Why Managers and Executives should review the IDEO 1.0 to 2.0 pivot

THERE WAS A PRODUCT DESIGN COMPANY IN THE MID 2000S THAT NEEDED TO PROTECT ITS “CREATIVE DIFFERENCE” WITHIN AN INCREASINGLY GLOBALIZED MARKET. AS THE WEST WAS BECOMING MORE VULNERABLE TO ENTREPRENEURIAL ENGINEERS FROM THE EAST, IT COULD NO LONGER CHARGE THEIR USUAL RATES. THAT COMPANY IN QUESTION WAS IDEO AND ITS FUTURE PIVOT WOULD LATER LEAD TO THE DESIGN THINKING POP-CULTURE NOW SEEN IN BUSINESS AND ACADEMIA TODAY.

Lilly Irani suggests¹ that Chinese manufacturers found it advantageous to offer their own design services for things they were going to make anyway, so it wasn’t hard for them to infiltrate IDEO’s shops and pilfer the sacred design process for themselves.

Like the game of chess, sometimes the only way to adapt is to make sacrifices. IDEO shifted priorities by shrinking its shop staff, and more of its product designers became "consultants,” deriving some of that inspiration from big consulting companies like McKinsey.

PIVOT STORIES REGARDING DESIGN COMPANIES ARE MORE NEBULOUS THAN THE stories of heroics COMING FROM TECH. IF YOU HAVE THE POWER TO PURCHASE AND SIGN THE DOTTED LINE, THIS fuzzy CHAPTER FROM IDEO CAN SERVE AS A COMPASS TO CAREFULLY NAVIGATE THE CONSULTING MARKETPLACE AND SHOW YOU WHY THE “DESIGN THINKING” CONSULTING REALM IS SO RIFE WITH CONFUSION.

IDEO’s shift was a response to the increase of Chinese industrial designers being trained as entrepreneurs. This shift from “Mechanical to Mystical” is what Irani described as the shift from mere Product Design to Corporate Strategy, which has led to the conveniently esoteric “Design Thinking.”

Don’t expect pop-culture Design Thinking disciples to unearth this obscure period in IDEO’s history. It’s more of a skeleton in the closet than a cool failure story. It’s why you’ve never heard of it and why previous employees mentioned in Irani’s essay had to speak anonymously.

To be fair, the term Design Thinking has been in use for decades but hasn’t been radically popularized until the last decade by IDEO, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and many others have a stake in the movement. Devotees will nudge you to absorb Nigel Cross, Kees Dorst, Richard Buchanan, Lucy Scuhamn, Donald Schön, or IDEO themselves for the real OG philosophy and history. It’s a worthwhile effort if you have interest and time.²

In my experience, the cold hard truth is that a majority of senior leaders won’t swoon over its history and philosophy as its devotees. It’s just not going to matter to them. Once the honeymoon with tools and methodology is over, the only thing that speaks to them at the end of the day is efficacy³ and whether they can see a positive and measurable shift in their business outcomes.

Design Thinking as a form of expertise is not enough to win in the market.

MANY GO ON THE DEFENSE RUSH TO PROTECT THE NARRATIVE. OTHERS ADJUST TO THE MARKET.⁴

Just like IDEO rising up to the threat of Chinese entrepreneurs, today we see a new phase of firms and practitioners remixing isolated techniques with other processes like Agile, Scrum, Lean, and Design Sprints into a more attractive buffet of options, and then calling that Design Thinking. This is feature-bloat at best.⁵

Practitioners seeking to be cutting edge are now fighting to protect their creative difference in 2019, but they can no longer bank on Design Thinking as your unique value proposition because:

A) Everyone’s copying. The entire consulting marketplace is a red ocean⁶ with similar offerings and is no indicator of efficacy.

B) The scope of innovation has - and continues - to expand beyond product creation, service creation, and artifact creation which is the implied default output once you read into the “case studies” and “success stories.”

C) Transplanting a hybrid methodology from one culture to the next is no guarantee of success

We will go over these points in future posts.

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1. “Design Thinking”: Defending Silicon Valley at the Apex of Global Labor Hierarchies

2. “Design thinking origin story plus some of the people who made it all happen”

3. Efficacy means the ability to produce the intended effect.

4. I’m referencing the comments in “Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains”

5. “Feature bloat is the tendency of a vendor continually to add unnecessary features to a product that are not of any value to most users, use more system resources than necessary, and often unnecessarily add to the cost of the product.”

6. A highly contested area. Red Ocean is bloodied by your competitors fighting over the same market share.

Bryann Alexandros