Drop the design-thinking crutches

February 28, 2014
Lecturer and Co-Director of Executive Education


Imagine you’ve broken your leg. You go to the doctor, who places it in a cast and sends you home with crutches. You hobble around for a few weeks, then weeks turn into months, then months turn into years. You don’t let go of the crutches even though your leg has healed.

It sounds ridiculous, right? But all too often, that’s what organizations do with design thinking. They encounter a messy problem and, desperate for a solution, send a team to the d.school. They learn to empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. They make key breakthroughs, develop prototypes they likely wouldn’t have back home, and in the process, become enamored with the ubiquitous whiteboards and Post-its.

(Photo via Flickr user  carlos.a.martinez)

(Photo via Flickr user carlos.a.martinez)

Then they go back, order their own whiteboards and Post-its, and follow the process as they learned it to try to institutionalize the magic they experienced here. They eventually find themselves stuck in a new problem, or worse, the same problem that led them to seek guidance in the first place.

There’s an impulse among many who visit us to cling to the crutches of the design-thinking process rather than strengthen the limb the crutch was intended to heal. This is natural. Broken limbs hurt as they get better, and it can be difficult to trust something that has been a source of failure in the past. But a crutch is not designed to be used forever — it’s meant to be discarded once it restores the function previously impaired.

I was inspired to write this because I found myself repeatedly asking why people get stuck after they leave. I’ve realized it’s because they treat design thinking as a replacement for an old process. But design thinking is not a process in the conventional sense; it’s meant to help restore an organization’s creative function. We teach it as “a process” at the d.school because it’s a useful scaffold to structure an experience for the purpose of learning. Shared language and a shared approach give us an opportunity to focus on how we’re doing something rather than what we’re doing.

But the process we use for teaching isn’t meant to be replicated and repeated verbatim in perpetuity. It should flex and adapt and be changed by adept design thinkers with an understanding of the organization, who are capable of acting on instincts in accordance with the underlying principles of human-centered design. The key is cultivating the people capable of acting with agency and creative confidence, not perpetuating an inflexible stage-gate process.

It’s not design thinking that the world needs; it’s design thinkers who continuously evolve the practice as they encounter new constraints and cultures.

Here are two key things to consider:

  • If you find yourself thinking you have to send yet another team for a bootcamp, stop and keep reading. The answer’s not another bootcamp.
  • If you find yourself wanting to take a crane, pick up the d.school and place it wherever you need it, pause and consider that the d.school you pick up today will be different — perhaps radically so — than the d.school one, two or three years in the future. That’s because we practice design thinking as an underlying principle, not as a process, and we’re constantly changing as an organization by that practice.

Often, people ascribe more weight to tangible variables such as crutches, whiteboards and Post-its. It’s much easier to do that than to apply pressure to their pain, in order to grow confident in their creative function. But that’s what organizations need: to trust their own gauge of what matters in a given situation and develop a custom-fit process for problems as they occur.

So don’t focus on whether you’re adhering to the design-thinking process; focus instead on restoring your creative function. Doing so means ditching the crutches, so you can run full stride. You’ll move much faster than you ever could before.

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  1. tberno

    Well said. Those that focus on design thinking as “a thing you do” and equate that with the trappings and artifacts of a workshop will likely get stuck. The issue is that they haven’t really embraced the core of design thinking: a blend of analytical and intuitive thinking that produces valid outcomes. I emphasize that process isn’t even a great word to associate with design thinking when I discuss it with students and clients alike. Process implies mathematical precision and a single correct result. I prefer approach—it’s a looser framework rather than a precise set of steps. It also lends context to another core principle of design thinking: that there are frequently multiple—even many—valid solutions, not just one “correct” one.

  2. Susan Wilhite

    Trust. Management must trust design thinkers to evolve organically, not lean on explanations of how ideas are arrived at as if methods imbue validity. Then design thinkers can trust themselves. There must be latitude for trial and trial again.

  3. Susan Wilhite

    In my experience mangement must trust design thinkers to evolve methods and endulge in mastery through repeated trials. Then design thinkers have the latitude to trust themselves. Accountability clashes with flexibility.

  4. Tiago Dias Miranda

    Jeremy, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    When I first got in touch with DT (still in college), I felt like it was the recipe that could solve practically anything. It could even fix personal problems with my girlfriend!

    After working in a strategic design consultancy, continuously using DT, a human-centered approach, praising it, training companies and universities, I have finally understood it. As you say, Academia encapsulated it as a “program”, “in-a-box” or even “toolkit” so it can be better communicated.

    However the vast majority of people that at some point learn about “the process of DT” understand it as an A+B=C methodology, instead of unlocking Creativity.

    This brings to a question, as I feel I am part responsible for this. What can we -as facilitators, teachers, practitioners- do in order to share the DT approach as a vehicle to foster Creativity?

  5. Cordy Swope

    Nice insights in this piece. How might an organization find the right set of challenges to its conventional approach to innovation without sacrificing its operational excellence? As we always used to say at IDEO when we were working side by side with management consultants, “It’s less about best practices, and more about NEXT practices.”

  6. Meeta

    Great analogy – I try to remind people that they need to build a bridge from understanding Design Thinking to finding the relevancy for their particular role, business, company, etc. That bridge is where the magic happens, it doesn’t happen when you understand Design Thinking, it happens when you apply it in a way that makes sense for your context, it is a shift in a way of thinking.

  7. Jeremy Utley

    @Tiago — great question — I think as facilitators and leaders we must be diligent ourselves not to be too dogmatic or fixed in our own approach. Even as simple as the language we use and the words we choose, we should strive to be accessible, not enigmatic. If you find yourself needing to define words you’re using when sharing DT principles with someone, use simpler words! My experience is that attempts to share the practice can be muddled with jargon, which gets in the way of the goal: demystifying the business of innovation and unlocking the creative potential in us all.

  8. ingrid van der wacht

    Great article Jeremy, organisations need to break indeed – rules, processes, rituals – and continuously rethink and evolve the way they are structured, what and who makes the structure, and for what. Not for the sake of innovation per se but for human centered organisations. As you say it is a principal mindset that you need to experience to adopt. Look forward to telling organisations: break a leg, use the crutches during rehabilitation only.

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