have made quite an impact as academic conferences go).
The presentations over the first day and a half have illustrated how far we have come in just a few years. In 2008 a similar conference was held near the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD. That event, sponsored by the US National Cancer Institute, was an attempt to raise the profile of team science by highlighting the theories and rationale underlying why the idea of collaboration, networks and multi-investigator applied research might be a good idea. The conference was aimed at sparking interest in the phenomenon of collaborative team research for health and resulted in a special issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine highlighting some of the central ideas.
Although there are many of the same people attending this conference as there was two years ago, the content and tenor of the conversation is markedly different. The biggest difference is that the idea of team science no longer needs to be sold (at least, to the audience in the room). There is wide agreement by attendees that team science is a good thing for a certain set of problems (particularly wicked ones) and that it will not replace normal science, rather complement it or fill in gaps that standard research models leave.
There is also much contention. Although, unlike other conferences, this contention is less about a clash between established bodies of knowledge, rather it is based on uncertainty over the direction that team science is going and the best routes to get there, wherever “there” is. Stephanie Jo Kent, a communications researcher from UMass, has been live blogging at the event (and encouraging the audience to join in — follow #teamsci10 on Twitter or Stephanie @stephjoke) and wrote a thoughtful summary of the first day on her blog. Here she points to one of the biggest challenges that the emergent field of team science and the conference attendees will need to address: Getting beyond “the what” of team science.
Because everyone has their own thing that they’re into, whether its research or administration or whatever, we would have to come up with “a meta-thing” as a goal or aim that everyone – or at least a solid cadre of us – could get behind. What if we decided to answer the process question? Instead of focusing on, “What is ‘the what’ of team science?” which takes as its mission connecting the science; we propose an examination of self-reflective case studies in order to identify “what works” and thus be able to explain and train people in the skills and techniques of effective team science.
This issue of training is an important one. My own research with the Research on Academic Research (RoAR) project has found that many scientists working in team science settings don’t know how to do it when they start out. We scientists are rarely trained in collaboration and teamwork, and those that are, are not in science.
It will be interesting to see where things go from here. I suggest following us all on Twitter to see.