Why is Design Thinking so Bad at Radical Innovation?

Design Thinking Everything

It's astonishing to reflect how fast Design Thinking has become a ubiquitous feature of our world. Now major universities are offering courses in it, it's in every major newspaper and journal, and it’s the framework at the tip of everyone's tongue when discussing how to create radical innovation [1].

Its domination of the landscape is clear as we see alternative variations of its models popping up daily on the internet.

Now, it would be easy to hop on this bandwagon of bad-faith, easy and falsely inflated criticisms which present minor alterations as major alternatives, but this is not what this post is about — things are far more problematic in the world of innovation and design.

The days of easy fixes are over.

Innovation and design are in need of radical reimagining. They need new tools that will push the boundaries; To achieve radical innovation.

Design Has Changed

Stepping back for a second, it's not just Design Thinking that has become ubiquitous. Design itself has become ubiquitous [2].

Design has managed to break free of the shackles, of being pigeon-holed as something that is only for developing sexy products.

Design as a field has transcended the product beautification business.

Now, design is finally, widely recognized for what it really is: the tools and practices necessary to make anything come into being -- whether it's a social movement or an object.

Design Thinking Shifts Perceptions

This is an important shift that should not pass unnoticed.

This shift in understanding design makes us realize how the development of new processes for making is key to any form of innovation.

Design Thinking, in that it markets itself as a tool for any form of change, is perhaps the most obvious example of this shift in the understanding and scope of design today. It's a shift that is long overdue.

It's really two distinct shifts:

  1. Design is expanding its scope from product design; and
  2. Design is becoming more responsive.  

Before we can answer the question of what the limits of design thinking are in terms of radical innovations, it is important to understand these shifts and where Design Thinking fits in the larger context of design and innovation methodologies.

Is Design Thinking Unique?

Design thinking is part of a historical shift in design methodologies that developed in the mid 20th century in response to the “isolationist” nature of classical models of design [3].

Which is to say when designers were given briefs, they withdrew into their studios and developed their own unique answer after which they then presented to the world as a finished and wholly independent product.

This model of withdrawal, and isolationist design, was quickly recognized to be an ineffective way of genuinely answering people's needs.

Design Becomes Worldly

In response to the clear limits of isolationism, design began to shift towards more participatory and more engaged methodologies.

Today Design Thinking is the most well-recognized of these “responsive” methodologies which deliberately begins by putting engagement with humans at the forefront of the process — often referred to as human centered design.

Where the isolationist design processes are essentially two-step design methods:

  1. Ideate
  2. Make

Responsive Design now adds empathy to the beginning of this process:

  1. Empathize, and then
  2. Ideate and
  3. Make

Responsive design importantly added another step into the middle of this process: Iteration.

Now you could argue iteration was always there. Of course all processes of making involve cycles of refinement, but with responsive design it becomes elevated beyond refinement.

Early prototypes are taken out of the studio and given to the user to empathize with. To learn from what the prototype can do, feeding user experience back into the actual process of creation [4].

When this is done really well it allows humans to participate in the shaping of the design and the outcome.

Empathy and Iteration dethrone the solitary gods of classical design and transform design into a four step method:

  1. Emphasize
  2. Ideate
  3. Iterate
  4. Ma

Design Thinking is Just the Best Branded

It is important to remember that Design Thinking isn't unique — it isn't the first to incorporate humans and empathy into design.

It isn’t necessarily the best human centered design methodology.

Really, Design Thinking is just the best branded and most successfully commercialized version of the multiplicity of methodologies coming out of the responsive design movement [5].

And this brand awareness has led it to be confused with effective tools for radical innovation.

And finally, Responsive Design itself is not a radical alternative to the classical model of design but simply a revision. And as a revision it inherits, as well shall see in the next section, all of the major flaws of the Classical Design method.

