Change By Design, A Book Review

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Although he was the engineer’s engineer, Brunel [who designed the Great Western Railway] was not solely interested in the technology behind his creations. While considering the design of the system, he insisted upon the flattest possible gradient because he wanted passengers to have the sense of “floating across the countryside”. He constructed bridges, viaducts, cuttings, and tunnels all in the cause of creating not just efficient transportation but the best possible experience … Brunnel was one of the earliest examples of a design thinker.

A purely technocentric view of innovation is less sustainable now than ever, and a management philosophy based only on selecting from existing strategies is likely to be overwhelmed by new developments at home or abroad. What we need are new choices — new products that balance the needs of individuals and of society as a whole; new ideas that tackle the global challenges of health, poverty, and education; new strategies that result in differences that matter and a sense of purpose that engages everyone affected by them.

Only gradually did I come to see the power of design not as a link in a chain but as the hub of a wheel. … I also noticed that the people who inspired me were not necessarily members of the design profession; engineers such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Thomas Edison, and Ferdinand Porsche, all of whom seemed to have a human-centered rather than technology-centered worldview.

The natural revolution from design doing to design thinking reflects the growing recognition on the part of today’s business leaders that design has become too important to be left to designers.

So begins Tim Brown‘s new book Change By Design (available September 29) that tackles the myth of innovation that brilliant ideas leap fully formed from the mids of geniuses while exposing the reality that most innovations stem from rigor and discipline … the kind that comes from the application of proper design thinking. Design thinking, a process for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues, attempts to match necessity to utility, constraint to possibility, and need to demand to meet end-user need and drive business success. The ultimate challenge for a design thinker is to help people articulate the latent needs they don’t even know they have. Fortunately, the search for insight — in contrast to the search for hard data — is that it’s everywhere and it’s free. You just have to open your eyes and look at what people are doing.

For example, when IDEO was hired by Zyliss to design a new line of kitchen tools for the home, they started out by studying children and professional chefs. While neither was the intended market, both yielded valuable insights. A seven-year-old struggling with a can opener highlighted issues of physical control adults have learned to disguise and the shortcuts used by a professional chef yielded insights into cleaning requirements. The exaggerated concerns of people at the margins of the market led the team to abandon the idea of a “matched set” and create a line of products with the right handle for each tool. The end result was a product line that flew off of the shelves. [Proving one of my favourite points: just because you’ve been doing it that way for years, it doesn’t mean you’ve been doing it right!]

The Zyliss success story happened because the willing, and even enthusiastic, acceptance of competing constraints by the design team is the foundation of design thinking. The first stage of the design process is often about discovering which constraints are important and establishing a framework for evaluating them. Constraints can best be visualized in terms of three overlapping criteria for successful ideas: feasibility, viability, and desirability. A competent designer will resolve each of these three constraints, but a design thinker will bring them into harmonious balance. The popular Nintendo Wii is a good example of what happens when someone gets it right.

For those trying to wrap their minds around design thinking, the basic innovation rules that Tim outlines in chapter 3, A Mental Matrix, are a great place to start because they’ll put you in the mindset required to grasp the key tenets of design thinking.

  1. The best ideas emerge when the whole organizational ecosystem has room to experiment.
    And room to fail! The greatest successes will often emerge after you get the false starts and failures out of the way (and make an effort to understand why you failed).
  2. Those most exposed to changing externalities are the ones best placed to respond
      and the most motivated to do so.

    Furthermore, if you have someone who thrives in that sort of an environment, make sure she’s on the team!
  3. Ideas should not be favoured based on those who create them.
    The most successful individuals are often those who latch on to, and promote, good ideas.
  4. Ideas that create a buzz should be favoured.
    Nothing’s better than viral marketing!
  5. The “gardening” skills of senior leadership should be used to tend, prune, and harvest ideas.
    Not to create them.
  6. An overarching purpose should be articulated.
    You’re looking for new ideas to solve a problem that people want solved.

And you want to grasp design thinking, because it works. Probably the best example is that of “Cool Biz“, the imaginative program from the award-winning Japanese advertising agency Hakuhodo designed to help the Ministry of the Environment in Japan get people moor involved in meeting Japan’s commitment to the greenhouse gas reduction goals of the Kyoto Protocol. Within a year of the launch of this program, the slogan “Cool Biz” was recognized by a staggering 95.8% of the Japanese market. Can you imagine the boost to your corporate brand if 95.8% of your potential market recognized your corporate offerings?

For more information on design thinking, which is becoming more necessary by the day in a world where constant change is inevitable and everything is a prototype, see the Design Thinking blog, IDEO’s website, the The Harvard Business Review article on Design Thinking, the Innovation 100 Interview with Tim Brown on YouTube, the Design Thinking video (extended version) on YouTube, and the Global X Interview with Tim Brown on YouTube.

And if you’re still not convinced you should buy the book, consider the following quote which literally made my day:

Business school professors are fond of writing learned articles about the value of brainstorming. I encourage them to continue to do so (after all, some of my best friends are business school professors, and it keeps them busy and out of my way).