September 2, 2016

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Design Thinking - How it can limit innovation

Design Thinking sessions are almost always fun and energizing.  And there is always a creative output.  Then why do so few of these outputs lead to true disruption or innovation?


Lets start with why it feels good to do Design Thinking.  Our brains have evolved over millions of years to do only three things: find patterns in the sensed environment, analyze and appraise those patterns for survival value, and prime the body (through emotions) to react to those appraisals.  Simply put, our brains are built to problem solve.  And creativity is problem solving.  Our brains reward us for successful problem solving with releases of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine.  As we are creative during the Design Thinking sessions, we get shots of it.  It feels like we are solving problems.  But that doesn't mean our solutions effectively address the problem we were trying to solve.  This can be a trick of sorts, though we are often willing participants.  So we may feel good about our solutions, but they may not work.  Let's look at why they often do not work.


Our brains essentially use two ways to problem solve: by analogy (or association, or correlation), which relies on comparing known solutions to new problems, and reasoning from first-principles (or causation).  Let's discuss analogical thinking first, as this is the method used primarily during Design Thinking (and most of our daily life).  It's advantageous to our survival to problem solve quickly, so our brains have evolved to shorten problem solving by simply matching new information to already-known patterns (its not really simple- billions of neuronal circuits are called into action here) . Example: Is that shadowy figure in the tall grass the profile of a lion?!  Should I run?!  We've all used known solutions in a new way (Remember everything you've used duct tape for that has nothing to do with taping ducts?)


Our brains take in vast amounts of sensory information through our bodies continuously and are rapidly parsing the data and valuing it based on our stored analogs.  So, most people find it quite natural and easy to develop solutions quickly which are simply a combination of what they already know.  This is an easy exercise, is aligned with how our brain works, and can be quite rewarding when we combine existing patterns or platforms into new objects or concepts.  However, when complex challenges are presented, like when trying to design a novel new product, or solve a technically complex problem, simple analogical reasoning often can lead to a situation described as "a solution in search of a problem."  Yes, we get some kind of solution every time we combine existing knowledge, but the solution may not be effective at solving the problem.  It may well represent a new combination of knowledge, but the solution may not be "causally linked" to the problem.


Contrast analogical thinking with first-principle thinking.  Starting problem solving from the very smallest components that link together to eventually solve for the challenge in focus means that the causal linkage between problem formation and solution can be made. This forces the solution to be effective.  This is how science is done.  Almost every significant invention of man (electricity, computers, E=mc2, SpaceX, etc.) has resulted from first-principle thinking.  Now, it is also true that during some parts of the problem solving process that these large, complex breakthroughs ultimately represent, there were analogies made.  Analogies are useful ways to chunk pieces of information during complex problem solving.  But successfully establishing new causal connections increases the scalability of a solution.  In contrast, Design Thinking sessions have given us cool new toothbrushes, chairs and underwear designs.  They may have made someone a little more money, but they have not fundamentally changed the world.  This is not at all to impugn Design Thinking.  It is a wonderfully positive exercise for the reasons I mentioned above.  I personally lead them.  But I also lead process innovation and product development sessions that require bottoms-up principled thinking.  These tend to be arduous, often protracted sessions.  But for the effort, on average, these yield solutions with more "area under the curve", or long-term value, like new, repeatable processes, new engineering breakthroughs, or products with more utility, etc.  A sole focus on Design Thinking keeps most problem solving at a superficial level, which is sometimes all that is required.  But the wicked problems will take a little more.


If your organization wants to solve all problem consistently, methodically, effectively, then you must embrace first-principle thinking and understand the physical limits of Design Thinking.  You'll get farther in your innovation if you combine the power of them both.


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