Design Thinking Vs. Strategic Thinking

Why Design Thinking Has Difficulty Delivering Breakthrough Value

By: Anne Orban, M.Ed., NPDP

Design thinking occupies a useful space, and that space has its limitations.  I mention limitations because when design thinking is employed to solve a new product development problem, the result is incremental – the ‘next thing’, not a highly differentiated new thing. This happens because of iterative development with customers which settles too soon on more familiar solutions, and is therefore incremental and often falls short of delivering new value to the customer and to the company.  The ‘next thing’ ideas are likely to be cannibalistic or incremental in impact – more evolutionary than differentiated.

Many of the leading companies have become very good at the tactics for new product development.  It’s not uncommon that many companies are pleased to allocate 70% of their innovation effort (people and financial resources) into building these incremental new products.  However, studies show that significantly more new revenue comes from new-to-the-world breakthrough products.  So, when they reach out for help to the practices of design thinking, there’s a systemic problem:  design thinking is not doing the really messy work of new-to-the-world innovation.

Of course we need incremental innovation – but why not have it driven by a big new-to-world vision rather than incrementalism.  What is needed is a revival in the disciplines for strategic innovation.  For a starting point, companies need a visionary task, not a tactical task.  Most corporate strategies are pretty mundane and reasonable and most often expressed from the point of view of the company.  What if your innovation vision was expressed from the consumer’s point of view? What if your task were to fulfill the potential of every child born in America and applied that to your core competencies.  You may find yourself reinventing your business rather than introducing the next nice thing.

And, it matters less where you start – so long as you start somewhere visionary and create tolerance for risk. Also, find passionate innovators who are comfortable with ambiguity and have intense curiosity and dogged determination.  It’s often hard to know where to start with a big visionary task. The simple answer is it doesn’t matter – just so long as you start somewhere and then go round and around staying loose and not settling too soon on any idea direction – the pitfall for design thinking.

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