[1] Design Thinking is Everywhere: It is fascinating to dig into the history of Design Thinking and how quickly it has become a phenomenon from its origins in the late 1990’s. There are many decent histories you can find on the internet, the tough thing is that few are really that critical, scholarly or coming from a global perspective. Those histories are still to be written. [2] Design has changed: Understanding how the shift in how design in both perceived by the general public and how it is practices is critical to grasping. [3] How Responsive Design came about [4] On iteration — processual vs iterative [5] How IDEO branded design thinking

Design Thinking Doesn’t Produce Radical Innovation

This brings us back to our initial question: Why can't Design Thinking produce Radical Innovation?

Before we can offer a new model for Radical Innovation we must first address two issues with Design Thinking:

  1. Problems
  2. Ideas

Part One: We have a Problem Problem

The first issue is the limits of the problem solving method.

Design Thinking is explicitly a problem solving approach: Design thinkers discover what the real problem is in the first step of their method and then spend the next three steps — and most of their time – developing a viable solution. This is problem solving in a nutshell.

Designers tend to brush over any issues with the method or the “status” of problems because their job is to solve problems and not get lost in seemingly esoteric philosophical issues. This problematic rush to solutions and the over emphasis on developing solutions is what we call “solution thinking”.

But, let's slow down, what is a problem?

Problems are questions that have a solution.

This much is obvious, but questions are far more complex that they might at first glance seem.

What is important for this discussion is that all questions rest upon a set of implicit and unstated assumptions, and these assumptions frame how the question can be properly answered.

Let's start with a simple example of unstated assumptions framing a question from the 1978 movie The Great Train Robbery starring Sean Connery as the mastermind of the robbery.

Before sentencing, the judge asks him, “why did you plan and execute this dastardly crime?”

The robber answers “I wanted the money”.

The gallery explodes in laughter — it's a funny line because we know that's not what the judge was asking — he was asking a moral question and Sean Connery was answering a practical question [6].

Obviously, none of this is actually in the explicit wording of the question — this is simply commonly understood.

This unspoken common understanding is not something that can be fully stated; it ultimately rests upon a set of habits, practices, vague norms, material infrastructures, and traditions that are woven together in our everyday lives — in short a “world” [7].

The issue for radical innovation is that problems always sit in an implicit context that frames and delimits the possibilities of their solutions in advance of any actual solution being developed [8].

Let’s take this further and examine how it applies to innovation:

The Horseshit Problem

In the late 1800’s London had a “horseshit problem”, because of the reliance on horses for transportation, the rapid expansion of industrialization, and an exploding urban population [9].

This problem was easily understood: “how do we effectively collect and dispose of all this horseshit before it does us in?”

Urban design conferences were held, and ealy think tanks formed. Investigations were undertaken and root causes were uncovered. All sorts of solutions were proposed from butt bags to sweeping systems.

These solutions varied greatly — some being new ideas, and others improvements and variations of existing ideas But all of them were within the scope of the question and the implicit framing of that questionhorses.

This implicit framing itself rested upon a much deeper implicit logic: “transportation = nature” — which itself rested upon an even deeper unspoken common understanding that itself rested upon a set of habits, practices, vague norms, material infrastructures and traditions that are woven together in our everyday lives — in short a “world”.

So how did radical change happen? No one ever solved the horse shit problem — just go for a stroll in Central Park and see the shit fall — it's still a smelly problem today.

What happened? The problem was ignored and thus, made irrelevant.

It was not made irrelevant by a “better” question — but by the speculative emergence of radically innovative alternative paradigm: the nascent beginnings of experiments with motorized transportation [10].

Radical Innovation happened by the deliberate sidestepping of the problem to develop an alternative world.

For Radical Innovation – You've Got to be Part of the Problem

The first thing that needs to change, to get to really radical forms of innovation, is that you must question the deep and total implicit premise of the problem.

We need to stop accepting problems and start challenging worlds. We like to call this “becoming part of the problem”.

To do that one's mindset has to change from being about “problem solving” to being about taking on a total approach of “problematization” [11].

This is hard — for who wants to be known as someone who creates problems!

But for innovation to happen one can't take for granted pre-existing problems and their complex sprawl of interwoven implicit assumptions as the starting point of innovation.

The Problem Itself Must be Invented

Design Thinking, human centered design, and all forms of responsive design with their methodology of soliciting the problem and then focusing on solving it, have, without even realizing it, missed the possibility of being radically innovative.

