A recent article titled ‘The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking’ gets a lot of things wrong not because of what it says, but because of the way it says it. If we are to see better outcomes from what we create we need to begin with talking about design and design thinking differently.

I cringed when I first saw it in my LinkedIn feed. There it was: The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking. I tend to bristle when I see broad-based claims about the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do something, particularly with something so scientifically bereft as design thinking. Like others, I’ve called out much of what is discussed as design thinking for what I see as simple bullshit.

To my (pleasant) surprise, this article was based on data, not just opinion, which already puts it in a different class than most other articles on design thinking, but that doesn’t earn it a free pass. In some fairness to the authors, the title may not be theirs (it could be an editor’s choice), but what comes afterward still bears some discussion less about what they say, but how they say it and what they don’t say. This post reflects some thoughts on this work.

How we talk about what we do shapes what we know and the questions we ask and design thinking is at a state where we need to be asking bigger and better questions of it.

Right and Wrong

The most glaring critique I have of the article is the aforementioned title for many reasons. Firstly, the term ‘right’ assumes that we know above all how to do something. We could claim this if we had a body of work that systematically evaluated the outcomes associated with leadership and design thinking or research examining the process of doing design thinking. The issue is: we don’t.

There isn’t a definition of design thinking that can be held up for scrutiny to test or evaluate so how can we claim the ‘right’ way to do it? The authors link to a 2008 HBR article by Tim Brown that outlines design thinking as its reference source, however, that article provides scant concrete direction for measurement or evaluation, rather it emphasizes thinking and personality approaches to addressing design problems and a three-factor process model of how it is done in practice. These might be useful as tools, but they are not something you can derive indicators (quantitative or qualitative) to inform a comparison.

The other citation is a 2015 HBR article from Jon Kolko. Kolko is one of design’s most prolific scholars and one of the few who actively and critically writes about the thinking, doing, craft, teaching, and impact of design on the people, places, and systems around us. While his HBR article is useful in painting the complexity that besets the challenge of designers doing ‘design thinking’, it provides little to go from in developing the kind of comparative metrics that can inform a statement to say something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It’s not fit for that purpose (and I suspect was never designed for that in the first place).

Both of these reference sources are useful for those looking to understand a little about what design thinking might be and how it could be used and few are more qualified to speak on such things as Tim Brown and Jon Kolko. But if we are to start taking design thinking seriously, we need to go beyond describing what it is and show what it does (and doesn’t do) and under what conditions. This is what serves as the foundation for a real science of practice.

The authors do provide a description of design thinking later in the article and anchors that description in the language of empathy, something that has its own problems.

Designers seek a deep understanding of users’ conditions, situations, and needs by endeavoring to see the world through their eyes and capture the essence of their experiences. The focus is on achieving connection, even intimacy, with users.

False Empathy?

Connecting to ideas and people

It’s fair to say that Apple and the Ford Motor Company have created a lot of products that people love (and hate) and rely on every day. They also weren’t always what people asked for. Many of those products were not designed for where people were, but they did shape where they went afterward. Empathizing with their market might not have produced the kind of breakthroughs like the iPod or automobile.

Empathy is a poor end in itself and the language used in this article treats it as such. Seeing the world through others’ eyes helps you gain perspective, maybe intimacy, but that’s all it does. Unless you are willing to take this into a systems perspective and recognize that many of our experiences are shared, collective, connected, and also disconnected then you only get one small part of the story. There is a risk that we over-emphasize the role that empathy plays in design. We can still achieve remarkable outcomes that create enormous benefit without being empathic although I think most people would agree that’s not the way we would prefer it. We risk confusing the means and ends.

One of the examples of how empathy is used in design thinking leadership takes place at a Danish hospital heart clinic where the leaders asked: “What if the patient’s time were viewed as more important than the doctor’s?” Asking this question upended the way that many health professionals saw the patient journey and led to improvements to a reduction in overnight stays. My question is: what did this produce?

What did this mean for the healthcare system as a whole? How about the professionals themselves? Are patients healthier because of the more efficient service they received? Who is deriving the benefits of this decision and who is bearing the risk and cost? What do we get from being empathic?

