The Problem With Design Thinking

The Problem With Design Thinking Believe in the power of design. Through it, we will chart the landscape of possibility – designing, testing and prototyping new terrain. Be a market maker rather than a share taker.

Business model innovators are always seeking out places and events with a strong design vibe. They love to hang around really smart design thinkers and the places they hang out in hopes that some of it will rub off. I am convinced that design thinking and process is a key enabler of business model innovation so I have been hanging out with lots of design types. If you hang around enough designers you immediately get pulled into their active conversation about design’s place in the innovation narrative. After participating in many of these conversations I am left with a strong sense that the design community needs to move on from the incessant argument over the importance of design thinking and process. It is time to claim victory. Get over it. The argument is boring.

Design is important. We stipulate that design is about more than sexy products. We get that design is about delivering a compelling customer experience. We know that business model innovation is fundamentally about designing new ways to create, deliver and capture value. Now, can we get on with putting design thinking and process to work to enable business model innovation?

No more books are needed to convince us that design thinking and process are a priority. They are important tools. If you want to convince us, stop talking about design thinking, and start putting it to work to mobilize new business models, transform customer experiences and enable real systems change. Business model innovation requires a strong design vibe that leads to trying more stuff and putting the tools to work rather than the navel gazing of today’s design thinking debate. It is time to move the design conversation to a new, actionable, place.

We need more mad designers focused on customer experience and business model innovation. If you don’t have design talent in your organization doing more than product and website design you are making a mistake. Whether you are interested in business model innovation or not you should be leveraging design thinking and process to improve your customer experience. It is a requirement for business model innovation. In fact, maybe we need to bang together the heads of mad scientists and mad designers.

If we are waiting for lengthy business plans with detailed financial analysis and randomized double blind studies to tell us if a new business model is viable we will be waiting a very long time. That is not how business model innovation works. It takes passionate exploration, which is more iterative than traditional scientific methodology. It takes design thinking and process combined with powerful storytelling to create novel business models. We need to try more stuff and design thinking and process can help.

I am reminded of a recent innovation talk I was asked to give at a conference on the business of aging. It was a great event attended by many innovators from across the public and private sector. Attendees all shared a passion for focusing innovation on the opportunity emerging as the silver tsunami of an aging global population rapidly approaches. I shared my point of view on the need to do R&D for new business models and systems and our work at the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) where we have an Elder Experience Lab to do real world experimentation for new business models and systems to transform the elder experience. As I always do, I blathered on about design and storytelling tools as the key enablers to system change, in this case developing age friendly environments and communities.

The reaction was largely positive but during a panel discussion I was reminded that many are still stuck on a perceived conflict between design thinking and analytical thinking, between design process and scientific method. They are not mutually exclusive. We need to apply our opposable minds to borrow from both approaches to design new systems while measuring what works and is most likely to scale.

It is odd for me to represent design thinking and process in the debate when my education and training is as a scientist and MBA. The reason I hang around so many smart designers is that I don’t think the old tricks alone will enable the business model innovation and system change we need. We need to borrow from both approaches to pave a new way. It is messy but necessary. Lets bring together the mad scientists and mad designers and see what happens.

This post appeared on the Fortune Magazine site here and was adapted from my new book, The Business Model Innovation Factory.

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Saul KaplanSaul Kaplan is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF). Saul shares innovation musings on his blog at It’s Saul Connected and on Twitter at @skap5.

This entry was posted in Business Models, Customers, Design, Innovation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Problem With Design Thinking

  1. Adam Yuret says:

    This article doesn’t seem to enumerate any “problem with design thinking” it rather seems to address a fundamental issue with “thinking” as in theory vs. practice.

    I agree that there is a time for action, and I too am often in spaces with brilliant thinkers who talk about various schools of thought and how they could/should be applied to business. We too are trying to distill those theories into actions. Things we can do immediately to improve our organizations.

    There’s a time for theory, and a time for practice, maybe you’re right and the time for practice has come, but let’s never stop thinking.

  2. Saul Kaplan says:

    Amen Adam. But I wonder if what we need to do more of in the 21st century is to switch the prevailing logic, which suggests we should always go from thinking to doing, and start going from doing to thinking. Saul

  3. Becky says:

    I completely agree with you when you say, “No more books are needed to convince us that design thinking and process are a priority.” I think that being innovative is the key! Check out Joseph N. Stein’s latest book, “Bottom-up and Top-Down Innovation: Innovate Your Way to Success! Create an Innovative Company!”

  4. Pingback: Articles of Interest 6/1/2012 « National Creativity Network

  5. Claudia Winzen says:

    There are some significant things mentioned in this article, like large groups of people, persons that are passionate about what they are doing and those that are mad in sectors. These are essential parts of the whole story. Finding and inviting all this grand minds and hearts are the key issues. What is the connection between them? They have a burning desire to create solutions…and they are willing to cross their own frontiers and they believe that it can be done in collaboration – not by ego-centered dialogues, exhausting discussions, more structure and complexity – but by sensing from what feels right for ALL in one spirit, sustainable solutions serving all customers and stakeholders and more…!

    By passing the “death valley” of downloading all the “old structures and mess” which had not helped in the past, by expressing all the doubts, the feelings of resignation, sarcastic replies, fears to fail….and coming to a point where there is nothing than emptiness. Like a blank sheet, staring at it and just sensing that there is nothing…nothing to worry about, no further thinking, no forcing for solutions, just accepting a pure blank sheet can be so relieving if you do not judge this moment, How does it feel, no arguing, no digging for explanations, no struggle of thoughts from neither side?
    If you focus on sensing (not thinking) this moment honoring it in a way you might be able to cope with this stage of stillness (even if it needs a whole afternoon or night!) and writing down or drawing whatever you feel or whatever images comes up to you at the same time….By doing this individually and intensively you might be able to wipe out all this grey muddy rainy old stuff that seems to have darkened your screen. What next? NOW, are you ready to take the road to your hopes, your visions, your positive images and feelings? Are you ready to crystallize all your bits and pieces of ideas, sharing it with all the people engaged in this process?
    This is only a brief and not yet complete description of one of most exciting and successful innovation solution and value driven processes I ever took part in…U-Theory of Otto Scharmer…please see
    Wishing you all the best for your journey.

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