Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What's Next?

The decade of Design Thinking is ending and I, for one, am moving on to another conceptual framework: Creative Intelligence, or CQ. I am writing a book about Creative Intelligence, due out from HarperCollins in fall 2012, and I hope to have a conversation with the Fast Company audience on this blog about how we should teach, measure, and use CQ. Why am I, who at Business Week was one of Design Thinking’s major advocates, moving on to a new conceptual framework? Simple. Design Thinking has given the design profession and society at large all the benefits it has to offer and is beginning to ossify and actually do harm. Helen Walters, my wonderful colleague at Business Week, lays out many of the pros and cons of Design Thinking in her post on her blog.
Design consultancies hoped that a process trick would produce change.
I would add that the construction and framing of Design Thinking itself has become a key issue. Design Thinking originally offered the world of big business—which is defined by a culture of process efficiency—a whole new process that promised to deliver creativity. By packaging creativity within a process format, designers were able to expand their engagement, impact, and sales inside the corporate world. Companies were comfortable and welcoming to Design Thinking because it was packaged as a process. There were many successes, but far too many more failures in this endeavor. Why? Companies absorbed the process of Design Thinking all to well, turning it into a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation. Call it N+1 innovation. CEOs in particular, took to the process side of Design Thinking, implementing it like Six Sigma and other efficiency-based processes. I had a conversation with IDEO’s Tim Brown at Parsons recently and his analysis is spot on: Design consultancies that promoted Design Thinking were, in effect, hoping that a process trick would produce significant cultural and organizational change. From the beginning, the process of Design Thinking was a scaffolding for the real deliverable: creativity. But in order to appeal to the business culture of process, it was denuded of the mess, the conflict, failure, emotions, and looping circularity that is part and parcel of the creative process. In a few companies, CEOs and managers accepted that mess along with the process and real innovation took place. In most others, it did not. As practitioners of design thinking in consultancies now acknowledge, the success rate for the process was low, very low.
The success rate for design thinking processes was very low.
Yet, the contributions of Design Thinking to the field of design and to society at large are immense. By formalizing the tacit values and behaviors of design, Design Thinking was able to move designers and the power of design from a focus on artifact and aesthetics within a narrow consumerist marketplace to the much wider social space of systems and society. We face huge forces of disruption, the rise and fall of generations, the spread of social media technologies, the urbanization of the planet, the rise and fall of nations, global warming, and overpopulation. Together these forces are eroding our economic, social, and political systems in a once-in-a-century kind of way. Design Thinking made design system-conscious at a key moment in time. I don’t think the rise of Humanistic Design would have been possible without Design Thinking. And for all my concerns about it, Humanistic Design is a huge advance in the field and the great work done by the Acumen Fund, Project H, Parsons' students at Memorial Sloan Kettering, Stanford's K-12 initiative, Ideo at the Mayo Clinic and Kaiser Permanente would not have occurred without the advent of Design Thinking. The new programs in Social Innovation at Parsons, School of Visual Arts, Stanford, Columbia, and elsewhere would never have been developed. But it was creativity that Design Thinking was originally supposed to deliver and it is to creativity that I now turn directly and purposefully. Creativity is an old concept, far older than "design." But it is an inclusive concept. In my experience, when you say the word "design" to people across a table, they tend to smile politely and think "fashion." Say "design thinking," and they stop smiling and tend to lean away from you. But say "creativity" and people light up and lean in toward you. Everyone likes creativity because everyone believes they are, or were, or can be creative. And they are right. The truth is that the best scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, soldiers, CEOs, sports coaches, hockey players, and World of Warcraft players are all creative. That scaffolding of Design Thinking, that collection of behaviors is the heart and sole of creativity. It includes being attuned to the people and culture you are immersed in and having the experience, wisdom, and knowledge to frame the real problem and—most important of all perhaps—the ability to create and enact solutions. Design Thinking broke design out of its specialized, narrow, and limited base and connected it to more important issues and a wider universe of profit and non-profit organizations. I believe the concept of Creative Intelligence expands that social engagement even further.
Everyone believes they are, or can be, creative. And they are right.
So what is Creative Intelligence, or CQ? Let me start by saying it is a concept in formation and I hope our conversation over the next months will give it a true, deep meaning. Above all, CQ is about abilities. I can call them literacies or fluencies. If you walk into one of Katie Salen's Quest to Learn classes or a business strategy class at the Rotman School of Management, you can see people being taught behaviors that raise their CQ. You can see it in the military, corporations, and sports teams. It is about more than thinking, it is about learning by doing and learning how to do the new in an uncertain, ambiguous, complex space—our lives today. At this point, I am defining Creative Intelligence as the ability to frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions. You can have a low or high ability to frame and solve problems, but these two capacities are key and they can be learned. I place CQ within the intellectual space of gaming, scenario planning, systems thinking and, of course, design thinking. It is a sociological approach in which creativity emerges from group activity, not a psychological approach of development stages and individual genius. Let me end by telling you my dream: It’s 2020 and my godchild Zoe is applying to Stanford, Cambridge, and Tsinghua universities. The admissions offices in each of these top schools asks for proof of literacies in math, literature, and creativity. They check her SAT scores, her essays, her IQ, and her CQ. Now, please join me in a conversation about Creative Intelligence. Where should we go with it? How should we shape and measure it? What kind of stories do you have to illustrate its power? What K-12, college and grad schools are trying to teach it? Where do we go with it? I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments. [Top image by Kevin Dooley]

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