Failure Failings

Failure is among the most problematic of the words used in this article. Like empathy, failure is a commonly used term within popular writing on innovation and design thinking. The critique of this term in the article is less about how the authors use it explicitly, but that it is used at all. This may be as much a matter of the data itself (i.e., if you participants speak of it, therefore it is included in the dataset), however, its profile in the article is what is worth noting.

The issue is a framing problem. As the authors report from their research: “Design-thinking approaches call on employees to repeatedly experience failure”. Failure is a binary concept, which is not useful when dealing with complexity — something that Jon Kolko writes about in his article. If much of what we deal with in designing for human systems is about complexity, why are we anchoring our discussion to binary concepts such as ‘success’ and ‘failure’?

Failure exists only when we know what success looks like. If we are really being innovative, reframing the situation, getting to know our users (and discarding our preconceptions about them), how is it that we can fail? I have argued that the only thing we can steadfastly fail at in these conditions is learning. We can fail to build in mechanisms for data gathering, sensemaking, sharing, and reflecting that are associated with learning, but otherwise what we learn is valuable.

Reframing Our Models

The very fact that this article is in the Harvard Business Review suggests much about the intended audiences for this piece. I am sympathetic to the authors and my critique has focused on the details within the expression of the work, not necessarily the intent or capacity of those that created it. However, choices have consequences attached and the outcome of this article is that the framing of design thinking is in generating business improvements. Those are worthy goals, but not the only ones possible.

One of the reasons concepts like ‘failure’ apply to so much of the business literature is that the outcomes are framed in binary or simple terms. It is about improvement, efficiency, profit, and productivity. Business outcomes might also include customer satisfaction, purchase actions, or brand recognition. All of these benefit the company, not necessarily the customer, client, patient, person, or citizen.

If we were truly tackling human-centred problems, we might approach them differently and ask different questions. Terms like failure actually do apply within the business context, not because they support innovation per se, but because the outcomes are pre-set.

Leadership Roles

Bason and Austin’s research is not without merit for many reasons. Firstly, it is evidence-based. They have done the work by interviewing, synthesizing, commenting on, and publishing the research. That in itself makes it a worthy contribution to the field.

It also provides commentary and insight on some practical areas of design leadership that readers can take away right away by highlighting roles for leaders.

One of these roles is in managing the tension between divergent and convergent thought and development processes in design work. This includes managing the insecurities that many design teams may express in dealing with the design process and the volume of dis-organized content it can generate.

The exemplary leaders we observed ensured that their design-thinking project teams made the space and time for diverse new ideas to emerge and also maintained an overall sense of direction and purpose. 

Bason & Austin, HBR 2019

Another key role of the design leader is to support future thinking. By encouraging design teams to explore and test their work in the context of what could be, not just what is, leaders reframe the goals of the work and the outcomes in ways that support creativity.

Lastly, a key strength of the piece was the encouragement of multi-media forms of engagement and feedback. The authors chose to illustrate how leaders supported their teams in thinking differently about not only the design process but the products for communicating that process (and resulting products) to each other and the outside world. Too often the work of design is lost in translation because the means of communication have not been designed for the outcomes that are needed — something akin to design-driven evaluation.

Language, Learning, Outcomes

By improving how we talk about what we do we are better at framing how to ask questions about what we do and what impact it has. Doing the right thing means knowing what the wrong this is. Without evaluation, we run the risk in Design of doing what Russell Ackoff cautioned against: Doing the wrong things righter.

A read between the lines of the data — the stories and examples — that were presented in the article by Bason and Austin is the role of managing fear — fear of ‘failure’, fear from confusion, fear of not doing good work. Design, if it is anything, is optimistic in that it is about making an effort to try and solve problems, taking action, and generating something that makes a difference. Design leadership is about supporting that work and bringing it into our organizations and making it accessible.

That is an outcome worth striving for. While there are missed opportunities here, there is also much to build on and lead from.

Lead Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Inset Photo by R Mo on Unsplash

Posted by Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.