Is your Design Thinking programme a waste of time? – 10 ways to tell. Part 3 of 3.

If Design Thinking has raised your hopes only to dash them, this is your way out.

  • Nice ideas without real innovation

Ok, I have to admit we get a lot of flak for this one too. People take us to task because we’re designing good and useful things for them but isn’t SuperUltra supposed to be the innovation firm? Where’s the innovation man? To be clear, I’m not talking about people coming up with pie-in-the-sky ‘nice’ ideas. Just very useful  and necessary things that are not ground-breaking. 

The answer is about maturity. A lot of companies that are asking for innovation haven’t gotten their basics right yet. Many that have got their basics right still have to get incremental improvement going at scale. In my opinion, you’ll want to cover those bases before asking for innovation. A lot of our work is in digital transformation and we’re literally digitizing paper processes. A lot of that work is mundane and occasionally there is a leapfrog opportunity where we can just skip to something really new. But that’s rare, risky and I’d get good advice before trying it. 

  • Lots of talk but no change in culture

We find that fatigue sets in when a lively Design Thinking program is going on but it doesn’t seem to have changed the organizational culture much. The first question we ask is “Is your CEO on board?”. The second is “Is he involved?”. People need permission and nothing delivers that like seeing the boss putting up sticky notes. Actually, hearing the boss audibly mulling over a new idea gives more permission than the sticky thing. 

Once you get that permission, it’s up to a core team of like-minded individuals who are personally backed by the boss to pull something interesting through the process and deliver it. And then repeat the feat. You have to earn the right in the design game and your currency is small wins. When you start to string together some wins, you have to share them with the organization. Telling stories of how design has been helping the business builds a narrative that people want to share. This stuff is exciting – but people need to feel free to join in.

  • Driven by intuition rather than fact

I don’t really have a problem with the large amount of intuition required from a Design Thinking team. The challenges often start out vague and wide ranging, the facts can’t all be proven. It’s a pity when some of that intuition is proven wrong by reality – but that’s a discussion for another day. What I don’t like is when a team can’t isolate the fundamental principles on which a challenge rises or falls. Intuition and experience can lead you to them but they have to be tested. 

When the stakes are high, I need intuition and experience to be validated by data. We have a reasonable ability at SuperUltra to draw insights out of data and we use it every time. Whether it’s big medium, small or fuzzy data, we use it and we only continue when we find the harmony between intuition, experience and data. One small note though – some of the input data can be from direct observation. Go and see for yourself. The entire design game relies on gathering new information and using it well. 

  • Creates pretty, superficial things, not big, important ones

We see a lot of Design Thinking programs that are mandated by a senior person who heard it was a hot new thing and issued an edict. Sometimes that results in a lot of designery action without much substance. Colourful innovation zones with beer and cake parties are cool, as long as they’re delivering every increasing change to the business. Honestly, we’ve seen a lot of expensive Design Thinking theatre that only existed to give someone a budget to look good with. 

In more honest cases, the design function is delivering good work but is not entrusted with the most important challenges for a lot of the reasons discussed above. If that’s what you’re looking for then go for it – it’s achievable for most design teams. But if you want radical change and for your design capability to make the big moves for the business, ask yourself – would you trust these people to run an important part of your business? If the answer is no – build that team first or call SuperUltra. Or both, preferably. 

Last word

I don’t need design to be the saviour of every business. What I’d like to see though, is that reasonable people like you and I create a design capability that suits what the business actually needs. Then we can set the Design Thinking expectation at a level which that capability can deliver. Do that, and I promise, you won’t be disappointed in Design Thinking ever again. 

By Tasos Calantzis