Is Design Thinking worth the time and money?

Designing Thinking (DT) is a bunch of tools or techniques that can be used in your design or innovation process. In Solving Problems with Design Thinking, authors Jeanne and others list the following as design thinking tools:
  • Visualization
  • Journey mapping
  • Value chain analysis
  • Mind mapping
  • Brainstorming
  • Concept development
  • Assumption testing
  • Rapid prototyping
  • Customer co-creation
  • Learning launch
Most of these tools are focused around people. Some help bring together people who must preferably come together to design a better solution. The other tools help get insights into people who can then be provided with better design. You pick one or more tools based on your purpose.

Is Design Thinking new?

DT tools have been used for decades in the design of everyday products. For example, in the mid-90s human factors expert Richard Anderson taught many of these tools at a University of California, Berkeley course I attended. Back then, "co-creation" used to be called participatory design. "Learning Launch" is what we all know as Pilot. "Value chain analysis" is an old tool too and is, in fact, being replaced by value stream analysis by practitioners of Lean Thinking.

What is the new idea?

The call to use proven DT techniques to solve business challenges is new. I'm not saying DT was never before used to solve business challenges. Think of ex-McKinsey Tom Peter's evangelism of design. Or consider the "kit" I designed for use in Cognizant's sales cycle that included a customer-friendly gallery, lab, interactive productivity calculator, and proof-of-concept – all outputs of design thinking.

So, here's what DT evangelists are trying to do: (a) Extend the use of DT in business "beyond formal, established design groups or traditional R&D functions." (b) Bring the benefits of DT to a large number of organizations.

What's wrong with traditional approaches?

Creative DT is often contrasted with analytic management/marketing thinking. However, DT is not a substitute for the traditional approach. It can be complementary. "A kind of Mckinsey-meets-IDEO," says Jeanne. "The design approach doesn't compete with data – it complements it. It won't replace a data-driven approach, because at the end of the day customers have to see how we're going to meet their specs and what the actual numbers show." Jeanne's words are reassuring given business world's obsession today with analytics and big data.

What is the scope?

DT helps solve business challenges in innovative ways, but Jeanne adds that DT frequently is "recasting and recombination of myriad elements rather than one big new-to-the-world idea."

Many of the stories in Jeanne's book are about creating "stuff" – like user interfaces, videos, and communication materials. One such story appears in a chapter titled "Post-merger integration." Here the output of DT is a very effective approach for one aspect of integration, that is, communicating vision and strategy to employees. Another story appears in a chapter titled "Transforming B2B customer engagement at 3M." Here the output is a video that powerfully demonstrates new 3M materials instead of merely presenting tech specs. In "Rethinking strategic planning at SAP," the output is an animated PowerPoint slideshow, which communicates business strategy. In "Redesigning the customer contact center," a major output is the design of a software's user interface.

Sure, organizations always create videos, slideshows, and user interfaces," but it is the effectiveness through people-orientation that is highlighted in these stories. Also, the outputs in some of the other stories are not "stuff." A more appealing meal service, for example.

Costs and outcomes

What kind of resources does DT consume? In the Suncorp story, it took eighteen months to roll out "strategic conversations" through the ranks at ten business units. In the 3M story, it took four months to get the business behind the vision – the vision of moving beyond telling to showing. In the SAP story, it took many thousands of Post-it Notes for the team to consider how to package its learnings in a compelling way. And the demo (though very effective eventually) appears a year and half later.

Is DT worth such time and costs? To be able to answer, we need to first ask, What are the business outcomes? "If there is one issue that one might have hoped to hear more about in our stories, it is the area of metrics," say Jeanne and co-authors. They agree that today's quantitative culture demands a demonstration of measurable outcomes, but the authors seem to worry that "the ability to tie these outcomes to financial measures is tricky." In the 3M story for example, "measuring design's impact on business performance remained a challenging one." On the other hand, the outcomes that Jeanne shows in the Toyota and The Good Kitchen stories are the kind the business world would like to see more often.

My conclusion

DT is a proven set of people-centric and fun techniques that can deliver innovative solutions in business situations. However, DT techniques must be aligned with business expectations. Practitioners must work on DT's costs and outcomes – both issues that matter to businesses that want to increase revenues, reduce costs, and improve profitability.

And if you are new to DT, Jeanne's book is a great place to start!