Sara Diamond and I recently wrote an article entitled "There's no innovation agenda without design thinking" which generated significant interest and discussion. One of the commenters wrote, in part, "...functional and aesthetic design is important but the technological innovation and the ability to implement the ideas are even more so. The kind of design the writers are speaking of acts as a discriminator if there are competing products but without the existence of a new product, does not come into play."
This comment confuses design with design thinking. This is a common confusion and one that those who coined the later phrase are painfully aware of. The best way to explain the two terms is by reference to skills and practices as illustrated by the concept of the T-shaped person. I've discussed this here in a previous post. The vertical stroke of the T refers to deep specialized skills whereas the horizontal stroke refers to the generalist cross-discipline skills.
Design Thinking skills and practices, as illustrated above, should be thought of as being appropriate to all disciplines including design. Design itself is a craft of deep specialized skills comprised of visual design, interaction or user experience design, user research, and front-end development. Each of these design specialties needs to know and practice their own specialized craft (the vertical stroke of the T) while also knowing and practicing design thinking (the horizontal stroke of the T).
Of course, many other disciplines are needed on the team, business and engineering for example, and each of these needs to contribute their specialized discipline specific skills while all needing the generalist design thinking skills. The IBM version of design thinking, which we call IBM Design Thinking, has further enhanced the set of cross-discipline skills and practices to optimize for cross-team collaboration, alignment, and transparency.
It is the practice of design thinking by a team that leads to the opportunity for innovation and each discipline's unique contribution, including design, that fleshes it out and realizes the potential.
Let's use an example to illustrate. Let's imagine a startup wanting to create a new product in the increasingly important health space. In my experience, startups often approach this by simply having smart engineers sitting around in a cool looking incubator space working all hours staring at their MacBooks trying to dream up some innovation, building it (and perhaps also having a designer to "make it pretty"), and then pivoting when it doesn't work.
The design thinking approach would start off by having user researchers understand the people the startup wants to improve the life of (i.e., patients, nurses, etc.) using various ethnographic observation and interview methods. Other disciplines on the team would help with this, gaining first hand knowledge of the domain and deeply empathizing with the people they intend to serve. The team comes back and uses methods like empathy mapping and as-is scenario mapping to capture what they learned, importantly reflecting on a 360 degree view of the people they intend to serve, what they do, say, think, and feel. The team members then individually, and afterwards as a group, determine which aspects of the current experience are the most problematic and opportune to significantly improve. Based on this knowledge, the team collectively articulates their intended objective using what we at IBM call Hills, statements that communicate who is going to be able to do what with the new solution with what "wow" outcome for them. Hills provide the clarity and focus for the team and are used throughout the project as well during what we call Playbacks when all stakeholders review the evolving client experience. The team then ideates on potential solutions, importantly getting input from all the team's individual specialized experience and skills. They decide which of the ideas they'd like to explore further and then create paper mockups of the most promising ideas on which they then get feedback from a few representative target users (which we call Sponsor Users). The team determines which ideas were best and iterates on them based on the feedback received. That cycle of iteration continues as the product is further fleshed out in higher fidelity prototypes and then production code. At all stages, team members are involved in and using design thinking while also contributing their own deep specialized knowledge and skills. Design is an important but only one of the important specialized skills on the team. It's important to point out that the above can be done extremely quickly and efficiently while at the same time increasing the likelihood of success. There is no prescribed order and teams have a wide selection of methods to use. Design thinking, as the name suggests, is at its essence a new way of thinking about a problem or opportunity space and how to address it collaboratively with a team of specialists.
I truly believe that using design thinking, particularly IBM's version, with teams that have all the requisite talent and skills, including importantly design, will dramatically increase the likelihood of delivering highly successful and innovative outcomes.