Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

design thinking

Innovation In Our Refrigerator

How can I innovate here?

How can I innovate here?

When we think of innovation, we often think of bright young people working in creatively organized offices while pushing the envelope and thinking outside the box. It’s fun, exciting, challenging, and maybe even a little bit sexy. It’s the kind of job we all want.

But what about the rest of the world?

Much of the innovation that I have observed takes place in rather mundane places and involves rather ordinary business or social processes. It’s the act of taking some thing (or some process), observing how it’s used, and designing a better way to do it. If we think about innovation only as the process of creating something entirely new, we’ll miss many, many opportunities to change the world for the better.

Take our refrigerator, for instance.

Suellen and I were recently on vacation and asked a very responsible young woman named Alyssa to house sit for us. As soon as we left, our refrigerator stopped working. Alyssa organized a service call, coordinated with the repairman, and had the refrigerator repaired in a jiffy. From our perspective, it was virtually painless (except for the bill, of course).

When we arrived back home, we also got a pleasant surprise. Alyssa had completely reorganized the interior space of the refrigerator. She had examined the food items we keep and adjusted shelves and drawers to fit our lifestyle. She used the space much more efficiently and made frequently used items more readily available. It’s now simpler and easier to store and retrieve our food.

Why hadn’t we organized our fridge more effectively? We never thought about it. It’s one of those ordinary, mundane appliances that doesn’t attract our attention. It’s not leading edge, or state of the art, or sexy. Though we use it every day, we never considered how we might improve it. When the refrigerator arrived in our house, we simply put our food in it. We didn’t think about rearranging shelves or drawers to improve utility and efficiency. It took Alyssa to apply design thinking to an ordinary, everyday item.

We describe some things as “wallpaper” because they recede into the background. We don’t need to pay much attention to them. We don’t consider them as opportunities to create and innovate. But we interact with our wallpaper everyday. That makes even small innovations meaningful and impactful. If you want to be an innovator, spend more time on wallpaper and less time thinking outside the box.

Creating A Design Culture

Let us design your business.

Let us design your business.

I hate to admit it, but I may have spent my years in the software business looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I worked for sophisticated technology companies. Quite often, the fundamental question that animated us was, “What more can we do with all this great technology?”

As today’s technology companies (even IBM) are discovering, good design starts at the opposite end of the telescope: with user needs. Indeed, we may even need to discover user needs that users aren’t aware of. The trend is generally lumped under the terms, design thinking or design-oriented culture.

So how does one create a design-oriented culture? Here are some thoughts I’ve culled from recent readings.

It’s about the experience – the central question is simple: what do customers really need? Too often however, we add a limiting clause to the question: what do customers really need from us? Rather than focusing on the complete user experience, we ask a more self-centered question: How can we get customers to want more of what we have to offer?

Design thinking broadens the frame. Rather than thinking only about what we have to offer, we might think about how users acquire the product, how they learn to use it, and what ancillary products they might need to make the product useful.

McKinsey offers up two examples: 1) HP doesn’t just wait for you to order new ink cartridges. They monitor your use and send you cartridges before you even know you need them. 2) John Deere doesn’t just sell tractors anymore. They also offer,”… digital services such as crop advisories, weather alerts, planting prescriptions, and seeding-population advice.”

It’s about making senseJon Kolko in Harvard Business Review, argues that technologies and systems (think of our healthcare system) are so complicated today that people just can’t make sense of them. Good designs should address this. I find, for instance, that Turbo Tax addresses a complex issue and, in Kolko’s terminology, makes it “simple, intuitive, and pleasurable.” In other words, it’s well designed. Imagine if we could make buying health insurance equally simple, intuitive, and pleasurable.

It’s about prototypes – I remember introducing new products with a “big reveal”. We developed the products in secret. We couldn’t talk to customers about them – that would be selling futures. We built some buzz and, when everything was ready, we popped the new product out of the box. Sometimes the big reveal worked great. Sometimes not.

Kolko argues that design-cultures are much more interested in prototyping their ideas all along the development path. Kolko writes that, “The habit of publicly displaying rough prototypes hints at an open-minded culture, one that values exploration and experimentation over rule following.”

