So-called “design thinking” is the new It-Girl of management theory. It purports to provide new ways for managers and companies to provide innovative, creative solutions to old problems. But design thinking alone will not solve these problems because a lack of creativity was never the issue.
The real issue is one of power.
Design is attractive to management because it is a de-politicized version of the well known socio-cultural critique of managerial practices. Design thinking is so popular because it raises only questions of “creativity” or “innovation” without ever questioning the legitimacy of managerial practice. Instead, design thinking aspires only to “better” management technique by investigating “contextual problems” or the truly innocuous “pain points.”
The inconvenient truth is that the science of management fails because it treats people as either mere inputs into the production process or as faceless “consumers” who have no real stake in outcomes. Design thinking allows for these truths to remain unaddressed, thereby avoiding any discussion of power itself. Workers are cast as something to be organized or “incented.” Consumers are to have their “needs met.” And neither group is granted a meaningful stake in the creative process.
Within this frame, design techniques attempt to solve managers’ typically tone-deaf executions of creativity without ever naming the root cause of workers’ and consumers’ dissatisfaction, which is their lack of meaningful participation in the design process. Managers’ ability to control both the organization of work and the availability of consumer goods is the true problem, not an inability to think “creatively.”
Managers have control over the working conditions under which creativity is supposed to happen, as well as the the distribution of the fruits of such labour. One significant reason workers’ creativity does not flow easily from studio or factory to consumers is because of management’s need to control costs and secure profits. Were it not for the profit motive, workers would be free to radically innovate continually and consumers would have unrestricted access to such new and innovative goods. But because profit stands as the pre-eminent benchmark of business success, both workers and consumers are thwarted in their pursuit of supplying and demanding innovative goods.
In other words, there is no shortgage of creative solutions to “unmet needs,” only a shortage of profitable ways to provide them.
Hence the inevitable ineffectiveness of design thinking, if applied in isolation to the problem of creativity. Designers must consider what role power plays in an organization’s inability to create innovative products. But more importantly, designers must be prepared to identify and name power and its sources (e.g., the pursuit of profit at the expense of innovation).They must not simply use ethnographic techniques to uncover “unmet needs”.
This is perhaps where designers will feel most out of their depth. It is a long leap from solving contextual problems to providing an analysis of inequality. All the more reason then, for designers to study the socio-cultural theory that underlies ethnography and other qualitative research methods.
In particular, designers should study feminist writers such as Canadian sociologist Dorothy Smith. Smith founded the method she calls “institutional ethnography,” which takes the standpoint of its participants and not that of the organization. This method frequently yields lived experiences that differ from the “official record” because it assumes that users of a technology, a product or a social policy lack meaningful access to those who record such records.
Ethnographic approaches are a good starting point for designers to cultivate empathy and hone observational skills. But it is in issues of power that rememdies to innovation bottlenecks will be broken.