Is Design Thinking The New Competitive Advantage?

If there’s one thing that the business world seems to be able to agree on, it’s the role that innovation will play in securing the sustainability of organisations in the future.

Managers are being encouraged to be more innovative and boards are developing innovation KPI’s to track the innovation capability of the companies they govern.

But encouraging more innovation may not be sufficient to drive the development and acceptance of innovative thinking.

In fact, a branch of business management thinking suggests that the larger the organisation, the less able it is to nurture and reward innovative practices and outcomes.

Roger Martin, in his book “The Design of Business – Why Design Thinking is the next competitive advantage” argues that companies will devote significant resources to ‘innovative’ activity then stymie its development through oppressive systems and structures not designed to facilitate innovative thinking.

“Organisations dominated by analytical thinking are built to operate as they always have, they are structurally resistant to the idea of designing and redesigning themselves and their business dynamically over time. But they enjoy one very important advantage: they can build size and scale.

In organisations dominated by intuitive thinking, innovation may come fast and furiously, but growth and longevity represent tremendous challenges.

Intuition based firms cannot and will not systematise what they do, so they wax and wane with individual intuitive leaders.

The most successful business in the years to come will balance analytical mastery and intuitive originality in a dynamic interplay that Roger Martin calls ‘design thinking’.”

The most commonly used definition of design thinking originates from Tim Brown, CEO of Californian based industrial design company, IDEO:

“Design thinking is a discipline that 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.”

In his book, Change by Design (2009), Brown explains that his journey to develop design thinking stemmed from his experience of designing products for companies with business models that weren’t sustainable.

He developed the view that the business models of the business were as important as the products and services that they designed.

He then questioned why the principles of design weren’t applied to solving problems of the business in addition to developing new products.

IDEO is now a design organisation that uses its skills to develop solutions to a range of the world’s business and social problems.

Tim Brown explained his process for design thinking in a TED talk in 2009 and argues effectively that traditional organisations use convergent thinking to filter a range of solutions into a preferred solution.

The use of design thinking is intended to use divergent thinking to create a range of possible solutions.

This draws together a deep understanding of the end user’s needs and a willingness to visualise new possibilities.

It means you can prototype the potential solution quickly and refine it as you go.

Roger Martin and Tim Brown are two of the pioneers of Design Thinking.

It’s an enormous challenge to navigate a strategic path for our organisations that ensures their sustainable future.

I believe Design Thinking may well represent a significant competitive advantage to those companies who can fast track their adoption and use it to drive more creative and innovative thinking.

This is not just in relation to product and services, but also in relation to the very business model of the organisation itself.

Posted in - Strategy