Design Attitude: A critical factor in integrating design thinking for nurturing innovation

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Dr Ashis Jalote Parmar, Professor of Design Thinking, IIM-A

Although, contemporary management literature has proposed design thinking to play a strategic role in transforming products and more recently in transforming business, a severely under-emphasised among the driving forces of design thinking is the enculturation and inculcation of ‘Design Attitude’ in organisations By Dr Ashis Jalote Parmar

The world of management is moving to an era of complex, fuzzy and interdependent challenges that are often raised by rapid technological advancements and dynamic customer aspirations. Customers are demanding more meaningful and integrated connect to products and services with organisations. As the business context continues to evolve, these challenges require organisations to be innovative and agile in decision making to adapt to contextual changes.

Although, contemporary management literature has proposed design thinking to play a strategic role in transforming products and more recently in transforming business, a severely under-emphasised among the driving forces of design thinking is the enculturation and inculcation of ‘Design Attitude’ in organisations. Design attitude is a critical factor required both at the individual and organisation level to leverage design thinking for innovation.

Design as a term, especially in the Indian context has been trapped in a cliché of aesthetics or as an extension of art, and lately the term ‘Design Thinking’ is becoming a corporate fad. A short study revealed that 595/600 senior Indian executives associate the term design only with aesthetics. Ambiguity still looms around the actual meaning of the term design and design thinking and its role in innovation and strategic thinking. Hence, it is critical to define it. The origins of the word design can be found in the Latin word designare, which is made up of the prefix de- ‘out’ and signare ‘to mark’.

Designare means to devise, to choose, to designate, to strategise or to appoint. In other words, the very nature of ‘design’ lies in integrating strategy as a part of its core problem-solving process that changes the existing conditions into preferred ones.

Design literature defines it as ‘The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired foreseeable end constitutes the design process. It is a basic of all human activity – all humans are designers’. I define Design Thinking as a problem solving process -‘a creative and systemic problem solving process that can holistically envision or shape products, processes, businesses and even societies by driving user- and context-sensitive solutions.’

Not a new phenomenon

Design thinking is not a new phenomenon, but a term propounded to adopt problem-solving process of design in managerial decision making to accelerate innovation or infuse creativity. Following the success of Apple, a big debate took place on the framing and application of the term design thinking among large business houses. Past year has witnessed, few Indian corporates rather hastily adopt the term ‘Design thinking’, wanting it to act as a silver bullet to promote innovation. In my opinion, training employees in the overtly commercialised and popularised four staged design thinking cycle- Empathy (User), Ideate, Prototype and Iterate will not lead to Innovation. This is a fragmented approach to incorporating design thinking, specially, when organisation has no prior culture of design with a general organisational understanding of design=aesthetics. It’s almost like jumping from level 0 (no design or styling) to level 4(design thinking in strategic decision making).

Core fundamentals of design attitude

On a first glance the four staged design thinking cycle- one realises that it is no different than any scientific problem solving process. What is different is the “design attitude” which can be defined as the cognitive parameters that drive the design thinking problem solving process/ design thinking cycle. Leaders, managers, engineers and other professional experts need to first imbibe design attitude to be able to drive innovation through this process.

The core fundamentals of design attitude are:
(a) Challenging Assumptions: This means initiate problem solving by reframing the problem statement from ground zero
(b) Systemic view: Develop a holistic- system level or 360 degree view of problem and map interrelations between people, context and technologies
(c) Envisioning / making propositions: to formulate strategies with ambiguous and often unpredictable data sets, also known as Abductive thinking, as opposed to inductive and deductive thinking that the managers and engineers are
trained with.
(d) Sense and respond: being adaptable to larger environmental changes within the organisation, with competitors and in the larger context of global changes, thus providing not pre build products (make and sell) but sensing and responding –people must be trained to develop
this skills
(e) Zoom in and Zoom out: looking at the problems inside out and outside in similar to looking at a problem with a telescope, microscope and wide lens
(f) Breaking Silos/multidisciplinary team: Work on problems by breaking the barriers of disciplinary boundaries in the organisations
(g) Empathy: It is not only about asking user his needs but immerse in problems in the field to develop a holistic, people driven and context to envision new propositions. This also includes co design with the communities, early involvement of stakeholders and experts where applicable.

To gain consistent and long term benefits from design thinking process requires a road map by the senior management to create an ecosystem to induce design attitude at a strategic level and in the structure of the organization. Without this ecosystem, as a standalone, this 4 stage cycle will not lead to innovation. Design attitude needs to be imbibed not only in the individuals but also in the organisational culture to build an ecosystem of processes which facilitate the design thinking individuals to drive innovation and create design driven organisations. These individuals don’t necessarily have to be designers but design thinkers or as R. Verganti says ‘interpreters’. Apple, Bang & Olufsen are classic examples of organisations which have been successful when they have incorporated design attitude as their DNA right from, the organisational structure.

Fostering innovation

The very nature of design thinking allows challenging the existing order of doing things to improve them and even reconstitute them. To foster innovation which goes beyond just the mechanical usage of the 4 stage cycle, transforming organisations and societies at a national level requires leaders in organizations and government, to develop design thinking attitude as an inherent capability in its organisation construct. This process requires more than a single process adoption but transformation in the mind-set of the organisation. It means changing the way people in the organisation think, and the way organisation is structured so that the internal processes are agile and adaptive. This will allow the flexibility to create operational agility, adaptability, and innovation as one of the means to create people centred, entrepreneurial and meaningful organizations. It can create an ecosystem of co-creation that allows multiple stakeholders, such as employee, management, end users, to be a part of cohesive decision making, hence making the organizations more meaningful and entrepreneurial.

The author is Professor of Design Thinking, IIM-A