Why Design Thinking in Business Needs a Rethink

To reach its full potential, the popular innovation methodology must be more closely aligned with th

To reach its full potential, the popular innovation methodology must be more closely aligned with the realities and social dynamics of established businesses, say co-authors Jörg Reckhenrich, Martin Kaupp and Jamie Anderson.

Jörg Reckhenrich (middle) is an artist based in Berlin as well as a faculty member of our faculty at the Zurich Institute of Business Education, CEIBS Campus Zurich.  Martin Kupp (left) is an associate professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the Paris campus of ESCP Europe. Jamie Anderson is an adjunct professor of strategic management at the Antwerp Management School in Antwerp, Belgium. 


(published first: September 12, 2017 in MIT Sloane Magazine, Fall 2017)

In recent years, “design thinking” has become popular in many industries as established companies have tried to apply designers’ problem-solving techniques to corporate innovation processes.

Key elements of the design thinking methodology include fast iterations; early and frequent interaction with customers; agile process design with less hierarchy; and a learning-by-doing approach that involves building prototypes and creating mock-ups of any kind as early as possible in the process.

Here’s how design thinking initiatives are supposed to unfold in a corporate setting.

A clearly defined innovation challenge is presented to a team trained in design thinking. The team conducts research to better understand the problem. Drawing on their insights, they propose a variety of solutions, start building prototypes, and in the end, identify a fresh, profitable business opportunity.

That’s how the process is supposed to work — but it hardly ever does. Over the past seven years, we have helped more than 20 companies pursue more than 50 design thinking initiatives and have found that such initiatives rarely proceed according to the textbook model. Innovation is an inherently messy process, made even messier because it conflicts in many ways with established processes, structures, and corporate cultures. Fortunately, once you understand the challenges, you can avoid the most common pitfalls.

The root of most of the problems is the disconnect between design thinking and conventional business processes. After all, most companies’ successes are built on delivering predictable products by repeatable means. That means organizations almost instinctively resist bringing fuzzy, messy, and abstract vision into the equation. This antipathy toward design thinking runs deep, all the way from the C-suite to line workers. We find that employees often try to dodge design thinking assignments, shying away from the habits and mindsets the methodology requires.

The organization of the teams themselves leads to a second difficulty. The design thinking methodology calls for egalitarian, self-organized teams, but this isn’t how most established large companies work. In fact, the design thinking teams we have studied tend to have clear process and project owners, usually senior managers. These managers not only supervise the design thinking project but also assign tasks to team members and are responsible for its outcome. To make things worse, these senior leaders often supervise 12 to 15 design thinking projects at a time. This maximizes the leader’s time but reduces the teams’ efficiency, hinders passion and commitment, and slows progress.

In many companies, four cultural factors tend to aggravate these structural limitations:
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