Change by Design: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: February 8th, 2013 by bobmorris

Change by DesignChange by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation
Tim Brown
HarperBusiness (2009)

How to use design thinking to convert a need into a demand

I recently read two books (this one written with Barry Katz and Roger Martin’s The Design of Business) and am reading a third (Neil Sheehan’s A Fiery Peace in a Cold War) in which major organizational transformations are accomplished by those who understand the power of design thinking, who help their colleagues to do so, and then together, who take an approach, Tim Brown suggests, “that is powerful, effective, and broadly accessible, that can be integrated into all aspects of business and society, and that individuals and teams can use to generate breakthrough ideas that are implemented and that therefore have high impact. Design thinking, the subject of this book, offers just such an approach.” He goes on to acknowledge, “I was trained as an industrial designer, but it took me a long time to realize the difference between being and thinking like a designer. That strikes me as a critically important distinction. Brown views the power of design “not as a link in a chain but as the hub of a wheel”…not as a stage in a process but as a center of gravity, as a gravitational/centrifugal force, with involvement at all levels and in all areas of operation. “Design is now too important to be left to designers.”

Brown carefully organizes his material with two Parts. First, he introduces a set of principles for design thinking that be applied by almost anyone in any organization, whatever its size and nature may be. He involves his reader in a journey through the important stages of thinking. He provides a framework that he hopes will help the reader identify the principles and practices that make for great design thinking. He focuses on design thinking as applied to business and examines a number of the most innovative companies in the world, such as his own firm, IDEO, as well as Bank of America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Google, Intel, Kaiser Permanente, Mattel, Mayo Clinic, Pixar, Procter & Gamble, and Shimano. Each of these companies has established a culture within which there is a constant generation of ideas. After rigorous evaluation according to criteria that are most appropriate for the given context, and frame-of-reference, the focus of most promising ideas shifts from problem to project. This requires articulation of a clear goal at the outset. Design thinking “creates natural deadlines that impose discipline and [provide] an opportunity to review progress, make midcourse corrections, and redirect future activity. The clarity, direction, and limits of a well-defined project are vital to sustaining a high level of creative energy.”

Where to begin a project? Brown recommends first formulating the brief that can allow for serendipity, unpredictability, and “the capricious whims of fate,” then assembling the project team, selecting those who have multidisciplinary capabilities, are not risk averse, are what Roger Martin characterizes as “integrative thinkers,” welcome collaboration, and thrive on challenges. The importance of design thinking to this process cannot be exaggerated. It starts with divergence, expanding the range of options rather than limit them; it balances the perspectives of users and is what I could call “beneficiary-centric”; helps to accelerate time to first prototype (a subject to which Brown devotes a great deal of attention, notably on Pages 87-108); “shares the inspiration” within internal knowledge networks; accommodates the reality that there are no silver bullets for innovation, only “silver buckshot”; allocate resources to accommodate fast-paced, unruly, and disruptive innovation initiatives; and enables creative innovators “to bridge the chasm between thinking and doing because they [are] passionately committed to the [common] goal of a better life and a better world around them.”

Here in Dallas, we have a Farmer’s Market near the downtown area at which several vendors offer slices of fresh fruit so that people can sample for taste. In that spirit, here are two brief excerpts from Brown’s lively and eloquent narrative:

On an approach to innovation that consists of a “judicious blend” of bottom-up experimentation and guidance from above: “The rules for this approach are as simple to state as they are challenging to apply:

1. The best ideas emerge when the whole organizational ecosystem – not just its designers and engineers and certainly not just management has room to experiment.

[Note: In 1924, William L. McKnight, then CEO of 3M observed, “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” That is especially true of those who participate in brainstorming sessions. ]

2. Those most exposed to changing externalities (new technology, shifting customer base, strategic threats or opportunities) are the ones best placed to respond and most motivated to do so.

3. Ideas should not be favored based on who creates them. (Repeat aloud.)

4. Ideas that create a buzz should be favored. Indeed, ideas should gain a vocal following, however small, before being given organizational support.

5. The `gardening’ skills of senior leadership should be used to tend, prune, and harvest ideas. MBAs call this `risk tolerance.’ I call it the top-down bit.

6. An overarching purpose should be articulated so that the organization has a sense of direction and innovators don’t feel the need for constant supervision.”

On brainstorming: “Brainstorming, ironically, is a structured way of breaking out of structure. It takes practice…[All organizations have their own rules] that lay out the playing field within which a team of players can perform at high levels…At IDEO we have dedicated rooms for our brainstorming sessions and the rules are literally written on the walls: Defer judgment. Encourage wild ideas. Stay focused on the topic. The most important of them, I would argue, is `Build on the ideas of others.’ It’s right up there with `Thou shalt not kill’ and `Honor thy father and thy mother,’ as it ensures that every participant is invested in the last idea put forward and has the chance [and the incentive] to move it along.”

Recall a previous reference to the “journey” on which Brown invites his reader to embark. “There are useful starting points and helpful landmarks along the way, but the continuum of innovation is best thought of as a system, of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps.” As Brown makes crystal clear, the reason for the iterative, non-linear nature of the journey “is not that design thinkers are disorganized or undisciplined but that design thinking is fundamentally an exploratory process; it will invariably make unexpected discoveries along the way, and it would be foolish not to find out where they lead.”

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  1. […] To read my review of his book, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, please click here. […]

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