Guest Blog: Tom Groenfeldt on Design Thinking

Is Design Thinking Different From Thinking?

Design Thinking, which has become widely popular in the last couple of years, has two aspects. One is not about design or aesthetics — it is about a way of thinking. It’s received a boost in credibility since two co-founders of Airbnb are graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

Tom Groenfeldt, Freelance Writer

Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, explains theory and practice of Design Thinking in his book, “The Design of Business”.

Martin cites Tim Brown of IDEO that design thinking is “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and where a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

Management fads come in waves such as Management by Walking Around, TQM, Kaizen, Six Sigma, Theory Z, JIT, and re-engineering the corporation. A good deal of Design Thinking seems to combine common sense with rigorous examination of the business.

Martin contrasts the drive for reliable, which comes from scientific management to valid, which can arise from imagination. At times he is waylaid by his stories. He discusses Ray Kroc’s formulas that made McDonald’s so successful, or an autism researcher who seems to be following lab results, neither of which seems to have much to do with design thinking.

But the book picks up its pace with another story — A.G. Lafley who in his early days as CEO of P&G persuaded Claudia Kotchka, on his third try, to head up the company’s design initiative. She turned to Martin, David Kelley of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design and Patrick Whitney of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

He defines design thinking as deep and holistic user understanding, visualization of new possibilities and the creation of a new activity systems to bring the nascent idea to reality and profitable operation. To be effective, it has to be designed for business teams. A key quality Kotchka brought to P&G was she could talk to designers and she understood the needs of business.

Martin says companies that devote all their resources to reliability lack the tools to pursue outcomes that are valid — they don’t know how to manage validity-seeking activities to generate lasting business value. As he notes later in the book, big stodgy firms can acquire small innovative companies for fresh thinking. Then the challenge is to avoid suffocating the small firm with big company bureaucracy, as EDS did with A.T. Kearney before eventually selling the consultancy back to its remaining executives for a fraction of what it had paid. A better example is Steelcase which bought IDEO and kept it a separate operation to bring innovative design thinking to the office furniture company. Then it sold a controlling interest back to the executives.

Analytics has limits, Martin notes.

“It is no accident that the future predicted through analytical methods closely resembles the past, differing in degree but not in kind… In the mind of the analyst all that matters is what can be measured.”

Some of design thinking seems common sense, revolutionary primarily because some of these corporations were so rigidly managed. P&G, for example relied on focus groups. Kotchka experimented with the hair products group in the UK by getting some of them to visit hair salons and see products being consumed, and then inviting salon customers to P&G office to talk about their experiences, replacing focus groups with one-on-one meetings.

Herman Miller’s Aeron chair is another example of design thinking. The company turned to outside designers who talked to people who sit for a living. Turns out the reason they turn and squirm in their chairs is because they get hot. The designers created a chair which stretches a breathable fabric across its seat and back frames. The company did a major launch and the chair sales took off despite some who asked where the upholstery was.

“The key tools of design thinkers are observation and imagination and configuration.”

Not everyone is enthusiastic about design thinking.

Lee Vinsel, who describes himself as doing technology studies at Virginia Tech, posted on Medium: “Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains.”

The graphic designer Natasha Jen, a partner at the design firm Pentagram, said ”Design Thinking has become a meaningless buzzword. But the deeper problem is that Design Thinkers treat design like a simple, linear process.”

Thom Moran, an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan, told Vinsel that Design Thinking brought “a whole set of values about what design’s supposed to look like,” including that everything is supposed to be “fun” and “play,” and that the focus is less onwhat would work.” Moran doesn’t see sufficient “critical thinking in the popular form of Design Thinking, which tends to ignore politics, environmental issues, and global economic problems.”

Martin says that some parts of a organization benefit from a lot of design thinking while other areas, such as supply chain and finance, require reliability. Balance is key to understanding where and when and how much to look for design thinking and when to value reliability.

About Tom Groenfeldt

Tom Groenfeldt is a highly respected freelance writer based in the U.S. He writes about finance and technology for publications including, International Finance Magazine and his own blog, In 2015 The Financial Brand named Tom one of the top 25 global influencers in financial services. And he was named by Jay Palter as one of the 250 Fintech influencers you should be following in 2016, and by CDW FinTalk as a top blog.