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Designing a design-thinking organization

by Sam Ladner on May 5, 2010 · 10 comments

in Blog, Popular, anthropology, culture, design, home, innovation, sociology

Yesterday, I attended Roger Martin’s presentation of his new book, The Design of Business, hosted at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Roger gave a brief overview of his book and then engaged in a dialogue with the host, Michael Dila, and members of the audience.

Roger explained that some organizations are better able to embrace “design thinking,” which he defines as the ability to think both analytically and intuitively. He pointed out in his presentation and in his book that 20th century corporations have perfected the analytical frame of mind, but fail continuously to embrace the abductive leaps of logic that innovation requires.

Audience members repeatedly asked how to equip their organizations to embrace design thinking. Roger advised designers to “empathize” with their analytical peers, and business managers to “empathize” with their intuitive colleagues.

I can’t help but be reminded of the world’s most ineffective coaching in John Cusak’s movie Better Off Dead. Cusak’s character is attempting to win a ski race to impress his love interest. His hapless friend Booger offers this useless advice, “Try to ski…faster.”

Roger’s advice fell short because he could not explain the social dynamics of organizational change. Just like Booger, he simply described; he failed to explain.

Explaining Organizational Change: Innovative Values

One woman in the audience asked specifically what cultural traits design-thinking organizations exhibit. Roger suggested vague ideas such as a concern for the future. The Value Orientation Model can specifically identify value systems that are, yes, future oriented, but have four other qualities that support innovation. Anthropologist Florence Kluckhohn argued that all cultures can be understood in terms of five major values. I have adapted this model to show the groupings of organizations. Innovative organizations, surprisingly, embrace “static” values, thus allowing the free floating of ideas.

Figure 1: The Value Orientation Model

Adapted from Kluckhohn, F. R. (1953). Dominant and variant value orientations. Personality in Nature, Society and Culture. . J. a. K. Murrayh, F.R. New York, Knopf: 346.

Being future oriented can be conducive to innovation, as Roger indicated. But if an organization obsesses over its future state, it may have difficulty focusing on tasks at hand. This future orientation is not enough, particularly if the organization prizes “doing” over “becoming.”

Take, for example, “the productivity myth,” which Tony Schwartz explores on Harvard Business Review’s blogs. He complains that writing and responding to ever more emails does not add value – yet it appears to be “productive.” Organizations that consider emails “productive” have a “doing” orientation, instead of a “becoming” orientation. An organization must prize both the future and the process of “becoming” in order to be innovative.

Moreover, this organization must trust its employees. If the organization’s culture implicity believes that “man is born bad,” then it will not provide employees with the freedom and autonomy they need to be innovative. Roger argued Taylorist management styles of command and control have outlived their usefulness. I would agree with him. However, I would argue that no company that believes its employees will “steal time” from the company can ever truly forsake Taylorist principles.

Take, for example, WalMart, which was recently named one of Businessweek’s top 50 innovative companies. Its innovation, according to Businessweek, is its razor thin supply chain and cost-conscious green practices. Does this mean WalMart is innovative? No, it means it is cost-conscious. WalMart will never get out of the business of selling cheap goods at the lowest prices because it does not trust its employees to be autonomous. Individual store managers cannot begin selling locally-targeted goods because they are not trusted to experiment. WalMart will never design an iPhone; it will only figure out how to sell it more cheaply than anyone else.

Roger’s book explains design thinking well, but he only describes how it plays out in real organizations. In order to understand how design thinking is adopted, one must have a sociological lens on organizational change – and that means understanding the nature of socially defined values.

Designing Design Thinkers

Organizational change is notoriously difficult to effect. Management consultants have tried it, now designers are trying it. Building on Roger’s description, and offering my explanation of the underlying value system, I now offer an application designing a design-thinking organization.

