Saturday, October 18, 2014


Recently I've been working closely with a team of very bright and enthusiastic students who are trying to solve a wicked problem for a local business. Of course, I've been encouraging them to use Design Thinking methods to enhance their chances of success. This week they had their first opportunity to share their results with another student team who are working on another, much more highly defined, problem. The interaction was really interesting.

Since their problem was already fairly narrowly defined, the students with the "constrained" design challenge had jumped right into rapid prototyping and had already built several quick models.  The "wicked" team had interviewed over a dozen people involved in nearly every aspect of their design challenge and uncovered a whole suite of relevant issues.  Both teams had been productive and done some great initial work. Yet, when it came time to return and report concerning their efforts, there was a huge difference in the content of their presentations.

When the Q&A period began, the only two questions which the members of the "constrained" team had for the "wicked" team were; "What are you doing?" and "Do you have a schedule yet?" It was difficult not to value the "reality" of their physical prototypes more than the results of the empathy mapping.

This morning I received a message from a fellow Design Thinker which contained a story with a similar theme. He had used the terms Human Centered Design and Design Thinking with one of his more traditionally grounded clients and they had expressed some apprehension about it.

I've blogged before about the importance of taking on the mindset of the customer when talking about, or doing, Design Thinking. These two examples shed some light on the reason for my belief.

Since DT is a radically collaborative activity, it's very important that everyone have a flexible and expandable knowledge framework. Moreover, since DT operates at the intersection of Humanity, Technology and Business, it's at least triply important that there be a common framework for the conversation. That can be very difficult when even the definition of the process varies. With Design Thinking part of the challenge is that neither the elements nor the terminology are really new, yet it often presented as something new. In that regard, it's a bit like old wine in a new bottle.

Continuing with the wine analogy a bit further; Teaching or discussing Design Thinking suffers from the same old wine in a new bottle problem; If you simply changed the label, how does a neophyte recognize the vintage and vintner before removing the cork or taking a sip? How do they know if the contents are Domaine Romanée-Conti or Lucky Vin Rose?
Recently, I've begun to think of DT as not only a proven method of enhancing creativity, but an approach for identifying and learning what is and isn't relevant in solving complex, interrelated, multi-dimentional problems.

I'm not sure exactly how to get there just yet. I also don't know if its necessary to be an "artistic engineer with an MBA" to be able to effectively bridge the conceptual and conversational gaps between the camps. It may be that all we need is some sort of tri-lingual dictionary.

Is it time for Design Thinking for Dummies?

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