Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image
Scroll to top


Design Thinking – Philosophy, Method, Tool

Design Thinking – Philosophy, Method, Tool

| On 20, Feb 2018

Darrell Mann

There’s an old joke in the Six Sigma world. One of the founding fathers is on a panel at a conference. Alongside him is one of the founding fathers of the preceding Total Quality Management world. Questions are invited from the floor. “What’s the difference between Six Sigma and TQM?” a confused-looking delegate asks. The Six Sigma founder expresses their long-winded but ultimately un-enlightening answer and sits down. The TQM guru stands up, smiles and says, “the consulting bills are higher.” Then he sits down again. Clarity at last.

Replace Six Sigma with Design Thinking, and TQM with Edward De Bono, and we manage to swiftly bring ourselves up  to date with the latest management fad. To be honest, it’s a fad that’s had a relatively long gestation period. The media first started getting interested in ‘design’ back in the mid 1990s when they were trying to understand the success of Steve Job’s Apple and he repeatedly used the word. Then along comes IDEO and the Stanford D-School. And then a literal avalanche of me-too copyists. Right now there are close to 2000 ‘Design Thinking’ related book titles to be found at your nearest online book retailer.

When there’s an apparently large amount of content to plough through, the signal-to-noise ratio tends to take a swift plunge towards zero. So much so, in the case of Design Thinking that to many newcomers it becomes difficult if not impossible to work out if there’s anything there worthy of note. The steak gets lost behind the sizzle.

I suspect that the majority of Design Thinking text authors wouldn’t know steak if it slapped them across the face. That’s the problem with jumping on bandwagons. The motivation is making a fast buck not helping readers.

Plus, within the supposed originators – i.e. the cohort of West Coast design Celebrities – there’s an added desire to obfuscate the first principle picture. Mainly because the first principles don’t come from them, but rather from Edward DeBono. And if that sounds odd, you just need to take a cursory look at the Celebrities to realise they’re for the most part British and of just the right age to have been reading De Bono books when they were growing up.

This is not to totally denigrate what they have achieved, ‘stnading on the shoulders of giants’ and all that. Here’s why the Six Sigma-and-TQM analogy is, I think, relevant. On a lot of levels you have to admire what the Six Sigma world did to take other peoples’ first-principle thinking and take it global. DeBono merely find himself at the wrong time in history, and lacked a Steve Jobs-like figure to tell the world that Design Thinking was the secret sauce of business success. What Steve Jobs was to Design Thinking, Jack Welch was for Six Sigma. The moment he said GE saved $9B through Six Sigma, every other CEO on the planet had to respond. The moment Steve Jobs attributed Apple’s success to ‘design’, every CEO had to respond again. Latching on to that kind of media tsunami is a smart move. The TRIZ world has been waiting for their equivalent for a long time.

While the lessons to be learned from globalizing an initial set of ideas might be interesting, its not what I’m interested in with this article. This article is about getting back to the (De Bono) first principles – the ‘steak’ – of Design Thinking in order to establish whether it is merely a fad or whether it has a genuine contribution to make to the prospective users of the world.

In order to commence this process, it is often useful to think about a subject from different hierarchical perspectives. We tend to use three: Philosophy, Method and Tools. Most new initiatives tend to offer nothing at the ‘philosophy level’. Statistical Process Control, to take a widely used example, is a very effective tool in certain situations, but that’s all it is. Ask any SPC user what the underlying philosophy is and they’ll probably look at you like you just landed from a different planet.

When we apply the philosophy test to Design Thinking, probably because of it’s DeBono roots, we find that there very definite ‘first principles’ upon which everything else has been built. Figure 1 attempts to illustrate what these elements are, and how they sit above the Method and Tool perspectives:

Figure 1: Design Thinking As Philosophy, Method & Toolkit

Let’s start from the top…


Philosophy – Complexity

The world is complex. Two humans together are complex, often bordering on chaos. If we are to meaningfully create new solutions it is incumbent upon us to embrace and make this complexity work for us. From the first chapter of DeBono’s book he makes a clear distinction between the analytical and synthesizing functions of the brain, and that change involves the latter. It’s not possible to analyse your way to a better future. It is necessary to ‘design’ better ways, to make ‘lateral jumps’ and to connect things in novel ways. Synthesis is counter-intuitive because for most of our lives we exist as analysers within the complexity that surrounds us. When we deliberately set out to change, we need to switch thinking modes. DeBono wasn’t massively aware of the technicalities and syntax of Complex Adaptive Systems, but he did instinctively understand the necessity of mapping the relationships between entities, looking at situations from multiple perspectives, and understanding systems from a first principles perspective – all things that today’s Complexity theoreticians and practitioners will confirm to be the best way to ‘deal with’ complexity. Complexity is all about shifts in behavior of systems once they cross a certain threshold, that means their future performance is nigh on impossible to predict in the future due to the awkward reality that apparently tiny differences can result in massively different outcomes. Think butterfly wing flaps and hurricanes. Complexity is all around us, it’s our job to make it work for us rather than against us. Which means the end of command-and-control, and pointless searches for ‘the right answer’ and ‘root causes’. In complex environments there is only ever the ‘next answer’.


