5 reasons why Design Thinking can not be a standardized process

Design Thinking Training Workshop - Turian Labs - India

- Manoj Kothari -

Look at all the erudite articles floating around the web on Design Thinking and they tend to make DT appear, a jargon-filled complicated process that needs to be learnt and practiced a certain way. Great thing is that the world has discovered that there is something meaningful in the designers' way of solving problems. And this, has taken the control over the domain, somewhat out-of-the-hand of designers, into everyday business practitioner. It is like the esoteric practice of Ashtang Yoga, limited to enlightened and hardened ones, slipped down to the masses through simplification, as shown by Yoga guru Ramdev. But then, simplification has its pros and cons. Here are some thoughts on what this simplification misses out and what has been the underlying thought behind, which must be preserved.#

  1. Empathy, is finally a reflective process. Keep it that way.

Use Empathy Maps, Fly-on-the-wall, Task Flows, User-trip, Service Quality Benchmarks or any other name that has been made available to you by 'certified' coaches of Design Thinking. It is good to know what these terms stand for and how exactly is the process undertaken. But more important is to understand the underlying spirit, which is closer to 'intuition' than 'rational analysis'. Hard efforts have been made to make it appear like a logical/rational process to make it accessible to all. However, every mind is not at the same level in emotional intelligence. Hence some will be able to grasp the insight way faster than others. They will be able to make connections between myriad inputs much faster than others. A good practice would be to identify such people and let them take a natural lead in the empathic inquiry process. Even if one can't find such people and process has to be made utterly democratic, a good way is to give relaxed time to digest the observations. Yes, things have to be timed, but the team leader must allow buffers for this process.

2. Design Thinking for customer service & for internal culture, are not two different things

Yesterday, we got a call from an IT company for Design Thinking training, which seemed to have already instilled Design Thinking as a major driver within the company. At least it appeared so from the website. Once we got talking, we asked them, why would they need an external help if they already have a well running practice of Dt within. We were told that, they use Design Thinking for 'their customer facing situations' only. Now they need internal teams also to be trained. I was surprised to hear when they said "those (customer facing DT) tools are different". Design Thinking is a composite culture. It is akin to teaching someone 'good manners'. I can not imagine an organisation servicing other customers and using DT but internally, not really prepared! The corporate dichotomy of change management!

3. Creativity, is a NATURAL outcome of a primed but 'receptive' mind. Don't stress much on it.

Much has been talked about creativity- right from coloured 'thinking hats' to 'jugaad' and from 'a child's mind' to organisational-culture. Design Thinking can not be far behind. I am a firm believer that everyone is born creative. Too much knowledge and too many 'instructions' are making us 'lie-low'. There are million stories of how people became creative in emergency situations. When the mind is 'primed' with the context, cut-off from the distractions, creativity is a natural outcome. Design Thinking, through its earlier 'Empathy' phase, actually seeks to accomplish 'emptying & then priming' of the team-mind. When the team immerses themselves into the user-context and puts down individual observations on small-notes, it makes the team mind ready to make creative connections. There are further aids, but this, to me is the fundamental fact.

4. Hurry to standardise the processes in DT, can nullify the gains from Design Thinking

It was meant to be a meditative, organic, slow paced method the way designers would look for solutions/products. But then Design Thinking has a process had to be 'helicopter-dropped' into the corporate quagmire because market dynamics shifted from 'optimisation' (of TQM and CMM times) to 'innovation'. Now there is an inherent contradiction - to run a large organisation one needs structure and hierarchy, while Design Thinking would have everything flat and organic to retain the intensity of new synthesis. A workshop or two, may mean nothing absolutely, if one has to see the take away. While ultimately SOPs, instructions and Excel sheets have to be made to make it effective, my suggestion would be to try at least a dozen variants in various situations, before standardising Design Thinking within the organisation. Micro-trainings and workshop at regular interval would be a great benefit for sure, rather than one long-running boot-camp. Usual tendency is to have a big-bang workshop and then HR teams rush to standardise the process. Check! Check!!

5. A physical process for the digital age? Go hybrid for DT scale-up

One constant question that I am asked after every executive training session on DT ( especially by IT companies) - "the process is great, but how does one really empathise with the user/customer, when we are sitting continents away from them?" Most workshop formats, tend to give a glimpse of power of 'empathic insights' through first-hand user-interaction ("open-ended conversations" is the listed favourite for this). To top it all, many organisations that have presence across the globe have found it efficient to deploy a 'digital training module' for Design Thinking. One knows that such digital trainings become an eye-wash most of the time when employees are thrusted upon these digital trainings. Design Thinking immersion MUST be done in-person, while introducing it to someone for the first time. The whole purpose of DT is to make processes more HUMANE. The origin and practice of DT is quite 'sensorial' that way. While digitalisation can not be avoided, it is best to keep a mixed-mode in training scale-up, for the best ROI.