Thinking Like a Designer


Innovation: Solving Business Problems through Design

Scholars: Tom Lockwood, Jeanne Liedtka, Sean Carr

Not too long ago, making the case for design in business was the lonely crusade of a few outspoken designers and unorthodox academics. Now, design appears to be everywhere. Books, blogs and business magazines have taken up the cause, declaring that the way designers are trained to think and to solve problems  using such approaches as ethnography and rapid prototyping  could be the most promising route not just to innovative offerings, but to innovative processes, business models and strategies.

But is the buzz around design in the mainstream business press a reflection of what is actually occurring in organizations? Has design  and designers  been embraced by corporations beyond traditional design functions? A cross-disciplinary team of researchers from the Design Management Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building awareness of the strategic importance of design, and the Darden School has launched a multistage research program to assess the extent to which established business organizations have adopted the methods, techniques and processes traditionally associated with design.

The researchers  DMI's Tom Lockwood, Darden Professor Jeanne Liedtka, and Batten Institute Director of Corporate Innovation Programs Sean Carr  began with a loosely held hypothesis: Design thinking is gaining influence in business organizations, and its trajectory will follow that of such influential approaches as Total Quality Management (TQM). Initially "owned" by highly trained experts, TQM over time was taught, at a basic level, to a broad cross-section of managers. Ultimately, "quality" entered the vocabulary of all managers.

Exploring an analogy between design and TQM was not as interesting to the design experts the researchers interviewed during the first phase of the study, conducted in the spring of 2010. Instead of talking about the prevalence of design thinking and how it might progress in an organization, the interviewees  design advocates who occupy roles at the interface between designers and managers  wanted to discuss a deeper set of questions: Who owns design? Can managers practice design thinking? What is design thinking?

One theme the researchers noted in their conversations was the struggle over the ownership of design in some organizations. As one expert said, "Everybody wants to own design, everybody wants to be a design expert, everybody wants to do what designers do." Interviewees in companies marked by turf battles, the researchers noted, were very concerned about the need to protect the design function from incursions by others. They viewed the idea of placing designers on business unit teams, reporting not to the design function, but to operating managers, with alarm. Those in organizations with a more collaborative environment seemed more open to embedding designers within the business itself.

A stark conceptual divide over the definition of design thinking also became apparent throughout the interviews. Some of the design experts defined it as "what designers do." A belief that there is no design process that can be considered apart from the field itself dominated this perspective; thus, there is no meaningful distinction to be made between design and design thinking. Design thinking is, by this definition, about how designers use "the techniques and methodologies taught in design school" to solve design problems.

Other interviewees insisted on the distinction between design and design thinking. To them, design thinking is a distinctive way of solving problems. Many in this group described the discrete aspects of what they see as a rigorous approach: customer ethnography, visualization, pattern finding, ideation and rapid prototyping. To those who hold this view, design thinking can be applied to any business problem, whether product-related or not. And because this problem-solving methodology can be uncoupled from the design function, it can be scaled throughout an organization.

From this basic conceptual divide emerged a related set of views about who should use design thinking. Those who defined design thinking as what trained designers do doubted whether it was possible for managers to acquire such skills and thought it was a bad idea to encourage them to try. They suggested that managers should learn to appreciate the value of design, rather than try to practice it. They framed this as a practical matter: Designers acquire their skills through particular training followed by specific on-the-job experience. Managers receive very different training: A manager trying to do design work is likely to lower the quality and credibility of design in the organization. One interviewee noted, "Whether it's R&D, engineering, or marketing, they often admire the outputs of designers but don't understand or appreciate the tools, approaches, and processes that designers use to get those outcomes."

Other experts held the opposite view: Managers not only could become design thinkers but should, so powerful is the process for finding innovative solutions to all categories of business challenge. One interviewee explained that teaching the design thinking approach to executives actually increased designers' visibility and clout in their experience.

Despite those differences, one nearly universal point of agreement emerged: Managers in all but the most design savvy organizations find the term "design thinking" confusing and off-putting. And many hear the word "design" and think only of the aesthetics of a physical object or the final stage in a product's development. Consequently, the interviewees emphasized, the best way to "sell" design to executives is to use their language, discussing business outcomes, customer impact, brand, revenue growth and return on investment.

The researchers are now planning the second phase of the study, in which they will interview a broader cross-section of business leaders, informed by the reactions from these initial interviews. In addition to exploring their original questions, the researchers will consider additional ones: If design thinking becomes a popular managerial tool, is it likely to damage or enhance the credibility and clout of designers and of the design function within organizations? Will efforts to protect the integrity of design by keeping it "in-house" as a separate function succeed? What path is in the best interests of design as a field and of business performance?

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