Our Thoughts

Rise of Design in Problem Solving

Sept. 12, 2017 Kunal Gupta

All was well with the world when engineers did the engineering, managers the management and designers, design. Something though, seems to be shaking things up recently. While engineering remains the engineers' responsibility, and strategy-finance-marketing largely the managers', what is perplexing people in the industry and academia alike, is this sudden infusion of design in every role.

Design is good, design is nice, we all like good design; don't we! If we have just enough money, we make do 'without design'; if we have more at disposal, we invest in design(ers); right? Designers are interesting people; they dress up pleasantly, they talk sweetly, they are creative, artistic, at times quirky. They have been known to create fashionable apparel and beautiful furniture, decorate the living rooms and office spaces to make them come alive, and more recently they've been in vogue for designing great, user-friendly software interfaces!

They're growing in prominence. Alright. Companies are hiring more designers, that's nice. More of them are being given strategy roles. Eh why? Some trend setting companies are entrusting designers with driving business strategy. What! Even further, a lot of companies across IT, FMCG, Banking, and Manufacturing are training their engineers and managers on design and something called design thinking.


 

Design thinking can do for organic growth and innovation what TQM did for quality.

Prof Jeanne Liedtka

Strategy Professor at Darden School of Business

What is with this trend of 'design thinking', and why is everyone being prompted to think like designers? Let us take a pause, and ponder on the kind of education that may have existed before industrial revolution, and how it was different from the modern education we know of. Amongst other things, it was far less centrally organized and streamlined. Why did we feel the need to change that? Because industry needed standardization. The engineering and management degrees we set up in the eighteenth through twentieth century served the purpose well. This education system contributed as much to the success of Ford's assembly line revolution as the latter did to education itself.

Now the industry is realizing though, that the kind of problems that are unsolved out there are complex and wicked, dissimilar from the ones understood or solved already; and hence there is increasing need for more organic solutions. Solutions that are not well executed adaptations of proven 'best practices' from different sectors and geographies, but grounded in unique local realities of the problem, and inspired by human behavior, emotions, and lifestyles associated with the situation. Problem solvers of tomorrow, therefore, are expected to be not just comfortable with, but curious and excited about, varying human dynamics; they are expected to thrive in ambiguity and be willing to fail and iterate on their way to figuring out solutions to these wicked problems. And these are some traits (that happen to be) found more commonly in (human centered) designers. And hence the euphoria about design. Quoting Prof Jeanne Liedtka of Darden School from her book 'Designing for Growth', "Design thinking can do for organic growth and innovation what TQM did for quality – take something we have always cared about and put tools and processes into the hands of managers to make it happen.

" So what is really happening on the ground? The likes of McKinsey, Accenture, Deloitte are ramping up their design driven problem solving capabilities, by acquiring design innovation consultancies like Lunar, Fjord, Doblin. The irony one may point out is that the pursuit to develop organic solutions in future has started with an inorganic approach, but let us skip that. Management consultants are spending time with the new found designer buddies to learn techniques like ethnography, contextual inquiry, brainstorming (one of the most misunderstood terms) and other ideation techniques, and perhaps most importantly, prototyping (which Tom Kelley of IDEO, one of the most celebrated innovation consultancies, calls the 'shorthand of innovation'). Companies as diverse as P&G, PepsiCo, Philips, General Electric, Citrix, SAP, Infosys, Future Group, are adopting design at various levels. They are not just hiring designers and training others on design principles, but realigning complete business strategies with design.

As Stephan H. Haeckel, former director of IBM’s Advanced Business Institute, explains in his book 'Adaptive Enterprise', 21st century organizations will have to build radically different structures- modular and agile- in an attempt to swiftly churn out new solutions for rapidly evolving customer requirements. The 20th century model of efficient linear structures, fine tuned for reliably and repeatedly churning out products and services based on market predictions is bound to quickly lose relevance. And again, design with its foundations in sensing of unclear unsaid human requirements, and iterating to develop suitable solutions, will play a crucial role.

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