Fast Company's Katherine Schwab interviewed IDEO's Michael Hendrix this week for an article titled, "IDEO Breaks Its Silence on Design Thinking Critics." Schwab writes, "Over the last year, Ideo’s philosophy of “design thinking“–a codified, six-step process to solve problems creatively–has come under fire. It’s been called bullshit, the opposite of inclusive design, and a failed experiment." I am a proponent of design thinking, but I understand the criticism. Many people and organizations have adopted the language of design thinking, or sought to embrace the approach, without effecting real change. They have talked the talk about innovation, without walking the walk. Organizations have spent a great deal of money on innovation programs with little real impact.
Schwab explains, "Part of the problem is that many people use the design thinking methodology in superficial ways. Hendrix calls it the “theater of innovation.” Companies know they need to be more creative and innovative, and because they’re looking for fast ways to achieve those goals, they cut corners." Like Hendrix, I've observed many large organizations fail when trying to embrace or adopt design thinking. I've seen plenty of theater. He goes on to argue that the culture at many firms lacks the key elements required to truly succeed with a design thinking approach to innovation. Hendrix notes that many organizations do not have a climate of psychological safety, where people trust that they can speak up and offer ideas without being rebuked or marginalized. Moreover, he notes that many companies have not embraced a culture of play - a necessary precondition, in his view, for succeeding at design thinking.
In my forthcoming book, I offer one other explanation for why design thinking fails in many organizations. In my mind, the creative process is a fundamentally non-linear process. It moves in fits and starts on many occasions, and it involves a great deal of iteration. You find yourself moving off in unexpected directions at times, and reversing course when roadblocks or failed experiments occur. Many companies have tried to implement IDEO's design thinking methodology, but they have perceived the stages of that process as sequential in nature. They have applied a linear mindset to an essentially non-linear process. They think that ideation always follows empathy-based research, and that prototyping always follows ideation. Organizations are used to analyzing, planning, and then executing. The creative process simply does not unfold in that linear fashion.