They have made the mistake of being solution thinkers who are “world blind” — those who can only accept problems as given, jumping instantly to thinking of answers and every possible way of generating a solution [12].

Solution Thinkers remain blind to the very possibility of radical innovation.

Problems are part of the problem.

Problems cannot simply be accepted at face value if one wants to get to radical innovation.

Problems, how they are framed, and the implicit world they rest upon must be daylighted and radically challenged if there is to be any hope for radical innovation to even begin.

Radical Innovation is always Backwards

So the first problem with Design Thinking and responsive models of design is that they go forward instead of backwards.

They run forward with people's problems and they address them directly with solutions.

But to develop radical innovation we need to pause, to stop the rush to solutions, and go backwards [13].

Slow Innovation

We go backwards to dig, to uncover and disclose the implicit and often tacit frameworks, the paradigm/world that groups and supports the way a problem is framed.

It is only when we have disclosed the implicit paradigm can we then move sideways — critically stepping out of what exists, and experimentally develop towards a radical innovation.

But, the goal is not to rethink the problem and come up with a better problem so we could solve “the real problem” — that’s still getting stuck in the solution thinking loop!

When focused on radical innovation the goal of stepping out of an existing paradigm is the development of a novel paradigm or world — and only then — much later, does the question arise “what is to be done?”

This is the slower less direct process that in Design Thinking’s rush to solve problems, has been bypassed [14].

These are simply not issues that linear and direct problem solving methodologies can even conceptualize.

The very idea of world making or ontological design is literally unthinkable to solution thinkers — hence the term “world blind”.

If one wishes to, or needs to radically rethink the underlying logic of something and come up with a revolutionary form of innovation, then we need a novel alternative methodology.  

Can we do Anything with Design Thinking?

While Design Thinking will not lead to radical innovation, one has to recognize that Design Thinking is not inherently bad.

It's simply not effective, nor is it relevant to radical innovation.

Design Thinking works very well if one wants to simply, creatively, improve something for a customer.

If it's about developing slightly novel alternative approaches to an existing problem or question –  it's effective (though even here it would be worth exploring the less well branded but potentially more effective forms of responsive design).

The problem, in terms of innovation, begins when we conflate all forms of creative making and design with this limited approach of Design Thinking.

Design Thinking is not a tool for radical forms of change, innovation or creativity — and in fact it will always produce highly conservative forms of innovation.

When one needs a conservative approach — or when one's ambitions are very targeted it is an appropriate methodology.

But Design Thinking is not the methodology for Radical Innovation where one is dealing with something far more complex such as the most pressing issues we face today... [15]

[6] The Great Train Robbery: The best discussion of the structure of questions i’ve found is the wonderful short book by Alan Garfinkel “Forms of Explanation: Rethinking the Question in Social Theory.” Where he introduces the concept of an “explanatory frame” as the implicit paradigmatic structure that shapes the space of possible answers in advance. It is well worth a close read for his clear methodological thinking about questions and answers (solutions). Gilles Deleuze, discusses the same issue, aliebit, from a different perspective in his wonderful book on the french early twentieth century philosopher, Henri Bergson (“Bergsonism”). It is here that he makes a clear argument for the need to create problems. Both works are critical sources for the reinvention of creativity. [7] World (ontological design): Radical Innovation is by definition a practice of worldmaking — or Ontological Design. And in terms of a process, worldmaking precedes both problem definition and the development of outcomes. The very question of worlds (as an ontological question) being an issue for design is almost totally absent from the history of design and creativity studies (with the notable exceptions of Nelson Goodman “Ways of Worldmaking” (1978) and more recently Arturo Escobar’s “Design for the Pluriverse” (2018). More importantly it is something that is fundamentally confused. [8] Questions pre-limiting scope of possible answers — looking toward the innovation paradox [9] Horeshit Problem [10] Paradigms [11] Problems vs Problematization [12] World Blind [13] The two directions of innovation [14] Slow Innovation [15] Problem Solving vs Approaches re Wicked Problems and other “unsolvable issues”


Part Two: The Innovation Paradox

Now we did say that there are two fundamental issues with Design Thinking. So that was the first: that it moves forward rather than backwards and that it rushes headlong to solve problems rather than to pause, problematize the implicit and experiment towards novel worlds.

