A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at an upcoming conference on the topic of “Design Thinking As Strategic Advantage.” The conference will gather some of the country’s top college retailers in Houston, Texas on March 4-8th.
The crowd will be a unique one and I cannot wait to meet them. As I learned in speaking with Tony Ellis-one of the conference’s organizers-via phone in early February, most of America’s college retailers operate like small businesses. These retailers have to be savvy about how they spend their money, and their time. One day they might be operating on a shop floor making sure everything is running smoothly. Another day they might be running inventory with a colleague. And yet another they might be out exploring the market for the “next big thing” to turn a profit.
So, what do I, an experience designer, and former consultant, have to share with these tenacious, and undoubtedly dedicated small business owners? And why might now be the perfect time for them to learn about design thinking?
Well first, this topic needs a little backstory.
There is little doubt that design thinking is hip right now. IBM recently announced a bold plan to “bring design thinking to big business” and a number of MBA programs have similarly announced that they are making design thinking a core part of their curricula. As an older friend in the design industry recently reminded me, “nobody gets fired for hiring IBM.” So, if IBM is adopting it whole cloth maybe design thinking is becoming mainstream.
Mainstreamness aside, what is the value of design thinking and where did it come from?
At its most foundational level, design thinking is about applying a design process to planning and problem-solving in organizations, communities, human systems. It is not about post-it notes. It is not about wireframes. It is not even about user interviews. It is about transforming organizations and using a design as a lever for change.
Historically, the design thinking practice was derived from product design and human computer interaction. Think: how to build objects, tools, and technologies that were designed for utility and usability, not just looks. The broad history of design thinking is another topic for another day, but if you’re dying to dig in there, look into PARC, the GUI interface, and Horst Rittel.
When it comes to better understanding the value of design thinking, one of my favorite reads on the topic is Richard Buchanan’s “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” In it, Buchanan argues that design is fundamentally about “the conception and planning of the artificial.” He also argues that there are two basic forms of design problems: those that are determinate, and those that are indeterminate. Why this distinction and why is it important?
Indeterminate problems, says Buchanan have no definitive conditions or limits. They’re tough to pin down, and correspondingly quite wicked to solve. Determinate ones, by contrast, are ones that can often be solved through reasoning or analytical thinking. Buchanan says that most problems have at least some element of indeterminacy.
This topic of determinacy and indeterminacy is important because it sets up the field of design thinking as distinctive from that of any other field of design. “Design thinking,” says Buchanan, might be applied to “any area of human experience,” and arguably any type of form, tangible or intangible, physical or digital or human.
By choosing a preferred form at the outset, a designer is, in essence, limiting himself to a certain set of solutions. And thus, the design thinker is encouraged not to choose a form at the beginning of his creative process, but rather to explore the problem and its many facets first. He gathers inspiration through understanding context, watching and listening to the world around himself and others. Using a design thinking process, understanding precedes design, and contextual observation precedes solutioning.
Edward DeBono, another of my favorite writers on the topic of design, and creativity more broadly, has said the following about design:
It requires more creativity. It is not so much a matter of linking up a clearly defined objective with a clearly defined starting position (as in problem solving) but more a matter of starting out from a general position in the direction of a general objective.
Design thinking, I believe, is about uncovering new opportunities within an unclear problem set through reframing and redefinition. It is about reimagining “what is” through the lens of “what if,” while first gaining a clear understanding of “what is” and “what is not…yet.”
The Strategic Advantage
So, I have now said much about design thinking and definitions, but provided little clarity on how it can be used as a strategic advantage. According to Cambridge Dictionary, a strategic advantage is a “particular characteristic or way of doing things that makes [one company or country] more successful than others.”
Design thinking is a way of thinking that encourages new types of solutions to emerge, solutions that would never be obvious unless a problem were looked at retrospectively. There is a methodology to it, and it can be taught. But more than that, design thinking is a way of thinking that encourages new definitions of problems to inspire new thinking-it is not just about the tools and the process, but rather a new way of seeing. The goal of design thinking, then, is rarely to solve a specific problem set than it is to see the world in a new light and thus redefine the problem set itself.
The methods of design thinking: explore, create, test, implement (as I like to call them) can be applied to all types of contexts and all types of organizations. In application to the talk i’m giving later this week to college retailers, it’s about starting with observation and user stories, rather than purchasing data. It’s about getting out into the world and walking a few days in a college students’ shoes, putting oneself into the contexts in which he and she lives every day, and coming back with fresh insight and a beginner’s mind for building a better business.
The art of design thinking is not about getting the steps down, it is about getting the thinking down. To be a good design thinker, one has to be open to new ideas and new information. One has to be willing to accept that he is wrong and consider a new position. For the business owner who wants to adopt design thinking, one has to be a good listener, to his peers, to his colleagues, and to his patrons.
There are methods to design thinking, sure, but the real magic to design thinking is about its practitioners’ general posture and openness to new information. For the professional who is looking to use design thinking to transform his organization, he must be open to reimagining his organization itself and his position therein. For him, design thinking is strategic advantage in the sense that it will help him uncover core capabilities he has never considered important and core users he might never have defined as such. It may even invite him to reimagine what business he is in and how he will continue to do business henceforth.
Thus, to truly employ design thinking as strategic advantage, one must be willing to adapt, to reimagine, and to lean into an uncertain future with more willingness to experiment and less emphasis on “getting it right” or “hedging risk.”