Design Thinking – What is it? And what place does it have in THE STRATEGY JOURNEY®?

By Julie Choo

Published: August 30, 2017

Last Update: April 28, 2020

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Perhaps it does come down to implementation and execution but does Design Think really work to offer and deliver real value-add when a business innovates and transforms?

Can you apply Design Thinking techniques in THE STRATEGY JOURNEY Framework and method? Where does it fit in the business journey or transformation journey that all businesses cycle through?

There are many benefits form using Design Thinking techniques but I am often left wondering if generating ideas for change amounts to the same thing as implementing change. Does it fall short when implementing changes in the Operating Model – the HOW? Is it a process solely for generating ideas or can it also help us to develop real strategies and tactics, that we can execute in the business?


Design Thinking: A Process for Creative Success

There are certainly many success stories that we can look at. So what is Design Thinking and who is using it?

Most of the definitions of the practice talk about bringing a designer’s eye to a problem, looking at customer need and finding a resolution. In fact the Wikipedia entry for Design Thinking states:

Design thinking in business uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.

This definition works for me. Looking at the problem is one piece of the puzzle here, this definition embraces the whole cycle from identifying and solving the problem to converting that into a ‘business strategy’ and an ‘execution strategy’. This is where we are thinking about the HOW, how are you going to bring the change you want to see to your organisation? We are talking about working on the Target Operating Model of a business to bring about real change. This is the design thinking I know and want to be part of.

Award-winning global design firm IDEO are arguably leaders in this field, with offices across the world offering cutting-edge design thinking services and consulting. A recent case study, where they worked with fashion platform Zalando, states as its vision for the project ‘helping Zalando grow its platform by designing and taking new products, services and experiences to market.’

I’ve added the italics here, because again this is the part of the project’s focus that adds value for Zalando. Taking these ideas to market. Design Thinking shouldn’t become another silo. For it to be of value it should be the start of a process for new products that are brought to market and given the chance to add value to an organisation.

Airbnb is credited as being ‘saved’ by design thinking. When the founders couldn’t work out why their start-up wasn’t making money, they went back to basics. Putting themselves in the shoes of their customers they thought about how to move forward. The solution? Whilst it wasn’t scalable, it was simple. They needed better pictures of the rentals on the site. So they went to New York and took the photos themselves. Stepping back from seeing everything as a business, they put themselves at the heart of the experience they were selling and suddenly the pieces clicked together.

When Creative Ideas Go Nowhere

I don’t tend to want to be too negative about things but having spent so much of my career talking to people about having the right strategy and capabilities to follow through on their own business planning I’m often left wondering whether Design Thinking is just a bit too fluffy. It does involve lots of pretty pictures and throwing around buzzwords that get everyone excited.

I’ve seen it happen so many times when companies hire lots of expensive consultants; you get a beautiful PowerPoint pack at the end of the process but it ends up inside a cupboard or drawer because no one knows what to do with it.

I’m not the first person to talk about the beginning of the end for Design Thinking. As far back as 2011 Bruce Nussbaum wrote about ‘the end of the decade of Design Thinking’. Given that it was published 6 years ago now I think it is clear that not everyone feels this way but I do see my reservations about Design Thinking at the core of what he is saying.

His point is that companies, corporates in particular, were keen to embrace Design Thinking as it gave a process to something that is so often difficult to pin down: creativity and innovation. But then that has also become the crucial problem with Design Thinking; having a process is no guarantee of having anything creative or innovative at the end of that process. And if you do, where is the strategy and capability within the company to implement it?

This is where the Operating Model steps in. Once you have your idea, you need to develop the full value stream or process that supports the idea and shows how it delivers value via services too a customer. Then you need to start to build a Target Operating Model around that, to move from where you are to where you want to be. This will involve looking at the people, processes and data that you have in your organisation, deciding what is fit for purpose, and where there is work to do. You need to look at how you are going to implement your creative and innovative idea. You also need to look at how you are going to ensure that your business has this creativity baked-in, so the next iteration of Design Thinking comes from your company’s innovative working culture.

Innovation is Nothing Without Execution

Innovation at this level is about how you execute your ideas. Identifying a new product or value stream for your organisation is one thing, bringing it to market is the crucial step here.

As a companion piece to Bruce Nussman’s article, Helen Walters argued that whilst ‘Design Thinking won’t save you’ there is much to be admired about the discipline when it is implemented in companies correctly. She points to success stories of large corporates who have implemented Design Thinking throughout their businesses – GE and Proctor and Gamble – as having executed ‘initiatives that were appropriate to their own internal cultures.’

This is a key point. Design Thinking in and of itself is not going to produce results. A process that can encourage and integrate Design Thinking into the culture and Operating Model of your business is. Having innovation in your culture to make sure that new ideas can be tested and those that make the grade are put to work as part of your Operating Model, is the way that these innovative organisations work.

This is a key point. Design Thinking in and of itself is not going to produce results. A process that can encourage and integrate Design Thinking into the culture and Operating Model of your business is. Having innovation in your culture to make sure that new ideas can be tested and those that make the grade are put to work as part of your Operating Model, is the way that these innovative organizations work.

As well as a focus on the Operating Model, THE STRATEGY JOURNEY book, focuses on different ways that an organization can structure itself in order to build a culture focused on its Mission and Vision and working together towards the same goals. Amazon, Apple, Udacity, and Tesla are a great example of a large corporations that work in an agile way together to meet and exceed its own goals. DBS Bank in Singapore has also embraced this new way of operating to the point of rebranding itself as a 22,000 person startup that runs regular hackathons.

I think my perspective on this can be summed up by Brian Ling on the Design Sojourn blog when he asserts: ‘Design Thinking needs to stop focusing on the process but on the outcome.’

This to me is the core of my reservations; as a process Design Thinking doesn’t really differ from so many others out there offered at a high price to large corporation. Where I see something that stands out and distinguishes itself from the crowd there is a focus on results, on delivery of real change, creativity and innovation. The process has to be implemented in the Operating Model. That is where the real Design Thinking lies.

Julie Choo

About the author

Julie Choo is lead author of THE STRATEGY JOURNEY book and the founder of STRATABILITY ACADEMY. She speaks regularly at numerous tech, careers and entrepreneur events globally. Julie continues to consult at large Fortune 500 companies, Global Banks and tech start-ups. As a lover of all things strategic, she is a keen Formula One fan who named her dog, Kimi (after Raikkonnen), and follows football - favourite club changes based on where she calls home.

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