design trends

Why Design Thinking Initiatives Fail

Focusing on process alone will not nurture empathy and creativity - nor optimism.

September 9, 2015
by Anthony Pannozzo

Once upon a time, design thinking offered hope. It proposed a radical shift in how organizations both understood the people they served and the way in which they conceived, designed, and developed new ideas to serve them. This promise is why organizations believe the adoption of design thinking is an endeavor worth investing millions of dollars and thousands of hours on.

It’s one thing to buy into a philosophy. It is quite another to align an organization around that philosophy and achieve outcomes driven by it.

As organizations began to look deeper into design thinking, what they saw was the process of design thinking. And this gave them hope because design could now be understood, not in terms of individual talent and preternatural creativity, but as something that can be broken down into steps, delegated, assigned, and, most importantly, trained.

The process employed by design thinkers is widely recognized to involve four basic phases:

  • Customer learning or context phase (in which ethnographic research techniques are employed to understand what people do and why they do it)
  • Analysis or reframe phase (in which insights help frame the real problems people are trying to solve)
  • Envisioning or exploration phase (in which ideas are generated and evaluated quickly with intended users), and
  • Refinement or selection phase (in which ideas are honed and vetted for greater investment and scale)

Over the past decade, thousands of people have been trained in design thinking. They’ve attended workshops and taken courses. They have been assigned to special projects above and beyond their already busy schedules and day jobs. And almost all of the effort has been focused on the process of design thinking.

However, looking at design thinking primarily as a process has a fundamental flaw. For seasoned practitioners, people who may be trained or untrained as designers (frankly, many of the best design thinkers have no formal training in design, nor do they self-identify as designers), process is merely the scaffolding that structures how they think and what they do. They may follow the steps of the dance, but their success lies in their motivation and desire to choreograph change in the world around them, not in their mastery of a few discrete moves. This motivation expresses itself most evidently in empathy and creativity. Empathy comes from the real pain they feel for how people are forced to deal with difficulties in their lives, and creativity is expressed in new-to-the-world ideas that eliminate pain and frustration and replace it with contentment, happiness, and even joy.

The fuel that keeps those two extraordinary fires burning? Optimism. The unyielding belief that there is always a better way, and that better way is achievable no matter what the odds. The optimist may be frustrated with the present but is hopeful for the future. This gives her the motivation to seek change, with the confidence that change is truly possible.

Focusing on process alone will not nurture empathy and creativity. And it certainly won’t nurture optimism. Most corporate-level design initiatives fail because they are so process-driven. They teach their organizations how to follow steps and how to complete tasks in certain order. Eager to show they’re learning, employees pursue successful completion of these new steps and tasks as evidence of their progress. But secretly, when the flag-bearing design-thinking advocates are not listening, they complain of being forced to do extra work, or of having to smile through another workshop filled with a flurry of Post-it notes and end-of-day team skits depicting ideal future states. Swimming beneath the surface of the “excitement” is a profound sense of frustration and pessimism. A deeply rooted conviction that their organization is incapable doing things differently. The leadership doesn’t get it, the incentives are out of whack, or perhaps even the people are not capable of doing things differently.

For design thinking initiatives to succeed, organizations must address the pessimism they themselves have inculcated in their people. They must inspire them to believe that investments in them, and in tools, methods, and/or technologies, are worth the time and effort to master because they will help make a meaningful difference. Leaders must not be discouraged or offended by an organization’s lack of faith. Rather, they must tackle the challenge head on, otherwise all of their efforts in pursuit of the benefits of design thinking will come up dry. As Robert Kennedy famously said, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

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