Batten Institute

Demystifying Design


Batten Bulletin: June, 2011

Design thinking is hot in the business world. For several years now, a stream of books, articles, and blogs have urged managers to appropriate the mindset and approaches of designers in order to develop innovative products, processes, and business models that can fuel growth and differentiate companies in crowded markets.

But for all the noise this trend has generated, and for all the attention given to the likes of P&G—perhaps the most widely touted example of an organization that has transformed itself around design principles—design thinking has not been easy to pin down. High-profile proponents such as Roger Martin and Tim Brown have introduced the concept and made a compelling business case, but managers eager to turn design thinking into action may be confused about how to do that. And they may think that things like customer ethnography, rapid prototyping, customer cocreation, and early experiments in the marketplace are mainly for creative types in creative fields.

For all those business managers to whom design thinking seems something of a mystery, Darden professor Jeanne Liedtka and Peer Insight cofounder and CEO Tim Ogilvie offer some encouraging words: If you’re a leader of innovation in any kind of organization, they claim, you’ve probably been practicing design thinking all along.

In Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers(Columbia University Press, June 2011), Liedtka and Ogilvie demystify design thinking by laying it out as a coherent, systematic problem-solving process and introducing nondesigner managers in a wide variety of companies who have used design thinking to grow their businesses. If CPAs can learn how to use this approach, the authors argue, anyone can.

The process that Liedtka and Ogilvie present addresses four sequential questions that take managers on a journey through an evaluation of current reality (“What is?”), the envisioning of a new future (“What if?”), the development of some concepts for new-business opportunities (“What wows?”), and the testing of some of those in the marketplace (“What works?”). Each question is addressed through several tools. As part of assessing “What is,” for instance, managers use a tool called journey mapping to plot the customer’s entire experience with a company’s offering, focusing in particular on the emotional highs and lows. In figuring out “What wows,” managers use assumption testing, a tool that identifies and tests the often hidden assumptions on which the success of a new-business concept depends.

In addition to detailed descriptions of the ten tools of design thinking, Liedtka and Ogilvie suggest simple “try this at home” exercises. Readers, for instance, can create their own journey map of a child’s experience of waking up in the morning and getting to school. And the authors provide templates of project management aids to use in certain stages of the design thinking process, such as a napkin pitch template for presenting multiple concepts in a way that allows for meaningful comparisons among them.

Although Liedtka and Ogilvie offer design thinking as a tool for managers to add to their repertoires, they begin by laying out the profound differences between a design approach and traditional business practice: “Business thinking assumes rationality and objectivity. Its decision driver is cold, clean, economic logic. Reality is precise and quantifiable. There is ‘truth’—and answers are ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Design assumes instead human experience, always messy, as its decision driver and sees true objectivity as an illusion. Reality, for designers, is always constructed by the people living it…In this world, there is only our individual ‘truth’—and answers are ‘better’ or ‘worse.’” These stark differences actually highlight the complementarity of the two approaches: To deal with an ever-changing and unpredictable environment, the authors argue, business needs design, with its emphasis on exploration, learning by doing, and using data from actual customers instead of from market reports. But design also needs traditional business thinking, they note, to ensure that new ideas can actually create value and grow into profitable enterprises.

The need for both approaches, Liedtka says, is why design must be incorporated into the MBA curriculum. “We emphasize skill building in accounting and finance,” she says, “and we can do that with creativity and innovation. Mostly we’ve taught creativity very haphazardly; design thinking brings a disciplined process to it.” She expects to find an audience for Designing for Growth among business educators, and she has written a teaching note outlining a course that uses the book as its primary text.

Liedtka is also developing the Design@Darden community to provide a forum for educators looking for ways to introduce design to their students. This kind of teaching, Liedtka notes, can be challenging, given the suspicions of some businesspeople and designers, the analytical orientation of business students and practitioners, and the lack of a common language. Designing for Growth does much to bridge those divides, and Liedtka believes that incorporating design more fully into traditional business education will help to create an environment in which students can explore this growing field.

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