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Design Thinking is Bullshit? An Expired Argument

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My nonprofit, military, academia, and defense accelerator colleagues might've discovered a peculiar talk in their social feeds titled Design Thinking is Bullshit by Pentagram partner Natasha Jen.

If you are a casual observer or a heavy headline-reader of mainstream business journalism and tech tabloids, this might appear newsworthy. But if you are a practitioner, then you know this is a distracting rerun and an argument that expired more than 10 years ago despite this talk occurring several months ago.

Do we need to rethink the meaning of design thinking? At the Brainstorm Design 2018 in Singapore, notable experts weighed in at an interactive townhall debate for that very question.

Instead, here are two interesting questions to note:

  1. Why have countless designers failed to adjust to the further democratization of their field?
  2. Why have they ignored the expanding global context that governments, organizations, and businesses now operate?

It's unsurprising that some designers persist in defending their legacy, preferring that the creative process stay esoteric and mysterious. This protectionism and infallibility of The Designer as the alpha and omega ended long ago.

If you're new to this world, you'll continue wading in the dark trying to figure it all out because there is no one whole cohesive "design thinking community" to show you the way, but multifaceted tribes and factions of varying histories and agendas. It's a noisy cutthroat space with consultancies and academic sects competing to assemble the fragmented design thinking continuum through the lens of their own intellectual and experiential capital.

It also doesn't help that many founding upstarts clone the same design processes with just enough remixing to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

Most motives orbit around dollars, respect, and authority, not shared understanding.

Don't rely on the business press to signal your next move, either. The mainstream business "journalism" machine — with its non-practitioners, gurus, junior associate writers, nauseating high-school-like superlatives, and distracting pageantry — is too busy sensationalizing design thinking and growing it into the cancerous orthodoxy that it is now.

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It's tragic that mainstream design thinking has come to epitomize all things creativity and innovation. The problem isn't that only designers can perform these activities better than anyone else, but that the current conventional operational mode of mainstream design thinking is product/service/UX outcome creation.

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Design Thinking is creative problem solving at the core. But if you're a practitioner engaged at the front end of innovation, you know that problem-solving sometimes takes place at much more fuzzier level.

Is everything a product/service/app/functionality challenge at the very beginning? Not saying that it never will be further down the pipeline, but where do designers define the boundaries of a problem to be solved?

Granted, mainstream design thinking has ignited movements and we've seen some very interesting collaborations which exposed industry leaders to the importance of design. But established conventions should eventually evoke contrarian observations: Sit down with any organizational leader and you'll certainly unearth many things about his or her problems that far exceed the predefined frame of a product/service/app challenge brief.

Various consultancies have failed to adjust to that reality by forcing product/service innovation methodologies to problems that are more social and more strategic in nature like policy, legislation, systems, plans: Fundamental challenges that contain no clear outcome or set of solutions, but desperately need the resolution and the orchestration of many communities to learn, experiment, and execute.

That especially becomes evident once you infiltrate wicked problem territory.

Not every designer, firm, or consultancy is prepared to transform legacy operations nor will they be skilled to lead clients beyond the predetermined boundaries of the brief — not without forcing a "solutionist" n+1 design thinking approach onto their client. Some clients are tempted by short-termism and just need their miseries resolved right now, but others may not want that, and are seeking assistance with unpacking the true complexity of their missions.

This fact of the marketplace can either liberate or suffocate you.

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During an interview titled "Design Q&A" with prominent 20th century American designer Charles Eames, interviewer Madame L’Amic asked him a deceptively simple question: "What are the boundaries of design?

To which Eames' famous response was: "What are the boundaries of problems?"

It was this brief question that now captures the ever-expanding frontier and evolution of how we must solve problems today.

Sit with a board member or leader and see how complicated their situations actually are. To default their challenges as a product/service/UX problem puts them in a dangerous position. Once he or she has absorbed that mental model that all their challenges should be framed and solved via narrow-scale sensemaking processes, then that mental model becomes almost impossible to break. It imperils the rest of the organization's outlook in the days to come. Chess moves are irreversible once you've executed them.

The Expanding Context of Design: Innovation is Important to Everyone, Not Just Business

According to the Innosights 2018 Corporate Longevity Forecast: Creative Destruction is Accelerating, the average lifespan of an S&P500 continues to decline. The 33-year average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 in 1964 shrunk to 24 years by 2016 and is forecast to shrink again to just 12 years by 2027. At this rate, about half of the current S&P 500 companies will be dethroned over the next ten years.

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But transformation is critical, not just for businesses, but all organizations including military, defense, nonprofit, and government.

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During the 20th century we've seen how steam power, electricity, computers, breakthrough medicine, and the internet advance humanity to greater heights. But the inventions in those domains took decades to incubate before quantum improvements in productivity could be measured and seen; innovations need to earn their keep in the market and in society at large.

We're often warned that we're fast approaching an even more complex era. The good news is that we are already in that exciting period. The 21st century presents a new chapter of challenges involving artificial intelligence, quantum computing, blockchain, cryptocurrency, genomics, nanotechnology, AR/VR, and much more. It's not unusual to launch open innovation tournaments and platforms because of how vast and unpredictable this territory is. Any way to open source the problem is a necessity because no one can do it all in-house any more. Instead, it will take continuous cooperation, collaboration, and lateral expertise across disciplines and domains all over the world to solve greater problems, reinvent industries, and pioneer new fields. Reverse engineer many of our innovations in modern medicine, electronics, and smartphones, and you will see that many of these inventions contain miniature inventions and individual discoveries of their own. It took a network of basic research, talent, and engineering to bring final solutions to market.

If you accept and admire this sophisticated interplay of cause and effect — the amount of human creativity and cooperation needed to make innovation really happen — then just imagine how asinine it is to think that only contemporary designers are capable of leading transformation.

You're free to treat creativity and design as some kind of closed-source process. Don't be surprised if you're met with contempt.

Conclusion

It's everyone's task to innovate and they need to be empowered to do so.

We're already operating in an era where we must scale up our mindsets and skill up. You either adjust, or you don't. Only a fraction of organizations will know how to position their resources, identify their partnerships, and marshal their collective creative capital with discipline. This is inescapable and many leaders will discover the hard way that permitting highly-paid strategic planning consultants and anointed creatives to solve a closed-framed product/service/UX brief every once in a while will no longer be satisfactory for survival.

If there's a next wave of innovation practices, then it has nothing to do with flavors-of-the-month or post-it notes, but reminding people in the room what never changes and the one innate skill that everyone already possesses.

And you can start by dissolving the boundaries of "the brief."

***

Other Responses, but with different conclusions:

Yes, Design Thinking Is Bullshit…And We Should Promote It Anyway

Do We Need to Rethink the Meaning of Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains (warning: very long)

Further Reading and References:

General Stanley McChrystal's Team of Teams

2018 Corporate Longevity Forecast: Creative Destruction is Accelerating

Charles Eames: The Vision of Charles and Ray Eames

Natasha Jen on 99u: "Design Thinking is Bullshit"

Tony Golsby Smith on Fourth Order Design

Defense Entrepreneurs Forum 3.0

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Bryann Alexandros