Ideo breaks its silence on design thinking’s problems

Ideo as an institution has rarely responded to critiques of design thinking or acknowledged its flaws. But at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, Ideo partner and leader of its Cambridge, Massachusetts, office Michael Hendrix had a frank conversation with Co.Design senior writer Mark Wilson about why design thinking has gotten so much flack.

“I think it’s fair to critique design thinking, just as it’s fair to critique any other design strategy,” Hendrix says. “There’s of course many poor examples of design thinking, and there’s great examples. Just like there’s poor examples of industrial design and graphic design and different processes within organizations.”

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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.

“We get a lot of the materials that look like innovation, or look like they make us more creative,” Hendrix says. “That could be anything from getting a bunch of Sharpie markers and Post-its and putting them in rooms for brainstorms, to having new dress codes, to programming play into the week. They all could be good tools to serve up creativity or innovation, they all could be methods of design thinking, but without some kind of history or strategy to tie them together, and track their progress, track their impact, they end up being a theatrical thing that people can point to and say, ‘oh we did that.’”

[Photo: cheonlijyang/iStock]

Hendrix recalls seeing a door near a client’s boardroom labeled with a sign reading, “creative thinking room/DVD storage.” It’s a perfect metaphor. Without the strategy and the discipline, the tools–like having a dedicated brainstorming room–ultimately won’t work. “Having access to the tools can be a little deceiving if you don’t understand how to use them in an appropriate way,” Hendrix says.

Part of the challenge of doing design thinking well, he argues, requires balancing the methodology’s structure, which allows designers to successfully and consistently tackle a wide range of problems, with the danger of that structure becoming too strict. “If you make something rigid and formulaic, it could absolutely fail,” he says. “You want to rely on milestones in the creative process, but you don’t want it to be a reactive process that loses its soul.”

Achieving that balance is tricky, especially in companies that don’t have the right culture. Hendrix sees two elements of company culture that lead to situations where design thinking fails. For one, coworkers need to trust each other and feel comfortable enough to share daring ideas. During brainstorms, coworkers who are always playing devil’s advocate or trying to be the smartest person in the room are going to squash any trust. “There is a real need to build respect for one another and trust in the safety of sharing ideas so you can move forward,” Hendrix says. “Knowing when to bring judgments is important. Cultures that are highly judgy, that have hierarchy, that are rewarding the person who is the smartest person in the room, don’t do well with this kind of methodology.”

Hendrix also sees design thinking fail in cultures that don’t promote play, which he believes is a necessary circumstance for design thinking to truly succeed. “Playfulness and joy don’t need a reason other than that they create the conditions . . . to allow people to be more creative,” he says. “In cultures that are highly optimized, that promote efficiency, that celebrate intellectualism–they can push play and joy aside. It doesn’t mean those things are bad. Rationale analysis is very important. But coexisting with playfulness and joy will make those things work.”

A lack of commitment to providing the conditions for design thinking to flourish leads to this so-called “theater of innovation” without promoting any actual creativity, he argues. That’s where design thinking falls short and doesn’t achieve what it claims. “We can bring powerful ideas to an organization, but it can just die if there’s not a willingness to take it and develop it in a way that’s effective,” Hendrix says.

Ultimately, Hendrix believes that some people using the design thinking methodology poorly doesn’t invalidate it. But in his acknowledgement of design thinking’s limitations–that it can be too rigid, that company culture often is incompatible with its tenets–there’s a sense that design thinking’s reign as the primary way non-designers understand design is on its way out.

“I do think it’s fair to start to have discussions about when [it] results in something good and when it doesn’t,” Hendrix says. “If there’s anything that we’re doing differently, it probably is engaging with the frustration and being honest that there’s a maturation period. It’d be great for everyone to come along and recognize that.”


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