Design thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation and problem solving, which draws on designers’ practices and processes, and is often presented in stark contrast to traditional, linear, hierarchical management methods.

Despite being a relatively new business phenomenon, it has a rather long history and diverse roots. Design scholars have written extensively on 'designerly' ways of thinking for decades with a focus mainly on how problems are framed and solved.

According to these authors, design thinking is an approach that enables individuals to question current states, conceive what does not exist, and help address wicked' problems - these are problems with many interdependent factors making them seem impossible to solve, such as poverty or child obesity. 

Notwithstanding this pre-existing stream of research, the more recent version of design thinking advocated by design consultancy IDEO over the 2010s has made the strongest impact on management practice. According to the company CEO, Tim Brown, design thinking is a human-centred approach that addresses users’ needs through iteration and experimentation.

The third root of design thinking is in strategic management, with authors arguing against the overly top-down, analytical approaches to strategy making and proposing design thinking as a collaborative means to balance intuition and analysis.

The following five sources are great starting points to understand, critique and practice design thinking.

1 Design Thinking

By Tim Brown. Harvard Business Review, June 2008.

Tim Brown’s initial article on design thinking and his subsequent 2009 book describe design thinking as the process of “inspiration, ideation and implementation”.

It also presents design thinkers as very empathic individuals who “can imagine the world from multiple perspectives -those of colleagues, clients, end users and customers (current and prospective). By taking a ‘people first’ approach, design thinkers can imagine solutions”.

Although this article and the subsequent book and articles are mainly based on anecdotes and success stories by his own company, Brown has arguably been the most influential author in the field of design thinking.

2 The design of business: Why design thinking is the next competitive advantage

By Roger Martin (2009). Published by Harvard Business Press.

In this book, Roger Martin describes design thinking as an approach rooted in abductive reasoning that is capable of blending rationality and analysis with intuition and synthesis.

Abductive reasoning is presented as an alternative to deductive and inductive reasoning that dominate business thinking. It can be thought of as the imagination of what might be, which can sometimes be triggered by simple, speculative 'what if?'' types of questions that take us away from the typical analysis fostered by a 'what is?' framing.

Martin also emphasises the thinking element, defining design thinking as the productive mix of analytical thinking and intuitive thinking. While various authors have rightly emphasized the importance of intuition and synthesis in contexts typically dominated by rationality and analysis, design thinking’s distinctive feature appears to dynamically balance between these opposing elements.

3 Design thinking comes of age

By Jon Kolko. Design thinking comes of age, Harvard Business Review, September 2015.

As a professional designer Jon Kolko brings a practical perspective to design thinking debates where 'design' is not seen as a label but rather as the very focus of attention.

In this and other articles, he discusses the importance, but also the difficulty of spreading designers’ perspectives, approaches and tools to the wider organisation.

These include empathy, experimentation, the use of visual formats and prototypes, and the capacity to accept ambiguity and (small) failures. This is why, according to Kolko, organisations that tend to avoid potential failures at all costs risk missing potential opportunities and will not be able to embrace design thinking.

4 Perspective: Linking design thinking with innovation outcomes through cognitive bias reduction

By Jeanne Liedtka. Journal of Product Innovation Management, March 2014.

Jeanne Liedtka has written extensively on design and design thinking from a strategic management standpoint. In this article, however, she links design thinking with decision-making, highlighting how design thinking practices and tools can help decision-makers reduce their individual cognitive biases.

In particular, she discusses various cognitive flaws. She writes: “Humans often project their own world view onto others, limit the options considered, and ignore disconfirming data. They tend toward overconfidence in their predictions, regularly terminate the search process prematurely, and become over-invested in their early solutions.”

A design thinking approach would help tackle these issues by focusing more strongly on user needs (rather than on providers’ perceptions), expanding the range of search (rather than progressively narrowing it down), and promote an iterative (rather than linear) approach to problem-solving and development of products and services.

5 Doing design thinking: conceptual review, synthesis, and research agenda

By Pietro Micheli, Sarah Wilner, Sabeen Hussain Bhatti, Matteo Mura and Michael Beverland. Journal of Product Innovation Management, August 2018.

In this article, we first present the results of a systematic review of the whole design thinking literature, which enables us to identify the principal attributes, tools, and methods.

Key attributes include user-centredness and involvement, problem solving, iteration and experimentation, interdisciplinary collaboration, ability to visualise, gestalt view, abductive reasoning, and tolerance of ambiguity and failure.

We then empirically and analytically identify the most significant patterns within the design thinking literature and provide detailed recommendations for relevant topics warranting further study in order to advance theoretical understanding of design thinking and test its applications.

Pietro Micheli is Professor of Business Performance and Innovation and the author of Measure Madness: recognizing and avoiding the pitfalls of performance management.

He lectures on Managing Organisational Performance on the Executive MBA and Executive MBA (London) and Operations Advantage on the Distance Learning MBA, plus Design in Business on the suite of MSc Business courses and the Undergraduate programme. 

Follow Pietro Micheli on Twitter @PietroMicheli13.

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