It’s about emotions – software seems like the ultimately rational product. Buying software should be rational as well – the product with the most features should always win.

Alas, it’s just not true. Indeed, the software industry has much more in common with the fashion industry than one might imagine. It’s not just what the software does. It’s how it makes you feel as it’s doing it. If it does the job but makes you feel stupid, it’s not well designed.

(As an aside, I think this is why the Lars Lawson cartoon character worked well for Lawson Software. Lars touched on our emotions – something quite unusual for B2B software).

It’s about thinking – as Lawton Ursrey notes in Forbes: “Design thinking combines creative and critical thinking that allows information and ideas to be organized, decisions to be made, situations to be improved, and knowledge to be gained.”

At the simplest level, design thinking means doing an about-face. Rather than facing inward, we turn around and face outward. We send our employees outside and bring our customers inside. It’s about attitude more than anything else. Unfortunately, attitudes are very hard to redesign.

Seeing With Your Eyes

I'd be happy to check you in.

I’d be happy to check you in.

Some years ago, on a business trip, I checked into a hotel that had just implemented a new computer system. I asked the desk clerk how he liked it. He responded very positively: “It’s great. It’s so much better than the previous system.” He smiled broadly and spoke enthusiastically. I assumed that he was telling the truth.

I also noticed some telling details. He had to bend far forward to reach the keyboard. Then he had to tilt his head back to see the screen. It looked awkward to say the least. He couldn’t make eye contact with me and use the system at the same time.

More problematically, the system was rigid and field-oriented. The screen contained many fields, not all of which were necessary for each client. But you couldn’t skip a field. To get from Field A to Field Z, you had to navigate sequentially through Field B, then Field C, and so on. The poor guy must have hit the Return key a dozen times while checking me in. He couldn’t check me in and have a friendly conversation at the same time.

I noted two things about the situation. First, the man seemed genuinely pleased with the new system. He recommended it without reservation. (No pun intended). Second, the system really wasn’t very good. The man didn’t realize what he might have had.

I also thought about how I might act if I were an executive at the hotel company. If I listened to what the desk clerk said, I would congratulate the IT department, maybe give out a bonus or two, and move on to the next problem.

But if I looked instead of listening, I might have had a very different reaction. The system was awkward, physically uncomfortable, and not conducive to good customer communication. I might not have torn the system out, but I certainly would have requested an upgrade.

This is a pretty good illustration of the difference between seeing with your mind and seeing with your eyes. The desk clerk was seeing with his mind. He had a mental image of the old system (“clunky, user hostile”) and of the new system (“much improved”). He didn’t see what he was actually doing. He didn’t perceive any shortcomings because he was comparing it, not to an ideal system, but to an old system.

A good observer, on the other hand, would not compare the system to preconceived notions. A good observer would have no preconceived notions. She would merely observe and identify problems and opportunities.

My experience reminds me of the women who designed the Volvo concept car some years ago. If I were designing a car, I would assume that it “should” have a hood (bonnet) that opens. After all, all cars have hoods that open. There must be a reason. That’s a notion that I see in my mind’s eye, not in my physical eye.

The Volvo designers, on the other hand, simply observed how people used their cars. They noted that drivers rarely open the hoods. Indeed, they do so only to add windshield washer fluid. The designers asked a simple question: Why bother? They put a fluid filler opening on the outside of the car and simplified the entire front end of the car by eliminating the openable hood.

The designers created a car that is simpler, cleaner, lighter, and stronger. That’s good design. It comes from seeing the world as it is, not as it’s assumed to be.

Designing Minds



I learned systems analysis in graduate school. I know how to use analytic tools to break a problem apart and fix the component parts. That is, I know how to use the tools if and only if I know that a problem exists. In most cases, somebody has to describe the problem to me.

Julia and Elliot, our son and daughter-in-law, learned design thinking in graduate school. They know how to observe closely and intuit what users need. They empathize and can see the world from the user’s perspective. They know how to suspend their assumptions and see the world as it is, not as it’s assumed to be. Paraphrasing Picasso, they see with their eyes, not their minds.

