Design: A Stance for Competitive Advantage


Earlier this week I attended a presentation by Rotman School of Management Dean and design-thinking advocate Roger Martin. The talk, given as part of Torch Partnership’s Unfinished Business lecture series put on with S-Lab, was titled: The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage

The presentation provided some clear-headed thinking about design and managed to reduce the concept of design thinking into something very simple, without being simplistic. This was, not surprisingly, done by design. As Martin himself stated:

Our knowledge moves forward when we leave things out

In research we are often seduced by our data and the volume of potential information it can provide. If we have enough of it, twist it, mine it or manipulate it the right way, we can find answers. Certainly there are areas where this kind of thinking is useful. Genomics appears to be one of them – – at least, as far as discovering potential relationships and systems of organizing goes, gene expressions may never be fully understood through quantitative means alone. But the complexity in human systems seems more fraught with information overload and rarely, if ever, does volumes of information lead to better understanding. Indeed, as Martin suggests, sometimes we need to apply design thinking not to generate more information, but reduce it.

Qualitative researchers know this all to well. So do great artists. The latter point is brought home all too much this week as Toronto hosts Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Film Festival. I’ve seen about a dozen documentaries so far and most of them were, in the opinion of me and my fellow theatregoers, too long (that is, they could have left things out).

But like art and qualitative inquiry (and the theories that underpin both), design thinking can be viewed much less as something that you do, but rather a way of positioning oneself relative to the topic of interest. As one audience member proposed:

Design thinking isn’t a theory of activity, or a method, but a stance

To my mind this may be the best description of design thinking I’ve heard. While there are certainly methods of using design, and strategies that firms such as IDEO, BMW DesignWorks, and Porsche Design use it is the particular stance that designers take that enable those methods to translate across settings, issues, and time horizons.

Interestingly, the discussion about design then shifted to the kind of training one needs to foster the ability to take a stance in a particular manner, not just use tools and theories. When polled about whether they had any training in thinking approaches, less than 5 per cent (estimate) of the audience said that they had and it was speculated that this was because those people had gone to private school or some other specialized training program as children (e.g., schools for the gifted) where such high-level cognitive skills are taught (which is also the foundation for the Rotman School of Management’s approach to teaching).

So here we have a skill or stance in perspective taking that is viewed as a competitive advantage, a means of advancing more humane products and systems, yet is taught to a very small number of people. It seems that should be turned on its head and that we need to consider teaching thinking as a core feature of our educational programs.

Imagine? Teaching people to think in order to do instead of to do and not to think.

One Comment on “Design: A Stance for Competitive Advantage

  1. Pingback: Women and Leadership in Times of Complexity « Censemaking

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