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Design Thinking: Implications for Management Published: Monday, February 1, 2010 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Design thinking-approaching management problems as designers approach design problems-has important implications for management as organizations search for new approaches to change and to improve performance. Companies just have to become more like design shops in their attitude and work methods. My belief is that we have to change from traditional work patterns to a "design shop" mentality, in order to generate the kind of innovative solutions that contemporary organizations are in need of.

After all, this is what great business leaders do: They enter some kind of constrained environment where they want to do something that is near impossible. They have to figure it out by thinking differently from anybody else. The best of what is seen in the best business people is the same as what is seen in designers at their best. The idea is: There is this problem-all these constraints and something great has to come out.

Design shops work on projects that have defined terms; whereas a traditional firm sees itself as engaged in an ongoing task. The traditional firm treats its activities as an ongoing assignment even though it is really a bundle of projects. As a result, it ends up with big budgets and large staff. A traditional manager would take the options that have been presented and analyze them based on deductive reasoning. You typically get those options on the basis of what you have seen before-that is, inductive logic. You then select the one that has highest net present value. 

For a design firm, it's all about solving "wicked" problems. The idea of "wicked" problems was originally developed by Horst Rittell in the 1960s (Buchanan, 1992) and describes a "class of social system problems which are ill formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing" (Churchman, 1967). Whereas managers avoid working on wicked problems because their source of status comes from elsewhere, designers embrace these problems as a challenge.

The designers who can solve the most wicked problems do it through collaborative integrative thinking, using abductive logic, which means the logic of what might be. Conversely, deductive and inductive logic are the logic of what should be or what is. In traditional organizations do you get rewarded for thinking about what might be? No . . . these firms can only do what they know how to do and constraints are the enemy-as opposed to the design firm, where constraints bring challenge and excitement. This relates directly to integrative thinking (Martin, 2002). The non-integrative thinker readily accepts unpleasant trade-offs and the integrative thinker instead seeks creative resolution of the tension.

A designer uses abductive reasoning to say, "What is something completely new that would be lovely if it existed but doesn't now? Design thinking, therefore, combines the generation of new ideas with their analysis and an evaluation of how they apply generally. A designer uses abduction to generate an idea or a number of ideas, deduction to follow these ideas to their logical consequences and predict their outcomes, testing of the ideas in practice, and induction to generalize from the results. This learning in turn helps generate new ideas and the process can be depicted as a cycle.

Typically the people who succeed as business leaders are designers more often than not. They see the whole picture of what they are, what their company is, what they are trying to accomplish, and they listen carefully to others. They look at things as a whole, not as piece parts that you put together. One aspect of design thinking that underlies true leadership is "systems thinking" that is, visualizing a design or managerial problem as a system of structures, patterns and events, rather than just the events alone-and understanding the impact of changes in one component on the others, and on the system as a whole.

Boland and Collopy (2004) also distinguish between a design attitude and conventional management thinking. They claim that a decision attitude is overwhelmingly dominant in contemporary management education and practice. A decision attitude is about solving existing, stable problems with clearly specified alternatives through the use of analytical decision tools. By contrast, those with a design attitude view each problem as an opportunity for invention that includes a questioning of basic assumptions and a resolve to improve the state of the world.

The decision attitude starts with an assumption that the alternative courses of action are already at hand-that there is a good set of options already available, or at least readily obtainable. The design attitude, in contrast, is concerned with finding the best answer possible, given the skills, time and resources of the team, and takes for granted that it will require the invention of new alternatives.

A designer works with other people on two levels: (1) By understanding users' perspectives and their needs, and (2) by collaborating with peers. In the former case, observation and reflection provide insights into user experience. In the latter, he rejects uncompromising advocacy of one's own position in favor of developing mutual understanding. Design is not about either/or but about integrative thinking. So there is no reason why it has to be either about customers or about shareholders. If you approach problems from a design standpoint, those two things are inexorably linked and you have to think about both.

I am convinced that design thinking is a remarkably underused tool for achieving strategic business initiatives that are increasingly driven by the need for innovation. The more design thinking is used to innovate and solve problems across many professions, the more design itself will be brought into significant conversations and decisions that shape our collective future in the business world. In an age of renewed interest in innovation, we suggest the cultivation of a new generation of design agents who want to collaborate within the context of an organization in a new way-business agents who want to move design strategy and design methods into the mainstream of business thought to accomplish business goals. These parties would use design methods to make business itself more intentional.


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