The limitations, criticisms and new pathways for Design Thinking – Part One

Let me summarize where we are today in design thinking. In the past couple of weeks, I have been spending a fair amount of time on investigating design thinking.

This is part one of my thoughts that came out of investigating and researching design thinking

In these two posts, I want to provide my outcomes, bridging the present and pointing towards a better design thinking future, in my opinion urgently needed.

The ‘product of my work’ itself is presently being worked through to be available as an e-book in the coming weeks.

The intent of the e-book is to offer a practical, direct takeaway of design thinking, the present practices and where it is possibly heading. I tried to go linear, gone circular, gone holistic and at times ballistic and sought out tactical and strategic design, recognizing how its orientation has moved through product, service, experience, business model and lifting design into new ways of orientation at tactical and strategic levels.

As I found out from my research, there is an awful amount of “noise and hype” to work through to find the past, present and future positions of design thinking. In summary, I think design thinking is undergoing a revolution, a certain maturing but it is littered with a very messy, highly competitive present.

I am suggesting that perhaps design thinking is a current ‘burning platform’ and the term ‘design thinking’ is so loaded it might need to be reworked under different banners to allow it to evolve as it equally needs to be restated and deepened in its skills, practices, uses, and methodologies.

I certainly get the impression that there is an immense interest in design thinking as being a valuable contributor to being part of a solution within organizations to tackle their tougher problems as well as those that need a level of creativity to move through in understanding.  For many though, I feel it lacks a real understanding of its value for the majority to sort the ‘good from the bad’ in design thinking or design thinkers, along with the what and where it can really contribute to achieving better solution outcomes.

It needs to break free of the magic ‘black box’ and evolve into its promise of being increasingly important to use, to balance out and integrated with other skills, capabilities, and methodologies that tackle real, often complex problems but more importantly, to be generally understood as a creative, human-centered methodology to get fully behind.

So part one of a two-part reflective summary:

I believe design thinking has a great role to play in contributing to solving problems and challenges, yet we have a series of problems to bring it back to a valuable order, we need to rein in the hype and the lack of a deep design thinking skill-set.

Far too many people are claiming to be design thinkers, after simply attending very limited “crash course” or “boot camps” and do not have the deep investment and experience to be true ‘design thinkers’. If this continues design thinking will fail in its potential to be a really good creative problem-solving approach.

Design thinking has raised a lot of expectations as well as its fair share of controversy. Why are organizations so caught by DT? Often it became the promise of having creative ways to solve solutions and work in harmony with all the rational thinking that dominates much of business thinking today, DT sounded so appealing, it quickly became “oh, we need some of that.”

The ramping up begins

So, the marketing of Design Thinking kicks in, looking to capitalize and add a real momentum. DT got heavily promoted. It quickly became simply sold as a process, just like Six Sigma, it became limited by those jumping on the latest concept not being true design thinkers, apart from attending a short course or two.

Then this new process became a little uncomfortable living alongside more established rational ones, it was difficult to integrate, so as this ‘new kid on the block’ struggled, questions started to raise their head on how does this compliment and add to all the efficiency and effectiveness that is expected around an organization’s dominating mindset. Most lost the plot that design thinking was different. It was so different, it was human-centered, not process-centered.

What was soon realized that extra “fuzziness” can sit uncomfortably in highly organized and rational structures? Design thinking was looking for those “leaps of faith” and lots of ‘being creative’, seeing failure and diversity was actually something akin to being hard to accept and conflicting in ‘being judged’. Fun and engaging perhaps but it needed to be separated and contained.

Organizations have come up against this growing recognition that there is no one “plug and play” system for design thinking.

When you are asked to be flexible, agile, willing to experiment and often fail, sometimes publicly, this can take you into some very uncomfortable territory. You might like the idea but will the boss? When you do not have a clear definition of design thinking of where and how it can actually fit, how it works or means, it continuously suffers from a lack of clear assignment, it makes it feel a little bit of an oddball.

You are left wondering who executes this and how it might be applied and implemented at scale. What answers to what, what links into what? Yet it feels useful and needs to be more embraced for its creative value. So, the short answer is to give everyone a short exposure and let everyone embrace design thinking as the creative avenue for all to explore. It suddenly gets broken down so it can be repeatable, a step-by-step process. Then easy, we all become suddenly design thinkers, or are we?

Then we get the “let’s systematize this” into a familiar, easy to use and follow process

Organizations suddenly turned design thinking into a linear, often gated, by-the-book methodology and suddenly it is not true design thinking anymore, it becomes just another too linear, too slow and not as bright a way to be ‘so creative’ but hey, we are design thinkers, that’s not bad, is it? The dominating thinking about ‘process’ suddenly starts to screw up the ‘freedom’ within true design thinking. It quickly became boiled down to aiding and supporting the incremental innovation.  It loses its real powerful edge of harnessing creativity to solve problems in highly imaginative and insightful ways, it becomes just the encouragement to help thinking along.

Design thinking so often then gets reduced down to supporting small project-related work, happily working at the periphery of the organization, it becomes simply a friend to incremental innovation and change. Leaders start to ask a question about all this design thinking ‘hype’ and began demanding far more from a design thinking process to tackle their complex problems.  Then it is suddenly “Huston, we have a problem.

Enter the need for a new design thinking way that is emerging.

