For the last year or so design thinking has been stalking me. (There are lots of images showing the design thinking process. I found this one here).
I keep ending up in meetings and discussions where someone says we should try using it for a project. I hear it talked about at conferences, and recently saw a presentation in which graduate students showed proposed museum projects devised through a design thinking process. In the last few months I’ve been involved in two attempts to actually use design thinking. In the first case it seemed like a process with quite a bit of potential, but because of the circumstances it ended up being rather truncated. It was an all day workshop and we got to the Ideate stage and then the day ended. Taking it beyond that stage wasn’t part of the plan for the day, but there also wasn’t a plan for taking the imagined projects back into our regular work. Talking through the process was exciting in the day, but as weeks and then months passed and the ideas stayed in the corner, rolled up on giant post it notes, the process began to feel a lot less magical than it did when we were idea-ating months earlier.
The second experience was more recent and was disappointing, even frustrating. Like the first experience, we didn’t get past the ideate stage. Unlike the first time around, those of us who participated had the distinct impression that the organizers had scheduled the day with the ideas that would be going to the prototype stage already identified before the rest of us had begun. We split into groups, and each group came up with a slate of ideas, which were presented to the somewhat glazed over expressions of the organizers. They complimented everyone on how fantastic and creative the day had been, but when the project moved to the prototype stage it incorporated none of the ideas any of the groups had come up with.*
Although one of these encounters with design thinking felt exciting and full of potential, while the other one felt disingenuous, the two experiences were, ultimately, surprisingly similar. In neither case did we get past coming up with ideas. In neither case was there a plan for bringing ideas to the prototyping or testing stages. In neither case was the problem design thinking as a process itself, but instead perhaps an incomplete commitment to the process. And so in both cases a lot of energy was spent on coming up with ideas that never had a chance at being more than ideas. Ideas will only get you so far.
Ideas that aren’t taken out for a test drive are pretty easy to come by (at least I find them to be thick on the ground in my work), and some of them you realize (perhaps even as you’re coming up with them) don’t really deserve a second look in the cold light of day. But some (or many) of them just might work. There’s only a couple of ways to find out if they do: 1) try them out and see if it works; 2) wait for someone else to come up with the idea and try it out to see if it works for them.
I’m pretty sure one of these is more satisfying than the other.
*Since then the idea one group had come up with appeared as a major component of another organization’s project. It’s been very popular (for them).