Forget Design Thinking and Try Hybrid Thinking

When A.G. Lafley was named CEO of Procter & Gamble during the summer of 2000, the task of turning the organization around looked overwhelming. The price of a share in the consumer packaged goods giant had declined by nearly 55% in just two months. The company was missing revenue and profit targets as it learned to grapple with the Internet and new global competitors. To remain the world's preeminent maker of useful stuff for the house, P&G needed to make a lot of changes very quickly. Lafley saw design as being central to P&G's transformation. Design promised to unleash the creativity of the organization and find new ways to unlock value that a marketing-driven company might not have discovered. To lead the charge, Lafley appointed Claudia Kotchka as the company's first-ever VP for design strategy and innovation in 2002. Her job was remarkably ambitious: Make innovation happen at P&G.

Procter and GambleAnd she did. In her nine years in the role, Claudia up-ended the status quo in P&G's product development process. She placed designers within the company's many business units so they could shape strategy directly instead of just designing how products looked. She educated businesspeople in the company about the strategic impact design could have. She formed a board of leading external design experts who offered guidance for how to make P&G into a world-class design organization. Over time, her efforts have P&G to once again become one of the most innovative companies on earth. Between 2000 and 2008, revenue more than doubled from $40 billion to $83 billion, while earnings took a gigantic leap from $2.5 billion to more than $12 billion. This growth is the kind of performance one expects from an IT company or a firm operating in an emerging market. Not a 200-year-old soap company based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Claudia's success has been celebrated in many corners as a triumph of design thinking. Though its definition varies depending on who you ask, most of its proponents (including many at P&G) agree that design thinking is any process that applies the methods of industrial designers to problems beyond how a product should look. My mentor at Stanford, Rolf Faste, did more than anyone to define the term and express the unique role that designers could play in making pretty much everything. Not just products, but services, experiences, and presumably finance, education, and government, as well. By this standard, what Claudia achieved at P&G is perhaps the most impressive accomplishment of design thinking's relatively recent heritage. She took what she knew about design and applied it to a broad array of problems faced by one of the world's largest corporations. On the face of it, Claudia's tenure at P&G is a testament to the power of thinking like a designer.

Here's the problem: Claudia Kotchka isn't a designer. She's an accountant by training. And she spent most of her career working in marketing. It would be hard to envision a business executive with a more traditional background. While Claudia's success makes a great case study for the triumph of a designer finally being brought into the conversation, it's just not true. And it calls into question whether design thinking is really the missing ingredient in innovation.

Procter and Gamble

Indeed, the real power of Claudia's story is that she isn't a designer. I see this phenomenon all the time: accounts who lead a design revolution, former journalists who manage a technology lab, even doctors who become agents of organizational change. All of these cases suggest that something bigger is going on, more powerful than the adoption of a single school of thought. The secret isn't design thinking, it's "hybrid thinking": the conscious blending of different fields of thought to discover and develop opportunities that were previously unseen by the status quo. Claudia's lack of experience as a designer didn't make her a weaker proponent of design, it made her a stronger one. She immersed herself in design thinking and then merged it with her experiences in accountant thinking, marketing thinking, and several more besides. To walk away concluding that design thinking is what makes P&G great would be like going to the movies and concluding that Indiana Jones is a great hero because he always wears a hat.

Hybridity matters now because the problems companies need to solve are simply too complex for any one skillset to tackle. We're in an era when car companies are trying to grapple with massive changes in technological capability and market need, when cell phone companies are trying to own global entertainment, and when snack food companies face extinction unless they figure out how to promote health and wellness. As Lou Lenzi, a design executive at Audiovox, once told me, if you want to innovate, "You need to be one part humanist, one part technologist, and one part capitalist."

Alton BrownHybrid thinking is much more than gathering together a multidisciplinary team. Hybrid thinking is about multidisciplinary people. John Lasseter, the co-founder of Pixar and creator of Toy Story, isn't beloved and admired because he's good at technology. We love him because he effortlessly fuses technology, art, and storytelling. Alton Brown, star of Good Eats, began as a TV producer, then decided to learn how to cook and became fascinated by food science in the process. His program on Food Network is a potent admixture of cooking show, science class, and sketch comedy, wrapped into one of the slickest how-to shows on TV. It's particularly interesting to note how many proponents of design thinking are actually hybrid thinkers themselves. David Kelley, the celebrated founder of the design firm IDEO, has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon in addition to his master's in design from Stanford.

My own personal experience is that hybrid thinkers make for a much more interesting day at work. At Jump Associates our staff includes a former partner at Deloitte who's also an award-winning sculptor. We've employed a Ph.D. in cognitive science who's also a filmmaker. And another one of my colleagues has an MBA as well as degrees in Chinese language and international relations. Jump is constantly on the hunt for hybrid thinkers, folks who can connect the dots between what's culturally desirable, technically feasible, and viable from a business point of view. And to be sure, it hasn't made our recruiters' lives any easier. We live in a society that prizes depth in a single field of research over breadth in multiple areas. Innovation, however, demands that you see the world through multiple lenses at the same time, and draw meaning from seemingly disparate points of data.