“Ideas First” is How to Drown

The second fundamental issue is deeper and even more challenging because it goes against something central and fundamental to how we approach everything, and that is thinking [16].

Thinking? Really?

The problem with thinking and ideating for radical innovation is that developing an idea requires a reliance on existing concepts.

If we're trying to do something genuinely and totally new — develop something that does not exist — it will necessarily be something that has never been conceptualized.

There will be no words for it.

There will be no concepts for it.

There will be no general way of thinking about it.

The Innovation Paradox is You Can't Think the New

If you look at all the methodologies of design and innovation — and we do mean all — the first step is always some form of idea development — ideation [17].

Only when a good idea has been developed does the process move onto making.

Why is this?

The God Model

To understand the fetishization of ideation and the “ideas first” methodology we have to go back into the deep history of our “world” — to the classical Greeks to examine how they influenced the development of christianity and how god creates.

For an all powerful god, whatever it thinks becomes real and perfect without effort, by simply declaring it so.

A whole western tradition has followed in those footsteps by understanding human creation on the “god model” of design: Putting thinking and ideation first in the process of creation [18].

Thinking in God's Image

But, we are not god.

We cannot make things from ideas by declaring them made.

So why do we continue to habitually adopt this model and rush to generate ideas on our sticky notes?

The western tradition understood the human to be made in god's image. Thus thinking was elevated and put on a pedestal as this brought us closest to god.

Making became what servants, workers, and lesser beings did. Making became an afterthought.

And after more than two thousand years the belief that “thinking is creation” has become an unconsidered default assumption from brain science to design thinking [19].

Now, don’t get us wrong, thinking isn't bad, but starting the innovation journey by focusing on ideation won't get us to radical innovation.

What will?

Unthinking Innovation

We have to return to making and doing.

Innovation begins in the openness of everyday activities [20].

We reach for things, do things, it’s everyday life and our environments that “teach” us — they support certain actions and block others.

We skillfully achieve desired ends.

But occasionally unintended things happen. Something breaks, or slips, or we just do something differently for whatever reason.

Out of this an outcome emerges which surprises us and opens us to novel potentials.

Doing Weird Things with Weird Things

Most of these surprises are ignored or swept away as accidents, mistakes, and stupidities — if they are even noticed at all (noticing the odd is actually very difficult).

But occasionally we follow this emergent unintended surprise and it leads us across a threshold towards something genuinely novel [21].

This got the Wright Brothers to flight first — and it has been argued that the unintended was critical to every disruptive innovation from Penicillin, to GPS, to Facebook [22].

The role of the novel unintended events in our daily lives, and more generally in the evolution and diversity of all life (where it is termed exaptive), gives us an important clue to where radical innovation can begin: in experimental practices of doing and making that follow from unintended novel events [23].

Exaptive Design

This is where we can take a cue from the innovative nature of the creative process of evolution: where it latches on to the unintended (exaptive) capacities of existing things.

But simply experimenting and making with the unintended by themselves will not work.

We need to be more methodical to develop an exaptive design process.

[16] Thinking — a new approach to cognition — enactive… Implicit/Tacit [17] Ideation — all innovation begins here [18] The god model [19] History of creativity in the west [20] Task spaces and the ecosystems of everyday activities [21] Emergence [22] Wright Brothers and innovation histories [23] Exaptive (Design)

Part Three: A New Model for Radical Innovation

We now have all the pieces to develop an effective alternative methodology for Radical Innovation.

First, our previous discussion of not rushing forward to solve problems lays out a starting place for radical innovation:

Once Engaged properly in a project (which itself is not easy [24]), we have to slow down to problematize and Disclose two things:

  1. What implicit paradigm do we need to critically avoid/escape?
  2. What unintended novel qualities should one follow?

Disclosure plays a crucial double role:

  1. Disclosing the existing world and its material components, tools, habits, stances, environments, implicit logics, and its general conceptual aspects.
  2. Disclosing unintended novel capacities.

