Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

systems thinking

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.

Systems Thinking versus Design Thinking

Problem or solution?

Problem or solution?

When I was in graduate school, I got a heavy dose of systems thinking. The basic idea is to take a problem, break it apart, and build it up. Let’s say I’m building a house. The house clearly is a system unto itself but we can also break it into subsystems — like plumbing. Plumbing is a logically coherent system with specified inputs and outputs. We can further deconstruct plumbing into more specific subsystems, like sewage versus potable water. As we deconstruct systems into subsystems, we look for linkages. How does one subsystem contribute to another? How do they build on each other?

We can also build upward into larger systems. The house, for instance, is part of a neighborhood which, in turn, is part of a city. The neighborhood also has wastewater systems and electrical systems that the house needs to connect to. If I want to get my mail delivered, it also needs an address — part of a much larger system of geographic designators.

It turns out that systems thinking is a pretty good way to build computer programs. A subroutine that calculates your sales tax, for instance, has specified inputs and outputs. It’s not logically different from a plumbing system. In either case, we start with a problem, break it down, build it up, and find a solution that fits with other systems. Note that we start with a problem and end with a solution.

When Elliot went to architecture school, he got a heavy dose of design thinking. He’s now light years ahead of me. (Isn’t it great when your kid can teach you stuff?) I still find design thinking challenging. I think that’s because I was so heavily invested in systems thinking. Frankly, I didn’t realize how much systems thinking influenced my perspective. It’s like culture. You don’t recognize the deep influence of your own culture until you visit another culture and make comparisons. As I learned design thinking, I realized that there is a whole different way of seeing the world.

The trick with design thinking is that you begin with the solution and work your way backward to the problem. What a concept! Here’s what Wikipedia says:

“…the design way of problem solving starts with the solution in order to start to define enough of the parameters to optimize the path to the goal. The solution, then, is actually the starting point.”

And here’s what John Christopher Jones says in his classic book, Designing Designing:

“The main point of difference is that of timing. Both artists and scientists operate on the physical world as it exists in the present …Designers, on the other hand, are forever bound to treat as real that which exists only in an imagined future and have to specify ways in which the foreseen thing can be made to exist.”

Why would a business person be interested in design thinking? After all, most B-schools (and computer science programs) teach systems thinking. Unless you’re an architect, isn’t that enough? Well…. I’ve noticed that a lot of leading business thinkers now include designers on their teams. In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that A.G. Lafley of Procter & Gamble had designers (from IDEO) in his coterie of advisors. Similarly, was Steve Jobs more of a business genius or a design genius? Design thinkers give us a different way of looking at the world. Maybe we should take them more seriously in business.


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