Design thinking simplified

Design thinking simplified

Business leaders are bombarded with a nearly endless stream of buzzwords. Most of these terms are only loosely defined or understood and yet they are tossed around liberally as if everyone shares a mutual understanding of their meaning. “Design thinking” is certainly no different and as a result, might mean something different to each person that hears it. This phenomenon can make it difficult to ascertain the possible importance buried within and cause result in missed opportunities. In this case, the result is often a reduction or complete elimination of the organization’s ability to innovate. To prevent that cycle, we will try to offer a thorough, practical explanation of design thinking so that it can be used to stimulate innovation in your organization.

As a first step in coming to a collective understanding of design thinking, let’s first pull it apart. Merriam Webster defines design in this way:

design – to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan (

and thinking as:

thinking – the action of using one’s mind to produce thoughts (

There are many options for how those definitions could be combined to describe design thinking. To capture the essence of design thinking it is necessary to emphasize that the mind is the main source of inspiration. That does not mean that nothing else is considered as input to the process because obviously the mind is biased by all its past learnings and experiences. But what it does mean is that the scientific method is not followed. In design thinking you do not use deductive reasoning which allows you to draw a conclusion based on the known data or even inductive reasoning where the data does not lead to an absolute answer but one can be inferred. Design thinking requires abductive reasoning which is coming up with a result with no data to support that conclusion. As an example of abductive reasoning, consider AirBnB. Surprisingly we are not talking about how the company turned the hotel industry on its head by changing the model. The example came early in the company’s history when they were struggling to survive, losing money and could not figure out how to grow. The team decided that they might be able to generate more interest in their listings by having each property professionally photographed. This seemed like an impractical idea that could not scale, but they did not let that stand in the way of giving it a try. Of course, the gambit proved successful and they now have millions of properties in 191 countries. You can read the full story here if you are interested.

Considering the above, we can come up with the below as a very simplified definition of design thinking.

design thinking – develop a plan using one’s mind to create, fashion, execute, or construct

When you read the definition above, you might think it is obvious. In fact, isn’t that how everything is created? In a business context, the answer is often no because most enterprises have one or more of these common obstacles standing in the way:

  • Resistance to change – most individuals and organizations have a natural resistance to change and a corresponding proclivity to maintain the status quo
  • Siloed approaches – problems are solved in a vacuum without full consideration of the big picture or any cross department/discipline collaboration
  • No freedom to fail – even companies with innovation programs in place struggle to create an environment where failure is viewed as a necessary step to success
  • The level of effort required to maintain existing business systems, commonly described as technical debt, can consume so many resources that there are none left to dedicate to innovation

We will not talk about how to mitigate these challenges here but that is a topic for future consideration. Instead, we will go back to the definition of design thinking that we have created so that we can describe it in more detail.

develop a plan using one’s mind to create, fashion, execute, or construct

You will see that it starts with developing a plan but we are not talking about a project plan. There is usually no reason to create a formal artifact or document of any kind. In fact, the plan is only a decision point to ensure that you have a way to move forward with a given idea. Without that you might have many great ideas but no mechanism in place to capitalize on any of them. Great ideas are only meaningful when you do something with them.

develop a plan using one’s mind to create, fashion, execute, or construct

This is the most critical part of this definition. To embrace the abductive reasoning as described above, you really must rely only on your own creativity. This technique often leads to a simple solution that would not otherwise be discovered. There is no deep analysis of past data, other/partial solutions or previous approaches taken to solve the problem. This is difficult for many that are unable to make the leap straight to a solution without having any evidence to support it. It is a little like building the roof for a house when the walls have not yet been constructed.

develop a plan using one’s mind to create, fashion, execute, or construct

It is often about creating something out of nothing but execution is also listed as a possible outcome. In any case there must be a result. Even worse than having a great idea that is never implemented, is never coming up with the idea in the first place.

Now that we have a working understanding of what design thinking is, we will talk more about how to implement it in future posts.

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