design thinking methodology

My Daughter and Design Thinking

Have Either Really Come of Age?

August 21, 2015
by Ken Gordon
Ken Gordon and daughter

I have a 13-year-old daughter. Shoshi. She stands as tall as my wife Lisa, speaks Hebrew with a gorgeous Israeli accent, and knows more Torah than both her parents combined. As I type this, she’s studying hard to become a bat mitzvah. This phrase means, literally, “daughter of commandment.” When she officially becomes a bat mitzvah this winter, tradition says she will be responsible for fulfilling the roles and responsibilities of a Jewish adult.

I tell you all this because when I hear the phrase “design thinking comes of age,” which is the cover story of the current issue of Harvard Business Review, I think of Shoshi. I think of what it means, what it really means, for design thinking to come of age.

The official, optimistic line goes like this: In 2015, design thinking has become a fully responsible player in business, one that’s as equally important as, say, digital or branding. It is no longer a merely interesting concept in which a company might or might not dabble. We tell ourselves that design thinking is now an integrated element of many organizations—such as, say, Intuit—and we expect it not to loosen up their approach to problem solving, but to produce serious business results.

Ideally.

But then I think of my actual 13-year-old kid. Do I truly expect Shoshi, who neither drives nor votes nor dates nor earns money nor pays taxes, to become a fully responsible adult after the ceremony is over? I don’t. Truth is, neither my expectations nor our community’s will require her to be a real adult right now. More adult, yes, but not fully. This has a lot to do with the fact that we are secular Jews, and thus don’t literally follow the 613 mitzvot—but it’s also a realization that my kid, like most kids in our society, isn’t anywhere near proper adulthood at 13.

In a similar way, we may also be overestimating the level of maturity of design thinking in the business world. Advocates like to believe design thinking now occupies an ergonomically correct seat at the grownups’ table… but, it still has a ways to grow.

Which isn’t to say that there hasn’t been progress. John Maeda’s recent report about the importance of design to tech companies is significant—between 2011 and 2015, nine creative firms have been acquired in #designintech M&A. That’s nine out of thousands of design shops, of various sizes and capabilities.

At Continuum, we’ve seen some serious interest from companies in developing their innovation capability, and that seems a significant shift. Maybe the CEO of the future will be a desinger-in-chief, but that moment, if we’re honest, still seems off in the distance.

So what do we do to slide design thinking down the maturity curve?

  • We can encourage those firms that have expressed an interest in design thinking to explore the concept more deeply. At Continuum, this means using the content we publish, as well as the conversations in which we engage, as a means of educating the interested.
  • We teach the notion that design thinking requires sincere cultural commitment to work. It isn’t just that one’s CEO cares about design: the entire org must do so. Design-centricity isn’t just about hiring designers or attending workshops: it’s about adopting a certain mindset and approach for all business issues.
  • We must demonstrate that design thinking takes time and patience. Design thinking is a long-term process that involves much prototyping, testing, refining, tinkering to a serious degree. This takes time (it can’t be rushed) and won’t necessarily provide instant returns. Your org has to understand that design thinking unfolds in time, and might have to learn to develop a strong will to wait.
  • We insist that design thinking must drive business results, which means an emphasis on implementation.

Our current moment is about drawing a baseline. Design thinking is becoming self-conscious, and that’s a good thing: but it’s not the same thing as maturity. Once we know where we truly are, in the present moment, then we can design a more sophisticated future for design thinking. And that’s cause for celebration—one that won’t even involve a caterer.

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