Keep up to date on David’s most recent publications on design thinking.

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Think twice about ‘design thinking’


Design thinking has both fans and detractors. In the past two years, no fewer than 89 pieces on the subject – articles, blogs and case studies – have been published by Harvard Business Review. Most authors are overwhelmingly positive about design thinking’s value for business; others are less impressed and write it off as a business fad. Does the design thinking emperor have any clothes?

My research shows a nuanced picture. Design thinking – an approach to innovation that uses empathy, logic and imagination to understand users’ problems and develop solutions – can have great benefits. But there are many different ways to implement it: To take full advantage of design thinking, organizations need to be very clear about what they want to accomplish and to adopt a model that fits within their own environment.

I interviewed design leaders within organizations to understand the experience of those who had adopted design thinking. The organizations operated in the private, public and non-profit sectors in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia. They included global multinationals in categories such as pharmaceuticals, packaged goods and retail; large non-profit hospitals; and government departments. Understandably, most wanted to show their efforts in a positive light; but from our in-depth conversations, it was clear that it had not all been clear sailing.

In all the organizations I spoke with, design thinking had strong support from the top – if not from the chief executive, then from a supportive member of the senior management team. However, this support was not always grounded in an understanding of design thinking. One frustrated designer at a health-care provider complained that “[Senior management is] really quickly jump to ‘We want this finished, we want to move on,’ as opposed to actually taking the time to prototype, reframe, go through the iterations.”

Perhaps because of this lack of understanding, design thinking was often adopted with many goals in mind. Some programs grew out of previous initiatives that had failed; others were introduced out of senior management’s frustration that the organization was slow and bureaucratic; others from a sense that the organization had lost contact with its customers.

And that was the rub. Design thinking is not a silver bullet. While it can have powerful benefits, it’s a mistake to try to do too much with it.

Design initiatives come in many different forms: a central lab devoted to out-of-the-box thinking; a distributed program across different departments; a collaborative model in partnership with other organizations. Each one of these arrangements is better for some things than others. Many of the organizations I interviewed had hybrid models that tried to straddle different goals; yet such diverse goals are hard to accommodate in one program.

If you want truly disruptive innovation, take your lab offsite and give it the resources to think not just out of the box, but as if there is no box. Or collaborate with organizations that can bring a dramatically new perspective. But don’t expect to change corporate culture this way. For this, you should have a distributed program that places designers into teams throughout the organization.

There’s nothing wrong with incremental innovation, of course: Products and services need constant tweaking to remain up to date and to match competitive changes. On the other hand, many organizations are desperate to stay ahead of disruption by designing their own disruptive innovations. Design thinking can accomplish each of these goals and more.

But you do have to make a choice. If you try to stretch design thinking too far, you are likely to be disappointed. Disruptive innovators can become isolated from their organization – “crazy cowboys” who are not taken seriously – or, in an attempt to gain legitimacy, can take on incremental projects and become overwhelmed.

If you’re thinking about trying design thinking, think twice: first about your goals, then about the right model for your organization. The design thinking emperor does have clothes. But they need to be tailored to fit.

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Implementing design thinking in organizations: an exploratory study

David Dunne December 27, 2018


Design thinking has been adopted by organizations in all sectors of the economy. In this qualitative study, I explore organizations’ goals in adopting design thinking, the challenges such programs encounter, and the approaches they have taken to deal with these challenges. I find that unclear goals, the need to build legitimacy, cultural resistance, and leadership turnover can compromise the work of design programs. Possible antidotes include technological and collaborative platforms, and extending design thinking into the implementation process.

Read the full article here.


How businesses can determine if design thinking is right for them

David Dunne
Jan 28, 2019

Design thinking has become the recipe du jour for innovation.

For some, it is the route to transformative thinking and revolutionary change.

For others, it looks like chaos, where millennials plaster the walls with sticky notes and play with Nerf toys and Lego. Others see it as a fad that has failed.

Fad or not, design thinking (creative problem-solving) has been adopted by governments, tech companies, consumer goods manufacturers, health-care organizations and many others. For my book, Design Thinking at Work: How Innovative Organizations Are Embracing Design, I interviewed large organizations that have adopted design thinking.

I wanted to understand why they embarked on a design thinking program and what their experience was.

I heard the usual stories about its benefits — how its fluid, iterative approach could bring great insights and find hidden opportunities. But I also heard about real obstacles to making it work.

Organizations adopted design thinking for many reasons, not just innovation. Some programs grew out of previous initiatives that had failed; others came about as a result of senior management’s frustration that the organization was slow and bureaucratic; others to improve contact with customers, to encourage collaboration or to attract and retain talent. Some had all of these goals, and more.

Bridging the cultural gap

At one large hospital, the design team stood out starkly from the rest of the organization.

Within a culture of scientific professionalism, their casual dress contrasted with the formality of medical staff. Even their use of language was different — for the designers, the word “experiment” meant just giving something a try; for doctors, an experiment was a formal undertaking with placebo controls and fixed protocols.

These differences illustrated a cultural gap, one that could block design teams’ ability to innovate. As the lead designer told me:

“When you turn up at a clinic on a Monday morning to do an experiment, the desk staff … they’re just not going to want you near them, they don’t know why you’re there, they’re not going to really trust you.”

Pressed to show what they could do, design teams went out of their way to reach out to the rest of the organization and build legitimacy.

In many cases, this meant taking on small projects to show what they could do. However, these incremental projects could quickly become overwhelming. Said a design leader in a multinational drug company:

“The innovation team was spending a lot of time herding cats across the organization. Most of the effort was around [organizational] structure and scope of responsibility, and less about demonstrating what [design thinking] could potentially offer.”

Some organizations dealt with this by setting up independent labs, located some distance from head office. Yet there was a risk here too — such labs could become isolated from the organization, seen in one large retailer as “crazy cowboys,” rather than transformative innovators.

Some projects could never get started

Many potentially significant innovations had trouble getting off the ground because other parts of the organization were unable or unwilling to implement them.

In some ways, these findings are not surprising. Organizations are not typically set up to tolerate the fundamental questions design thinkers ask. For one Danish government lab, challenging organizational thinking was critical:

“What is the framing? What is the understanding of the problem? From where do we know this? Why do we assume that this apparently simple solution or approach will actually work for someone?”

In a culture where employees are under constant pressure to solve problems and move on, such questions can be seen as distracting or even threatening.

How to make design thinking work

It’s still possible for companies to have a successful design thinking program. They can use design thinking as a vehicle for cultural change and for creative collaboration; for either incremental or disruptive innovation.

But businesses are unlikely to accomplish all of these at once. There are several different ways of implementing design thinking –centralized or distributed, for example – and which direction companies choose depends on their goals.

Is design thinking right for every organization?

If a company’s culture is all about efficiency, it may be a difficult fit. The iterative, messy nature of design thinking can be disruptive to an organization that relies on repeating the same process, time after time.

There are good alternatives, however, to adopting it internally — many consultancies now use design thinking for problem-solving, and many design firms offer excellent innovation services.

Incidentally, the Danish government lab shut down in May 2018. Its founders aspired to disrupt the bureaucracy, but its true impact was hard to measure.

In the end, it was replaced by an initiative focused on digital technology. Its demise was a blow to many, myself included, who believe in design thinking.

It’s not a cure-all for every organization, nor is it a dying fad; in the right conditions, it can bring great value.

But for businesses to make a success of it, they must exercise common sense by being clear about their goals and making realistic choices. This is neither a transformative nor a revolutionary concept. Sadly, such common sense in the business world is not always so common.