Drop the design-thinking crutches

Imagine you’ve broken your leg. You go to the doctor, who places it in a cast and sends you home with crutches. You hobble around for a few weeks, then weeks turn into months, then months turn into years. You don’t let go of the crutches even though your leg has healed. It sounds ridiculous, right? But all too often, that's what organizations do with design thinking. They encounter a messy problem and, desperate for a solution, send a team to the d.school. They learn to empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. They make key breakthroughs, develop prototypes they likely wouldn't have back home, and in the process, become enamored with the ubiquitous whiteboards and Post-its.

(Photo via Flickr user  carlos.a.martinez)

Then they go back, order their own whiteboards and Post-its, and follow the process as they learned it to try to institutionalize the magic they experienced here. They eventually find themselves stuck in a new problem, or worse, the same problem that led them to seek guidance in the first place.

There's an impulse among many who visit us to cling to the crutches of the design-thinking process rather than strengthen the limb the crutch was intended to heal. This is natural. Broken limbs hurt as they get better, and it can be difficult to trust something that has been a source of failure in the past. But a crutch is not designed to be used forever -- it's meant to be discarded once it restores the function previously impaired.

I was inspired to write this because I found myself repeatedly asking why people get stuck after they leave. I’ve realized it's because they treat design thinking as a replacement for an old process. But design thinking is not a process in the conventional sense; it’s meant to help restore an organization’s creative function. We teach it as "a process" at the d.school because it's a useful scaffold to structure an experience for the purpose of learning. Shared language and a shared approach give us an opportunity to focus on how we're doing something rather than what we're doing.

But the process we use for teaching isn't meant to be replicated and repeated verbatim in perpetuity. It should flex and adapt and be changed by adept design thinkers with an understanding of the organization, who are capable of acting on instincts in accordance with the underlying principles of human-centered design. The key is cultivating the people capable of acting with agency and creative confidence, not perpetuating an inflexible stage-gate process.

It's not design thinking that the world needs; it's design thinkers who continuously evolve the practice as they encounter new constraints and cultures.

Here are two key things to consider:

  • If you find yourself thinking you have to send yet another team for a bootcamp, stop and keep reading. The answer's not another bootcamp.
  • If you find yourself wanting to take a crane, pick up the d.school and place it wherever you need it, pause and consider that the d.school you pick up today will be different — perhaps radically so — than the d.school one, two or three years in the future. That’s because we practice design thinking as an underlying principle, not as a process, and we're constantly changing as an organization by that practice.

Often, people ascribe more weight to tangible variables such as crutches, whiteboards and Post-its. It’s much easier to do that than to apply pressure to their pain, in order to grow confident in their creative function. But that’s what organizations need: to trust their own gauge of what matters in a given situation and develop a custom-fit process for problems as they occur.

So don't focus on whether you're adhering to the design-thinking process; focus instead on restoring your creative function. Doing so means ditching the crutches, so you can run full stride. You'll move much faster than you ever could before.