  1. Map your values: understand what values your organization prizes by doing an audit of the “good worker.” What do people say a “good worker” is? Rosabeth Moss Kanter used the “good worker” rubric to explain how women faced subtle discrimination in her classic Men And Women of The Corporation. When you know how your organization thinks, you’ll know what it values.
  2. Create value goals collectively: decide as a group what values you would like to embrace. This means more than crowdsourcing. This means hosting open dialogue meetings where the only expected outcome is a discussion. Voting will help, but only after you have face-to-face discussions.
  3. Use art: community theatre, interactive installations, and performance art have transformative properties. Encourage members of the organization to describe their experiences through comedic skits at meetings, collaborative and humorous art projects that can displayed in main areas. Art speaks truth. Knowing your organization’s values requires truth telling — and it especially helps if you laugh a lot.
  4. Embrace “Static Values” when you can: In her incredibly insightful article on innovation, Carol Steiner argues that innovators reject established ways of thinking, Unfortunately, deeply trained scientists, managers, and social scientists spend so much time learning established ways of thinking, they forget to be open to new ideas. Be open, she argues, but simply BEING.
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Categories: Blog · Popular · anthropology · culture · design · home · innovation · sociology

{ 3 trackbacks }

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May 5, 2010 at 3:13 pm
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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jamin Hegeman May 5, 2010 at 3:49 pm

From Martin to Booger, brilliant. Good stuff.


2 Andrea Learned May 10, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Thanks for adding the sociological lens to the discussion! There have been so many books and articles on design-thinking, why we need it, why it’s so hip, who the “rock stars” are and so on… The substance that others need to really transform their organizations is not there. Instead we find the substance in the unsexy, academic-seeming study of values orientation in human beings. How do people in a particular organization think now, and why? Knowing that, how can we persuade those people toward a more design-oriented way of thinking? It’s the same thing I study with regard to engaging both organizations and consumers (citizens!) in sustainability. Start with where people are/their current values – and not where we wish they were. One other thing – I’ve been impressed by how the concept of Appreciative Inquiry can be used in almost any organizational change situation. Appreciate what is already good and you’ll discover where more good can be found from there. Here’s the wikipedia link to that:


3 Sam Ladner May 10, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Hi Andrea,
Thanks for the thoughtful comment! Yes, I have been looking at Appreciative Inquiry myself and I agree, it’s a great place to start. I haven’t had a chance to use it yet but I plan to. I hope more design thinking projects start with your point of view!


4 Rotkapchen May 25, 2010 at 8:28 am

I sometimes wish that we each could do a mind-meld across these waves so there would be oh-so-far-less to share and explain…but, alas. Thanks Sam, for synthesizing and adding your own spin to some great perspectives and considerations.

As I read it something circled back to remind me — we can slice and dice culture all we want. In the end, there’s a simple test: is play tolerated and even encouraged? The classic real-life example of this is Zappos: (be sure to check out at least one of the videos).

In reviewing two of the books written by leading voices on the topic, I too noted that there were key issues that were missed

Neither author sufficiently addressed:
1. The design question: At some point, after all assumptions have been questioned, you have to determine if you’re asking the ‘right’ question. Clearly cultures that are not willing to challenge the ’status quo’ will never get to the ‘right’ question. The conditions required for shared cultures that would allow for such behaviors is deeply addressed in the book “Theory U”.
2. Finding and embracing failure: Cultures that seek to portray perfection are not comfortable looking for failures as ‘food for learning’ (there’s a whole other conversation to be had around the significance of a ‘learning culture’ as purported by Peter Senge, see esp. “The Dance of Change”).
3.Embracing dichotomies: Design is about making choices, about accommodating constraints and deciding how to address them. Many cultures are “Black and White” — such cultures miss the variety possible in shades of grey — embracing the black and white at the same time (look for readings on “paradox” especially Charles Handy’s “The Age of Paradox”)

Already part of my Design Thinking approach is ‘honoring reality’ — it’s the part that comes after the ‘appreciative inquiry’ (which is part of both the research and discovery phases of Design Thinking). This and other perspectives required for successful Design Thinking are fed by all of the readings above and more. Particularly when the focus of the Design Thinking is on redesigning the organization itself, another book to add to the list is Russell Ackoff’s “Re-Creating the Corporation”.


5 Rotkapchen May 27, 2010 at 8:34 am

I realize I started with a ‘play’ theme and forgot to mention a critical read in that area: “Play” by Stuart Brown. I’m going back and re-reading it now.


6 Morales August 31, 2010 at 11:19 am

The company I work for is a steel manufacturer and I would like to know more on how to apply design thinking and innovation strategies to the company. Any suggestions on books, websites or study programs for our executives?


7 Sam Ladner August 31, 2010 at 11:25 am

I’d recommend Roger Martin’s The Design of Business for your company’s executives. They’re likely unfamiliar with abductive logic and Martin does an excellent job of explaining how design thinking’s logic is different that typical deductive, business logic.


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