The Challenges Posed By Design Thinking

Everywhere you turn, design thinking is touted as a panacea for bringing customer experiences into play. For example, the 2017 EY report, Demystifying Design Thinking: Being Part of the Movement, urged organizations to “adopt design thinking and embed it in their operating models.” 10 years after the movement was born, specialists see Design Thinking as THE catalyst to encourage professional participation in their clients’ experience, be it in healthcare, design, agriculture, architecture, high-tech, software… and even abroad Politics! Design thinking provides the necessary impetus to ensure customer experience is considered before programs are built: “Startups and software companies were among the first to embrace design thinking as a way to build an entire business,” the report continues. She concludes that this approach to product development improves the odds of success and is more efficient than traditional models.

But what exactly is design thinking, aside from solving nasty problems? Well, in short, it’s a user and other stakeholder focused approach that emphasizes experimentation and iteration. The principle is to use empathy to define and define problems from the perspective of a user or stakeholder and to develop innovative products, services and processes to solve such problems. To do this, managers need to be embedded in the users’ experiences and try out the proposed solutions frequently and early in the process. A typical design thinking project follows five steps: empathize with the users; define their problems; solution ideas; create prototypes; and test them with the users. It is particularly suited to tackling complex problems and solving the challenges of a fast-paced world, as linear approaches often miss the mark.

Design thinking provokes cultural collisions

However, research by myself and senior academic Lisa Carlgren shows that implementing design thinking in organizations has yielded mixed results and several challenges remain unanswered. We examined implementation stories from a cultural perspective. The resulting paper, When Cultures Collide: What Can we Learn from Frictions in the Implementation of Design Thinking?, was published earlier this year in a special issue of the Journal of Product Innovation Management. Our five-year research project focused on 13 international companies in sectors ranging from software and food to healthcare and high-tech that have adopted design thinking. We conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews with design thinking practitioners and experts, and used qualitative ethnographic approaches to better understand the cultural tensions. As a result, we propose a cultural archetype of design thinking and identify the challenges such an archetype poses when confronted with the culture of the adopting organization.

The challenges of emotion, time and centralization

As a practice, design thinking is characterized by openness, curiosity and acceptance of different backgrounds and competences – an inclusive atmosphere in which everyone’s opinion counts. The focus is on empathy and emotional connection with the users and more generally with the members of the project. However, our research shows that in multiple cultures, an employee who shows their emotions and intuitions may be perceived as inappropriate in organizations with a low tolerance for emotional outbursts.

Then there is the question of time. An employee tells us: “Companies want to have a very short-term focus and design thinking takes time. You have to be able to invest and I think that doesn’t always work.” Another comment: “People have busy schedules, life is full of shortcuts and hacks. No time and no freedom for design thinking. They want shorter versions of DT all the time: a day, half a day, two hours, an hour…” This time pressure has negative consequences for the implementation of qualitative, long-term design thinking strategies.

A centralized work culture also calls design thinking and the flat hierarchies required for it into question. In fact, design thinking is geared towards decentralization, as teams need a high level of autonomy and trust to achieve creative goals. This thinking encourages a “rule-breaking” attitude to encourage autonomy and a sense that everything is acceptable to increase creativity. Thus, challenges arise when control, power and responsibility are concentrated at the top in the organization and when control is tight, with many formal rules and procedures guiding behavior. Therefore, cultural discrepancies related to such issues have influenced the outcome of design thinking work and its perceived benefits

How to overcome cultural gaps

To counter all these discrepancies, our work proposes a cultural archetype that we believe can help create awareness and encourage dialogue to understand and limit potential tensions due to these discrepancies. Managers can help create this awareness by setting goals for an ideal culture that uses design thinking. It can also help to identify obstacles and enablers and their indicators.

This requires what we call “bilingual managers” who can combine design and business, thus championing design thinking in the business world. For example, if you’re aiming for a major culture change, your managers need to consider your current systems and policies to identify those that reinforce undesirable values. How could design thinking be a catalyst to directly or indirectly change these values? If you are aware of both the cultural characteristics of design thinking and the factors in your organization that cannot be changed, you can develop alternative strategies, e.g. B. the creation of microclimates. Identifying areas where design thinking has a chance to succeed can be the basis for scaling and building legitimacy at the heart of your organization.

But beware. Culture is only part of the design thinking business approach and doesn’t fully explain why it often fails. Factors such as promotions and over-commercialization have also led to disappointing results. Design thinking can work, but it remains just one piece in the business innovation puzzle.

Sihem Ben Mahmoud-Jouini is Associate Professor of Innovation at HEC Paris.

Daniel Brown is Editor-in-Chief of HEC Paris.

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