Without a doubt, design thinking is an important new body of knowledge for companies seeking to expand their capacity to innovate. But the goal isn't to shift from one mindset to another. Learning new ways to think isn't very helpful if you forget what already know.

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Claudia Kotchka: The Interpreter

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Dev Patnaik is the CEO and founder of Jump Associates, a firm that helps companies create new businesses and reinvent existing ones. A trusted advisor to senior executives at some of America's most admired companies, including GE, Nike, Target and Hewlett-Packard, Dev is also an adjunct professor at Stanford University, teaching design-research methods.

His book Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, making the audacious argument that the human power of empathy is the source of all innovation, was published in spring of 2009 by the Financial Times Press. A frequent speaker at marketing, design and innovation forums, Dev was recently featured as a guest on "The Business of Innovation," a series on CNBC. His articles on innovation and strategy have appeared in several publications including BusinessWeek, Brandweek and the Design Management Review.

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  • Rasul Sha'ir

    Great article. Our company Cnvrgnc (convergence without the vowels)is engaged in this exact type of thinking and work. My experience as an architectural designer, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, a marketing strategist and an education trainer for a non profit is exactly hybrid thinking aka design thinking. We've built our company's identity and our competitive advantage on thinking at the intersection to build brands and business models in the 21st century(influenced by Frans Johannsen's book the Medici Effect). Great article.

    Rasul Sha'ir

  • Steve Portigal

    Dev - great storytelling and deep insight, as usual! But as we struggle to define what we collectively do, and what kind of people to train/hire, and so on, is there really value in adding another term into the mix, especially when trying to supplant an existing (if troubled) term? t-shaped people doing innovation ethnography using hybrid design integrated abductive thinking. Is this the sign of a field evolving or disintegrating?

    I suffer the consequences over label confusion as much as anyone else does; but has this ship sailed? Are we just throwing competing brands at each other and hope that one of us has the breadth of audience to get it to stick?

    Portigal Consulting -
    All This ChittahChattah -

  • c. sven johnson

    That it's taken so long for the broader discussion to finally reach this point is troubling.

  • Dwayne King

    Dev, I agree with most of what you say, but disagree on one of the core elements of your article. To say that "laudia Kotchka isn't a designer" because she's an accountant and marketer doesn't jive with my definition of the word. You could say that she's not a graphic designer nor industrial designer, but I could say she is indeed a designer and design thinker.

  • Chris Grams

    Hi Dev! Great piece, and, having heard her speak a few times, I certainly agree that Claudia is a natural interpreter between the language of reliability and the language of validity, and there aren't that many good interpreters out there... Also agree with Nicolae's comment below that Roger Martin is the leading authority on this interpreter role between design-minded people and "business-minded" people... I wrote a plea to Seth Godin a few weeks ago in my blog that perhaps he might consider this role too and referenced Roger Martin's work . We need more interpreters out there, people. Thanks for writing such an interesting post!

  • Jason Lombard

    Thank you for the well written article, though I must disagree with the basic premise.

    What you've described as hybrid thinking is really still just design thinking. You don't need to be a designer (by education or otherwise) to practice design thinking. CEO's, marketing staff, engineers are all capable of design thinking and could be considered, therefore, designers on some level. As humans, we act according to the sum of our knowledge, experiences and relationships. So anything that an individual person brings to the table—including educational and vocational backgrounds, even if diametrically opposite traditional "design"— will simply make them a better, more well-rounded design thinker.

    To read more on this topic from someone who knows for more than myself, check out Marty Neumeier's book, The Designful Company. The book contains more than enough evidence that the example which was cited in the article above is really just a well-executed example of design thinking.

  • Nicolae Halmaghi


    Your assessment makes total sense. I am not sure whether the term Hybrid Thinking is different from Roger Martin’s Integrative Thinking.

    Design Thinking AND Design Doing create the settings and conditions that induce creativity. Design Thinkers select the corresponding tools that generate models, visualize scenarios and strategies in order to create contextual clarity for the stakeholders involved. Looking though the same lenses, it enables all participants to influence the outcome; independent-in sync-together.

    I have always argued that Design Thinking can operate only in context to Integrative Thinking, Lateral Thinking, Holistic Thinking or Whatever Thinking. It provides the glue, the link, the enzymes that induce creativity and create platforms that generate communal sense-making. By itself Design Thinking has very little impact. Paired with any domain it can deliver amazing results.

    I agree with you, Claudia Kotschka is not a Design Thinker. She is brilliant, enlightened, business strategist who, with the support of a visionary leader, curated the right DT-team and let them do their job.

    Nicolae Halmaghi

  • Troy Scheer


    This is a great piece. I will share it heavily. :)

    Troy Scheer