Monday, July 16, 2007

Thinking about Design Thinking (and Doing)

When I meet someone new, especially a potential client, there is one question that always comes up and, as simple as it seems, has been very hard to answer.

"Just what do you do?"

Sometimes I talk about our adaptive approach to projects and initiatives, sometimes its about helping people innovate well together. Up until now, I've not been satisfied with either my response or with the puzzled looks on the face of those seeking clarification.

I think I've 'got it'!

Our good friend, Bill Burnett, who is executive director for Stanford University's world reknown product design program, recently cut through the haze when he told us, "You guys are all about Design Thinking!" He's right. And, Bill is, after all, one of the best qualified in the world to make this call!

David met Bill years ago when Bill designing products at Apple. David was called in to consult on a product design effort that was widely expected to fail. What really happened instead was an award winning PowerBook computer, and a model design effort that laid the foundation for Apple's success in laptops. Bill has become a good friend. A couple years ago, after The Blind Men and the Elephant was published, he invited David, as visiting author, and me, to co-teach his design class session where we played with the context to create a visceral 'out-of-the-box' experience.

So we trust Bill's nose - his credentials are impeccable, and his friendship is genuine.

We've spent a lot of time over the last few years trying on various labels to try to explain to prospective clients what we do and how we do what we do - this dance between the medium in which new things happen, the things that result (new products, new projects, organizational innovations), and the stuff people do to make those results occur (often expressed as methods, or processes). Because we bring a different mindset to these dimensions of getting things done - acknowledging how things are so we can work within that environment to create the results that are needed - we too easily get lost trying to explain an approach and a mindset that produce results that still amaze even us.

Design thinking - and doing - is a very apt way of expressing the way we approach our work and how we teach others to approach their work. Design thinking is an intentional approach by which individuals can effect change in whatever context they find themselves. The outwardly observable behaviors and processes are emergent from a set of principles and mindsets that are fundamental to design thinking.

Design thinking is applicable in all facets of organizational life. Capable executives might recognize what they do in the description of this term - observing what is going on and finding ways to step into the slipstream to let the current carry them along towards success. Savvy managers and leaders in all areas of an organization know these keys to success - and how to dress up what they have learned works in the common parlance of process, productivity, and efficiency. However, they are always clear that the description is not really what happens - it is only a politically correct representation - absolutely necessary and necessarily incomplete. Most often tacit knowledge.

My current project will be about observing these principles differently, distilling them into a language of design thinking in order to share them with our community in our new Design Thinking Series.

In the True North Design Thinking Series we will help executives and leaders, teams and work groups, projects and business initiatives, and individual contributors learn about Design Thinking and how they apply it to their situations. Whether framed as a workshop, an executive retreat, a strategic planning session, team building, or training session, the design thinking series will help leaders, teams, and organizations develop the capability to innovate intentionally.

Stay tuned for more details or contact us to learn more.