Just Don’t Say “Out of the Box Thinking”

In most of the classes I teach, at some point each semester I introduce my students to the tenets of design thinking.   Design thinking (DT) is actually a misnomer because it is more about ‘doing’ than thinking.  DT is simply an approach to problem solving that follows a designer’s methodology: 1. Understanding of user experience in context; 2. Brainstorming with users; 3. Rapid prototyping; 4. Iterate and reiterate; 5. Implement and measure.  It is, as Intuit founder and Chairman Scot Cook says, a process of building a culture of cheap, quick experiments as a way to find user generated innovation opportunities.  Even though it has the word ‘design’ in its description, DT is not some wide eyed, unbridled process of creation.  Rather, it is in fact quite methodical and mundane.

Thus my frustration, each time I discuss DT in class, when I ask my students to reflect on a DT case study or article that discusses the process.  Invariably, students will say, “This is really some ‘out of the box thinking?'”  To which I really don’t know what to say.  My theory is that if you say “out of the box thinking” you are in fact so squarely in the center of the box that you are not likely to get any of this.  This, despite the fact that companies as diverse as P&G, GE, Kimberly Clark, Kaiser Permanente, Bank of America, Office Max, the Mayo Clinic, Umpqua Bank, amongst countless others, use DT regularly as part of their innovation compass.

Where DT adds value is the point in a decision making or problem solving process where an emergent, or third option is generated.  This is the stuff that Roger Martin discusses in his book, The Opposable Mind.  Martin suggests that in order to lead as a designer (my interpretation of his work), one must be able to look at two seemingly opposed options and be able to transcend them both with a third option that integrates the best of each.  This is what he calls integrative thinking.  Integrative thinking is not ‘out of the box thinking,” as if one just, willy nilly, chooses to do something wild and crazy.  It results from the incorporation of a new framework and set of values at the heart of a better way of making decisions.  At the end of the day DT is methodical, considered, and pragmatic.

DT is challenging to traditional managers, though, in that it takes the fulcrum of decision making out of their hands and puts it into the hands of users, customers, and the line level employees who interact most intimately with them.  Sometimes I suspect that traditional managers would prefer to move sideways in mediocrity (and have decision making all to themselves) than they are willing to open up to the user-centered nature of design thinking in search of organic innovation and sustainable growth.

However, as we have learned from sports psychology, the fear of losing often overpowers the desire to win.  You would think that with all of the tough talk that corporate managers espouse about being first in their industry and winning, winning, winning, they would actually compete to win rather than simply not to lose.  DT is not a tough-guy’s language, to be sure, but it is effective.

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