They also have the skills, of course, to design solutions to meet the user’s needs. They can even design solutions for problems that weren’t apparent to the user. Because of the way they observe the world, Julia and Elliot can identify problems and needs that I can’t.

Businesses are starting to realize that design thinking holds significant advantages over traditional methods of systems analysis. Design thinking is an observational skill as much as an analytical skill. It uses empathy and imagination to understand the world at a deeper level and design unexpected solutions.

What does it mean to be design-driven? McKinsey gives a simple definition: “…it’s a way of thinking: a creative process that spans entire organizations, driven by the desire to better understand and meet consumer needs.” For me, it’s not only a way of thinking but also a way of seeing. Designers see what the customer really needs, even if the customer doesn’t.

In this regard, design thinking seems similar to the art of negotiation. A successful negotiator sees what the other side needs — even when the other side doesn’t. The negotiator negotiates to that need. The designer designs to it.

In another article, McKinsey expands the definition and states a key benefit: “A design-driven organization is always thinking about its customers, empathizing with end users, and trying to solve problems while keeping its customers in mind. … Companies that have placed design at the center of the organization perform better.” (Italics added).

Design, in other words, provides a competitive edge. When I was fresh out of school, systems thinking was a competitive weapon. Today, it’s design thinking. Design used to be about things, objects, and spaces. Today, it can equally be used to create business processes and services.

The business world seems to be making a fundamental transition from analysis to design. Instead of decomposing a problem, innovative businesses are using imagination and empathy to create solutions. Julia and Elliot, in other words, have positioned themselves at the leading edge of a transformational new wave. What a great time to be young.

Design As A Competitive Weapon

Design thinking

Design thinking

When we think of design, we often think of things. We can design a phone, a car, a coffee maker, or a house. We can make them simple or complex or modern or traditional but, ultimately, it’s a thing, a physical object.

Many business and organizational leaders are now arguing that we’re thinking too narrowly when we define design as for-things-only. Roger Martin, the former Dean of the Rotman School of Management, sums it up nicely, “…everything that surrounds us is subject to innovation – not just physical objects, but political systems, economic policy, the ways in which medical research is conducted, and complete user experiences.”

Two things, in particular, attract me to design thinking:

It starts with a solution – in design thinking, we first imagine what could be. Then we work backwards. What might a solution look like? What would it need to include? Who would need to be involved? Many business leaders start with the problem and focus on what went wrong. Design thinkers focus on the solution and what could go right. It’s a refreshing change.

It includes both the rational and irrational – I studied a lot of economics and I was always a bit uncomfortable with the starting assumption: we’re dealing with economically rational individuals. But are we really economically rational? The whole school of behavioral economics (which evolved after I graduated) says no. As Paola Antonelli points out, design thinking involves “the complete human condition, with all of its rational and irrational aspects….”

In past articles (here, here, and here), I’ve followed Paul Nutt’s lead and written about decision-making that leads to debacles. I’ve recently re-analyzed Nutt’s case studies of several dozen debacles and – as far as I can tell – none of them used design thinking. The debacles resulted from classic decision-making processes driven by successful business executives. Would those executives have done better with design thinking? It’s hard to say but they could hardly have done worse.

Is design thinking superior to classic business decision-making? The absence of design-driven debacles in Nutt’s sample is suggestive but not definitive. Are there positive examples of design-driven business success? Well, yes. In fact, close readers of this website may remember Roger Martin’s name. He was the “principal external strategy advisor” to A.G. Lafley, the highly lauded CEO of Procter & Gamble. According to a report from A.T. Kearney, “During Lafley’s tenure, sales doubled, profits quadrupled, and the company’s market value increased by more than $100 billion”.

Does one success – and the absence of debacles – prove that design thinking is superior to classic business thinking? No … but it sure is intriguing. So, I’m trying to unlearn years of system thinking and teach myself the basics of design thinking. As I do, I’ll write about design thinking frequently. I hope you’ll join me.

(By the way, the quotes from Roger Martin and Paola Antonelli are drawn from Rotman on Design: The Best Design Thinking From Rotman Magazine, which I highly recommend).


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