The problem with "design thinking"

May 2, 2012: 4:56 PM ET

The management mantra of creative thinking-in-action tends too much towards navel gazing. Here's how companies can fix that -- and still create great design.

By Saul Kaplan, contributor

FORTUNE -- Believe in the power of design. Through it, we will chart the landscape of possibility – designing, testing and prototyping new terrain. Be a market maker rather than a share taker.

Business model innovators are always seeking out places and events with a strong design vibe. They love to hang around really smart design thinkers and the places they hang out in hopes that some of it will rub off. I am convinced that design thinking and process is a key enabler of business model innovation so I have been hanging out with lots of design types. If you hang around enough designers you immediately get pulled into their active conversation about design's place in the innovation narrative. After participating in many of these conversations I am left with a strong sense that the design community needs to move on from the incessant argument over the importance of design thinking and process. It is time to claim victory. Get over it. The argument is boring. Design is important. We stipulate that design is about more than sexy products. We get that design is about delivering a compelling customer experience. We know that business model innovation is fundamentally about designing new ways to create, deliver and capture value. Now, can we get on with putting design thinking and process to work to enable business model innovation?

No more books are needed to convince us that design thinking and process are a priority. They are important tools. If you want to convince us, stop talking about design thinking, and start putting it to work to mobilize new business models, transform customer experiences and enable real systems change. Business model innovation requires a strong design vibe that leads to trying more stuff and putting the tools to work rather than the navel gazing of today's design thinking debate. It is time to move the design conversation to a new, actionable, place.

We need more mad designers focused on customer experience and business model innovation. If you don't have design talent in your organization doing more than product and website design you are making a mistake. Whether you are interested in business model innovation or not you should be leveraging design thinking and process to improve your customer experience. It is a requirement for business model innovation. In fact, maybe we need to bang together the heads of mad scientists and mad designers.

If we are waiting for lengthy business plans with detailed financial analysis and randomized double blind studies to tell us if a new business model is viable we will be waiting a very long time. That is not how business model innovation works. It takes passionate exploration, which is more iterative than traditional scientific methodology. It takes design thinking and process combined with powerful storytelling to create novel business models. We need to try more stuff and design thinking and process can help.

I am reminded of a recent innovation talk I was asked to give at a conference on the business of aging. It was a great event attended by many innovators from across the public and private sector. Attendees all shared a passion for focusing innovation on the opportunity emerging as the silver tsunami of an aging global population rapidly approaches. I shared my point of view on the need to do R&D for new business models and systems and our work at the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) where we have an Elder Experience Lab to do real world experimentation for new business models and systems to transform the elder experience. As I always do, I blathered on about design and storytelling tools as the key enablers to system change, in this case developing age friendly environments and communities.

The reaction was largely positive but during a panel discussion I was reminded that many are still stuck on a perceived conflict between design thinking and analytical thinking, between design process and scientific method. They are not mutually exclusive. We need to apply our opposable minds to borrow from both approaches to design new systems while measuring what works and is most likely to scale.

It is odd for me to represent design thinking and process in the debate when my education and training is as a scientist and MBA. The reason I hang around so many smart designers is that I don't think the old tricks alone will enable the business model innovation and system change we need. We need to borrow from both approaches to pave a new way. It is messy but necessary. Lets bring together the mad scientists and mad designers and see what happens.

This piece is adapted from The Business Model Innovation Factory. Saul Kaplan is the author of The Business Model Innovation Factory.  He is the founder and chief catalyst of theBusiness Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, RI, and blogs regularly at It's Saul Connected. Follow him on Twitter at @skap5

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