Philosophy – Contradiction

Perhaps the least visible, and certainly the least well understood of the philosophical tenets of Design Thinking. DeBono ‘got it’, but I suspect the majority of designers and Design Thinkers still don’t. Contradictions in the DeBono version of Design Thinking is all about ‘parallel thinking’ and the need to avoid ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ thinking. Today, when designers get close to what DeBono was talking about, they talk about ‘win-win’ solution and ‘switching from ‘or’ to ‘and’’ thinking (‘the tyranny of the ‘or’’). Or, very likely, the need to reveal ‘insight’. Anyone familiar with TRIZ, of course, knows that insight means contradiction and that the need for contradiction-elimination is the central tenet of innovations of all forms.

(If you happened to be looking for a Design Thinking person to come and ‘do’ some Design Thinking in your organization, asking them questions about this part of the philosophy of Design Thinking is the simplest way to work out who the good providers are and who they aren’t.)


Philosophy – Rapid Learning

In many ways sitting at a level below ‘complexity’, the rapid learning idea is Design Thinking’s response to how best to deal with a complex environment: we can’t know ‘the answer’ and so the winner will be the person that learns how to iterate faster than the others. Here’s one where the IDEO team probably earns its dollar: the best way to learn is to get something into the hands of your prospective customer as soon as possible, so they can interact with it, you can watch them, and learn from what happens in order to make a second, better iteration. And then a third, and a fourth… IDEO made it into ‘standard practice, John Boyd and the OODA Cycle made it into a repeatable science.

Philosophy – Customer Empathy

The job of the Designer is to serve the needs of the customer. Everything revolves around the customer. Sometimes the customer will be able to tell you what they want, and sometimes they won’t. Empathy is the need (and ability) to look and listen below the surface to reveal the unspoken, unmet needs and frustrations of the customer. Implicit within the empathy idea is the recognition that a significant aspect of ‘customer need’ concerns emotional needs, the bit that’’ traditionally ignored or perceived to be too difficult to measure or ‘design for’.

(Another good test of whether a Design Thinking consultant actually understands what ‘empathy’ is supposed to mean, is to quiz them about how they set about capturing and designing for a customer’s emotional needs.)

So much for philosophy. It’s probably already a (too-)loaded word. It involves asking ‘why?’ questions, and not everyone welcomes that kind of question. Which is probably why most Design Thinking texts swiftly veer towards safer ‘Method’ territory:


Design Thinking – Method

Copyright Law dictates that the 2000 authors that chose to pen a Design Thinking text, all invented subtly different methodologies. Hence we get lots of noise and not very much signal. The Stanford ‘Method’  – Empathize-Define-Ideate-Prototype-Test – is probably the most widely disseminated, and certainly the one that serves as a template for other ‘methods’. Fundamentally, however, the real method goes back to DeBono again and the twin concepts of divergent and convergent thinking.

Scrape beneath the surface of any of the Design Thinking texts to find a chronological sequence of activities and you will invariably find this

Figure 2: Convergence-Divergence Cycles In Design Thinking

Unlike ‘traditional’ or ‘analytical’ thinking which is all about converging on ‘the answer’ as soon as possible, Design Thinking forces us to recognize that convergence needs to be preceded by a divergent activity that’s all about exploring options and choices. Not only that, but, working on a problem requires at least two of these divergent-convergent cycles – as shown in Figure 3:

Figure 3: Minimum Viable ‘Divergent-Convergent’ Design Thinking Method

The first of these cycles is all about definition and the second is all about solution. In reality, if we accept the Complexity and Rapid Learning elements of the Design Thinking philosophy, we quickly come to realise that this twin di-con cycle is merely to get us to the end of the first iteration of our eventual ‘finished’ solution. A ‘real’ Design Thinking project will in all probability go through a dozen or more of these cycles. The good news in that recognition is that the basic method remains the same on each cycle…


Design Thinking – Tools

…the important word there being ‘method’. The specific tools used to do each of the divergent or convergent tasks may be different for each iteration of the overall cycle. And that’s where I believe Design Thinking falls down badly at the moment. When we try and do a search for ‘Design Thinking Tools’, the well is pretty much dry. Maybe that’s because Design Thinkers know that the ‘right’ tool for the job at hand can change significantly between one iteration and the next. But, in reality, I don’t think most Design Thinking providers actually do understand that. Or maybe it’s a problem of Copyright Law again – no-one in the publishing industry wants to admit that the tools developed by others are better than ours. And so what we end up with – in all of the 2000 texts – is a series of template sheets. ‘Fill this in and you’re well on your way to design success’. There are a million different templates. The large majority of them falling into the usual ‘if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail’ trap. Relative to the divergent and convergent tools available in other domains, Design Thinking has almost nothing of substance to offer. Far better to do what we’ve been endorsing for the last fifteen plus years, and that is to make your own Design Thinking toolkit:

Figure 4: Make Your Own Design Thinking Toolkit

Right now, 98% of innovation attempts end in failure. When we look at innovation attempts that declared use of Design Thinking, the failure rate stays stubbornly at 98%. Which is another way of saying the Design Thinking is not delivering right now. In Hype Cycle terms, it’s still riding high on the Peak Of Inflated Expectations. The Trough Of Dis-Illusion is still to come. But then, unlike mere fads, thanks to its Philosophical underpinnings and overall Method, we can confidently predict it will exist in some form long into the future, as it climbs up the Slope Of Enlightenment. The trick right now is to get on board and start thinking your way through the noise to get to the signal.