Design thinking can play a richer role and be a more powerful contributor to bigger problems but it needs to evolve and be seen in a wider context and not seen as specialized, narrow and limited. It can connect to a wider universe of problems and complexity of design itself, over the centuries has broken out of past confines. Design thinking makes us all design-conscious if we allow it too. It is the human-centered design that can draw out the best of our thinking if we do allow it too.

DT encourages us to abandon the linear thinking and keeps us constantly undergoing that looping circularity as the accepted process and that needs resetting mindsets significantly.  DT to evolve in all our minds, away from those past experiments limited to narrow, linear paths of design thinking understanding is highly liberating, sometimes scary but deeply satisfying when you truly break through a complex problem.

We need to connect multiple thinking, diversity and different experiences that so often diverge initially to then collectively find the path to converge, in a common understanding, to translate the combined creative thinking into real action, achieving valuable outcomes.

There is a different pathway ahead, otherwise, Design Thinking in its existing form alone will fail.

Design Thinking will not be evolved if we step back from this wrong path that many have been following in recent years, it will get pushed back and sink into the background, occasionally turned too, in a world far more dominate and schooled in detail-orientated highly rationale process methodology and thinking. Design Thinking can be increasingly integrated towards business and becomes both stronger in the human consciousness for process and culture contributions.Yet to get to this point there is this need to firstly, go back to the design thinking drawing board.

Design Thinkers should restate their value proposition before it becomes too late, to deepen the techniques and avoid moving out of their specialized role of being great facilitator to connect others to thrive and build solutions. Otherwise, there is this risk that DT fails in its real potential as a real creative process to search out imaginative solutions that DO solve complex problems. It is up to the design thinking community to come together on this, as today it is a real mess of conflicting message and extremes, some offering snake-oil solutions, others keeping design front and focused from experience, exploring all the design thinkers options and honing their practice.

Design Thinking should be seen as a specific creative, human-centered process all our thinking should pass through. It needs a new lifting up into both tactical and strategic design thinking.

We need to allow the ‘creative flow to emerge’

Design and good well-trained design thinkers are ‘schooled’ to be naturally creative thinkers, that is their space. They need to extend their toolkit of methods and tools to produce new value through the approaches they undertake. They thrive in the ambiguities recognizing in growing complex problems there will never be a concrete set of predictable answers.

Design thinkers work through the messy and unpredictable business, so typical of innovation and discovery doing analysis and synthesize to push more those unpredictable, surprising creative outcomes. To achieve this DT cannot be a prescribed step-by-step detailed process, it simply passes through stages, loops back when needed and moves forward when it ‘seems’ right.

I recall one comment I read: “thinking does not convey action”. If constructed well, through experienced, trained design thinkers have the ability to draw out all the diverse thinking present, through a fuller inspiration, ideation and implementation mindset. It can offer a creative pathway that promotes a messy, sometimes conflicting, failure allowed, ‘full on’ set of emotions, to energize and tackle complicated problems.

The search is even more centered around strategically connected value creation

As we all are faced with the task of solving more complex problems that are strategic in need, it is for design thinking to step up and become more a key component on how to ‘do’ this. These as relating far more to the customer needs, to solving organizational challenges or market challenges and those more ‘knotted problems’ that corporations and society are grappling with. The ability to extract from design thinking methodologies can significantly help in the future.

Today what is being increasingly demanded is to solve more complex problems in creative ways as essential, then design thinking needs to work in harmony with many other thinking skills to make its contribution.

It certainly needs to mature way beyond a ‘one frame thinking concept’ to achieve this, to be central to finding solutions.






















5 thoughts on “The limitations, criticisms and new pathways for Design Thinking – Part One

  1. While I am very hopeful about a Part 2 to this post, I’m a little frustrated with this Part 1. As a novice in this field, I was hoping to gain a little more clarity about what DT is today and where it is/should be going in the future. No examples were provided– just many attempts to sell us on the concept that DT is over-hyped and not well understood. The comment that it should be viewed and implemented in a broader context means nothing to readers who aren’t aware of or clear about its current context. If the intent was to leave me hanging so I’d read Part 2, you achieved your goal. If your intent was to map the territory a bit, I am frustrated.


    • Hi Charlie
      I can understand your frustration, this is, in both parts a reflective view. The e-book due out shows more clarity and I have a post in the works to tackle a little more of your comments. Clearly the customer experience space, product and service problems is where the majority of DT has been centered.
      I did not have any intention to leave you hanging but I sense your disappointment. Let me send you some links that might help you
      Regards and thanks for your comments, well received and welcome- Paul

      Liked by 1 person

  2. While I am very hopeful about a Part 2 to this post, I’m a little frustrated with this Part 1. As a novice in this field, I was hoping to gain a little more clarity about what DT is today and where it is/should be going in the future. No examples were provided– just many attempts to sell us on the concept that DT is over-hyped and not well understood. The comment that it should be viewed and implemented in a broader context to solve complex problems means nothing to readers who aren’t aware of or clear about its current context and application. If the intent was to leave me hanging so I’d read Part 2, you achieved your goal. If your intent was to map the territory a bit, I am frustrated.


  3. Pingback: The limitations, criticisms and new pathways for Design Thinking – Part two | Paul4innovating's Innovation Views

  4. Pingback: Rethinking the Value of Business Ecosystems | Ecosystems4innovators

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