If we connect this to our insight about avoiding the Innovation Paradox by experimenting with the unintended we can add to Engagement and Disclosure a process of Deviation, that activates what we have disclosed towards a genuinely novel direction via:

  1. Blocking: We have to strategically block the underlying paradigm/world that we disclosed and its  environmental logic, system, and conceptual logic.
  2. Following: then figure out a way to begin experimenting with unintended novelties towards new paradigms/worlds

Because we all understand what experiments are, it is easy to slip back into thinking that these are problem solving and novel product producing experiments — but that is to slip back into solution thinking.

The goal of all the experimentation during Deviation is paradigm production — and ultimately worldmaking — not a product.

Our Deviation experiments need to:

  • Carefully block us from falling into the past
  • Allow us to co-evolve with unintended capacities
  • Guide us towards the possibility of a novel world emerging
  • Foster the emergence of a novel world that is itself a cohesive set of practices, tools, environments, implicit logics, and concepts. (Not simply a new worldview or mindset (that would bring us back to the god model)).

This phase is critical: It is only from an understanding of a new world that novel problems emerge that are worth pursuing.

And it's only with this — what we call a “world first” strategy – does one get to radical innovation [25].

But we are not done: we have an alternative world and a new set of productive problems — now the question is: how does this have a radical innovative impact on our current reality? Thus one final phase:

Emerge with a Radical Innovation

Emerge is the final phase required to concretize our radical innovation – to bring it to life [26]. It is the step where we develop:

  1. A series of probes at strategic points in our current reality searching for emergent possibilities of fit and transformation
  2. These feedback loops are carefully stabilized and a plan of action emerges
  3. This plan develops into a support ecosystem that catalyzes novel emergent outcomes
  4. These outcomes and their environments go through a processual cycle of development
  5. Which leads to a highly resilient dynamic of the evolution of a new approach, community of engagement, and an ecosystem of support.

The Innovation Design Approach

So why is Design Thinking so bad at radical innovation?

It's really simple: we have been fooled by focusing on two things: solving problems and having great ideas.

We've lost sight of what is actually happening when innovation happens.

We've lost sight of what it is at an even deeper level to be human.

And we have arrogantly assumed innovation to be a human attribute rather than seeing it as a worldly capacity that we can see all over evolution.

The model of design for radical innovation cannot be either the Classical Model of Design, nor can it be its derivative: Responsive Design and its well branded variation of Design Thinking —as all of these share the same fundamental flaws that sabotage radical innovation before it even begins.

We need a wholly distinct methodology of design if we wish to be radically innovative.

The Innovation Design Approach is exactly that [27].

Innovation Design – a four part framework for radical innovation:

  1. Engage
  2. Disclose
  3. Deviate
  4. Emerge
[24] Engagement vs Empathy as the starting place for innovation [25] World First [26] Emerge vs Iterate+Make and Emerge vs BMC [27] The Innovation Design Approach

Transform Your Organization into Radical Innovators

All organizations today face vexing challenges on multiple fronts:

  • Competition
  • The pandemic
  • Remote work
  • Equity and social justice
  • The environment & climate change
  • And much else...

For an organization to thrive and innovatively meet the challenges of our time, we need to radically rethink how we are addressing the issues we face.

After this year, radical re-envisionings and disruptions no longer feel so foreign to us.

After all, prior to January 2020 we could not fathom moving our entire workforce offsite (or at the very least this could only happen very gradually), but the Pandemic forced us to pivot to a new paradigm and world of remote everything.

The Innovation Design Approach reproduces pandemic-like moments of radical and transformative possibility opening how we approach our everyday situations to the possibility of Radical Innovation to transformatively meet real world issues.

You can creatively answer this moment — with the myriad of challenges – we can, and cannot see, in paradigmatically transformative ways that:

  • Embeds a real ethos and understanding of radical innovation in your work culture
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  • Fundamentally innovate for the good

If you’re up to the challenge, we’d love to walk the innovation journey with you.

Let’s talk: Sign up here for a free consultation to begin the process of transforming your organization into radical innovators for our rapidly changing times.

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