Beyond Stickies, Sharpies, & Innovation Theater

I've now spent several years activating major business units of IBM, major corporations worldwide, start-ups and scale-ups, and university students with what we at IBM call Enterprise Design Thinking. When we started about five years ago, most organizations hadn't heard of design thinking so they understood and internalized our carefully crafted version of the generic design thinking along with the other critically important ingredients of a design transformation. Over the course of that time, many organizations learned about some form of design thinking from a variety of other sources. Some have done well at that but I'm learning that many are now finding it lacking. 

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In fact, when some now find out about the details of our approach, they regret ever calling what they've been doing as design thinking. The brand of design thinking has been tarnished by the these bad experiences with it. Many of these organizations simply get people into a cool looking space with whiteboard walls, write things with sharpies on stickies, and put them on the whiteboard walls. They think by simply doing this, they're been creative, innovative, and modern. I say that they're simply performing what I call innovation theater. They're using what they're calling design thinking but its mostly all show and doesn't lead to substantive outcomes.

Add to that the click-bait headlines and titles of talks bashing design thinking. A perfect example is a talk titled "Design Thinking is Bullshit" and an article titled "Design thinking is extremely dangerous" by Natasha Jen of Pentagram. I believe she lacks an understanding of design thinking, how it should actually be used, and believes that it simply involves other disciplines appropriating design from designers and that everyone should just hire designers like her who can intuit great designs. She conflates design thinking with design.  

From all of that you may come to the conclusion that design thinking is ineffectual. Well, it isn't, when done correctly with the right ingredients. IBM's approach, which we call Enterprise Design Thinking, was evaluated by Forrester Research regarding it's economic impact. They found that clients shipped products twice as fast and experienced a 300 percent return on the investment with our approach. And, when asked who they associate with design thinking, a majority of enterprises identified IBM. So, it's working.  

So, why do I say that we should go beyond stickies, sharpies, and innovation theater? In order to glean the considerable true benefits of Enterprise Design Thinking. Let's review what I believe are the important insights, necessary conditions, and essentially seven essential habits for effectively using Enterprise Design Thinking. 

  1. Empathize with users and carry out user research with them. Many begin their design thinking activities with building an empathy map. This is a powerful tool but not if the information posted on it is made up! I often see people happily writing stickies with their sharpies and posting what a user does, thinks, says, and feels but entirely off to the top of their heads about an imagined user. Some even later use the information in their misguided empathy maps to create a persona complete with stock photos of models and descriptions based on the information in the empathy map. Doing this is dangerous. The human brain is wired to quickly and thoroughly process faces and human stories. If the information is made up then the empathy maps and personas are worse than useless, they're illusory and will misguide the entire project. What should you do instead? You should do user research which can take the form of such techniques as structured interviews, ethnographic observations, and analysis of digital journeys. These techniques needn't be time consuming or laborious. They can even take the form of doing the interview with a user, for example, while team members capture information directly on the empathy map.     
  2. Get the right skills and drive multidisciplinary collaboration. I subscribe to the perspective, which I've shared previous on this site, of the T-shaped person. I see design thinking as a set of skills and habits that all disciplines should have (the horizontal stroke of the T) in addition the their specific discipline (the vertical stroke of the T). Contrary to Natasha Jen's assertion that design thinking involves the appropriation of design by other disciplines, I see the need for all disciplines to have design thinking skills but of course, teams also need to have the requisite design disciplines on them as well (user research, visual design, user experience design, and front-end development). If a single discipline decides to use design thinking without each of the other disciplines including importantly the design disciplines, then they're again not practicing effective design thinking. And, simply having the requisite disciplines onboard at the beginning of the project possibly only during some design thinking workshopping, that too is insufficient. All disciplines need to collaborate regularly and intensely in order to see the benefits of design thinking. Does everyone on a team need to be working together all the time? No. They clearly have individual work to do but they should be collaborating several times a day. And, they should be colocated in order to foster that level of collaboration.  
  3. Use design thinking but for more than workshopping. This is probably the worst transgression. Way too many people think that design thinking equates to workshopping. Those who do are practicing innovation theater and not true design thinking. Design thinking should be adopted as a way of thinking, a way of perceiving the world, a way of understanding, reflecting, and making. Design thinking should influence how someone on the team speaks to a user, how they think about the problem they're trying to solve. the approach they take to arriving at alternative creative solutions. Much of this can be done without stickies, sharpies, and a white board. Does that mean we shouldn't use stickies, sharpies, and workshops? Yes, if that's the only thing you're going to be doing with design thinking. However, they're powerful tools to use if you're using design thinking in everything you do. 
  4. Create Minimal Delightful Experiences. I hear many people, especially in start-ups but not exclusively, champion the Agile deliverable of the Minimal Viable Product or MVP. What this often involves is developing a subset of the capabilities of a product in order to get feedback on it. That often translates into providing the raw support for a subset of tasks to be carried out but it doesn't include the experience design. We liken this to a pizza company trying a new product by providing someone with a small part of the product like the crust. Instead, in order to truly evaluate the new product, the pizza company should in fact provide a thin slide of the pizza with the toppings and crust, in other words a taste of the entire experience. We at IBM call that the Minimal Delightful Experience. When making prototypes in design thinking, make MVPs with a minimal delightful experience. 
  5. You don't have to fail fast and often. Everyone seems to have adopted this phrase. I think it's important to reinforce that we should learn from failure and to iterate quickly. However, too many people are so in love with this phrase that they don't think, or do any design thinking, before they simply take their first idea, build it in code to get feedback on it. When it then fails, they just say, "well, we did what we needed to do, to fail fast". If instead they would have started to do some design thinking focusing on the definition and validation of their "how might we statement" for the product, then did some quick user research, they'd have prevented some of the failure and then they could do some more design thinking and built a low fidelity paper prototype and get feedback on it. Failures of design when it's on paper are way less expensive than in code. Some teams also know they simply want to ship their idea in code and may do a little bit of design thinking, putting some stickies on walls but they're doing innovation theater. About 90 percent of startups fail and the number one reason why they fail is what's called market-product fit which I simplify by saying that they were building something that nobody wanted. Design thinking when done right will reduce that high failure rate because it will ensure that the problem is an important one to users and that the failures will be on paper and not with shipped code. Interestingly, the second reason startups fail is not having the right skills on the project, something I've discussed in item #2 above. 
  6. Embrace technology but focus on the user experience. A lot of projects start by wanting to use some shiny new technology. That's fine as long as the project uses design thinking effectively to determine whether the problem to be solved for the human beings involved can be solved by the technology and that the experience that users will have with it will be amazing. Technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality all can lead to amazing user experiences when design thinking done right is used in the design of the system, even in the determination of whether the technology is appropriate for the situation. 
  7. It's a team sport, deploy it pervasively within an intentional organization-wide system. The previous six points and more need to be part of a pervasive and intentional organization-wide system in order to truly ensure the optimal use of design thinking. The system we built at IBM is an example of the necessary conditions for the proper use of design thinking. We wouldn't have been successful had we only gave out stickies, sharpies, and said to go do design thinking. 

So, do you have to get rid of your stickies and sharpies. Yes, you should if all you're doing is innovation theater. However, they're powerful, simple, and extremely portable tools to use if you're aligned with the seven items I've outlined above. Check out our Enterprise Design Thinking system for more information.