in Business Design

HBR Finally Runs Their Design Thinking Article

Tim Brown Those of us following the dissemination of the design thinking meme were wondering if and when the Harvard Business Review would jump on board, and the waiting is over. In the June 2008 issue there’s an overview article courtesy of IDEO’s Tim Brown, a logical choice. He makes some key points while sidestepping unnecessary hype. Examples:

  • His cases include Coasting bicycles, Kaiser Permanente nursing shift changes, and the Aravind Eye Care System. But he wraps the piece with a comparison to Thomas Edison:
  • The lightbulb is most often thought of as his signature invention, but Edison understood that the bulb was little more than a parlor trick without a system of electric power generation and transmission to make it truly useful. So he created that, too. Thus Edison’s genius lay in his ability to conceive of a fully developed marketplace, not simply a discrete device… Edison wasn’t a narrowly specialized scientist but a broad generalist with a shrewd business sense… Innovation is hard work; Edison made it a profession that blended art, craft, science, business savvy, and an astute understanding of customers and markets.

  • Design applied downstream is tactical, design applied upstream is strategic.
  • The importance of a human-centered approach
  • Brainstorming and prototyping stand as examples for the array of possible techniques
  • Constraints as a springboard for creativity
  • Aesthetics are still important because they appeal to our emotions
  • As more of our needs our met, we crave better experiences

And so on. If you haven’t been introduced to design thinking, it’s a good place to start. If you have, it’s a good article to educate your clients.

  1. What the article is missing is some concrete examples – what do designers *do* at strategic phases of projects, when the problems they’re solving aren’t explicit design problems? Why is it important for designers to participate in the process at that point? What would they do differently from a typical business strategist?

    Designers bring a few things to the table at strategic points in the process but the primary tasks are:

    1. Asking different questions that result in a fuller understanding of the problem. Any good strategy process is going to involve research. Including designers (or design thinking) in the research process ensures that the strategy you’re developing includes a more human-centric focus. Imagine a fairly unsexy business problem: working on a strategy for a wholesaler who needs to make their warehouse processes more effective. After understanding the lay of the land, traditional consultants are likely to first figure out where the leverage points are – where are the points at which improvement will make the biggest impact? Where are there process imbalances? What’s the cost structure? A designer is more likely to spend time in the warehouse, shadowing workers to understand how they do their work, the tools they use and the kinds of workarounds and inventions they have developed to make their life easier. Both of these perspectives are vital – business strategists are looking at the landscape from the top down, where designers are more likely to look at the world from the bottom up, from the perspective of the people doing the work. A good strategy needs to take into account both perspectives.
    2. Making the strategy real. As the article describes, the design process revolves around the prototyping process, developing an idea by designing potential solutions in a way that’s tangible, that allows everyone in the room to develop a shared understanding of the direction. Applying design thinking in a business context allows the strategy team to come to a very clear, succinct understanding of the possibilities for the world their strategy will create. It also provides an easy way to test ideas with stakeholders. If our strategy is to re-vamp our warehouse to enable significantly faster through-put, here are two potential ways we could make that happen. Option 1 looks like this: [insert visualization of that new world, via sketches, stories, process flows or all of the above]; Option 2 looks like this: [ditto]. Because the options are real and tangible, it’s easier for stakeholders to respond, to come up with their own ideas, or to point out the disconnects in their understanding of the strategy. A few iterations of this kind of visualization results in a strategy that’s been road tested and is significantly more likely to avoid the kinds of executional risks inherent in any strategy.
    3. Ensuring a smoother transition to the tactical design process. In order to create a more efficient warehouse, we may decide that we need to redesign the physical plant; we may decide that what we need is a revised recruiting process, we may decide that we need to recategorize the items on the shelves to link items that tend to be purchased together; maybe we need all of the above. In any of these cases, the execution phase requires design. The translation process from the strategy to the design entails significant risk. How do you communicate the context, goals and requirements of the task to a wide variety of different vendors, each of whom has their own methods and their own interpretation of the plan. Instilling design into the process ensures significantly smoother translation of strategy into each aspect of the execution.

  2. RE>What the article is missing is some concrete examples

    Agreed. In his defense, it’s just an introductory article. I suspect it’s both very hard and very easy to show examples. Very hard because applying creativity to what are normally analytical activities is a design problem in itself. I’ve found that inventing even rudimentary tools is hard…

    But it’s also easy, there are examples all around us. Financing a very expensive project, like a skyscraper, happens frequently enough. This requires creativity to solve a problem involving several parties, credit instruments, commitments over time, taxes, and so on.

    I’d like to know if anyone in finance is studying these deals as creative activities to help us understand how to design them better.

  3. According to me,
    What the article is missing is some concrete examples
    Agreed. In his defense, it’s just an introductory article. I suspect it’s both very hard and very easy to show examples. Very hard because applying creativity to what are normally analytical activities is a design problem in itself. I’ve found that inventing even rudimentary tools is hard…

    Fashion Girl

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