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The Design Of Business – And Concerns About “Design Thinking”

Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman Business School at the University of Toronto, has just authored a new book titled The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is the Next Competitive Advantage , and I was looking forward to reading it. BusinessWeek has a short article by Martin that shares some ideas from the book, and now I am really looking forward to reading it. In this article Martin talks about two different business models that are in conflict, the analytical (left brain) model and the intuitive (right brain) model. Since neither may ultimately work out, Martin suggests bringing them together in a new model:

The most successful businesses in the years to come will balance analytical mastery and intuitive originality in a dynamic interplay that I call design thinking. Design thinking is the form of thought that enables forward movement of knowledge, and the firms that master it will gain a nearly inexhaustible, long-term business advantage.

It seems to carry forward the ideas Martin discussed in The Opposable Mind. I’ll be glad to read more about this. You can also view a video interview that BusinessWeek conducted with Martin.

And while Martin is promoting his book on design thinking, others are questioning the value of the idea – or at least calling it design thinking. Perter Merholz of Adaptive Path has written a column titled “Why Design Thinking Won’t Save You ” in which he advocates for rethinking the use of “design thinking” as a strategy business can turn to when all else is failing. He writes (in a nicely sarcastic tone):

Design thinking is trotted out as a salve for businesses who need help with innovation. The idea is that the left-brained, MBA-trained, spreadsheet-driven crowd has squeezed all the value they can out of their methods. To fix things, all you need to do is apply some right-brained turtleneck-wearing “creatives,” “ideating” tons of concepts and creating new opportunities for value out of whole cloth.

Merholz finds “design thinking” to be too limiting. It’s not just about design, he says, but about the many different disciplines that are a part of what designers do – and that includes business. He writes, “The supposed dichotomy between “business thinking” and “design thinking” is foolish.”

I think I get what bugs Merholz about design thinking. It’s not just a designer’s backlash over non-designers taking ownership of what designers do without having the required skill set. He seems genuinely concerned that business is taking ownership of a flawed concept, one that may be seen as an end in and of itself – not a part of other strategies that involve many different types of skill sets. The comments to the column are as important to read as the post itself. Here is what I added to the comments:

As a librarian I found it interesting that you chose to mention librarians in your post and that we don’t have anything we refer to as “library thinking”. However, many librarians only think like librarians when it comes to developing solutions to problems. Too often that means assuming you know – because you are a librarian – that you understand users and know what they need. There is little investment in spending time to really identify the problem. I have found design thinking a useful model process for learning how designers approach problems and develop solutions. One of the most important things I’ve learned from watching the “Deep Dive” video is that great solutions emerge from interdisciplinary teams, and that is a real challenge in libraries because we all tend to think the same way – but we also all have different disciplinary backgrounds – but we may fail to use those approaches when we have a problem. So I have found it helpful to share the idea of design thinking with my library colleagues – not as an end in itself – but as a means to some other end – be it understanding a problem and developing an appropriate solution or working towards a better library experience for the end user.

I would hate to see the community that is interested in design thinking get into feud over what it is, who can practice it, when it’s accurate to use it or not, or whatever sort of issues might come up. As one commenter pointed out, it’s still a concept in development. I look forward to future opportunities to learn more about design thinking and how we can apply it in our libraries – as opposed to whatever we do now – which I guess you’d call “library thinking.”

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