Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

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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