Design, Collaboration, and the Politics of Value

The political ghettos of Design Thinking (“DT”) are permeable walled communities guarded by terminology trained to give and get passwords, point out permitted roadways and cul-de-sacs, convert visiting pagans, and detect/protect the faithful.

In general, they resemble academia, but one of the interesting inventions of our times is “thought leadership” — idea marketing aimed at neither votes nor sales nor degrees, but at branded popular buy-in of concepts nonetheless.

In that way, thought leadership is a parallel universe aside academia, drafting fuel from it through a few wormholes but having its own accelerators and expansions in what I shall call acamedia.

A key feature of acamedia is the guardian terminology employed. Yet within the protection of its walls, what we see increasingly is gridlock, and outside of its walls what we see increasingly is hype. Taken as a performance measure, these two effects should be good enough to fire the guards, but so far that isn’t happening.

The result is that many parties — from students to consultants to company executives — remain unsure of what to do about DT even after they have been directly exposed to what looked like advisory expertise from the DT community itself.

Proponents of DT continue to run with, across, or over each other without much concern for this problem. Why? Because there are reputations, hires, and sales to be made…


One of the fair questions to ask, then, is what is actually the positive value of the idiosyncratic DT liturgy and lexicon. Short of offering a Grand Unifying Theory, such specialization has the attractiveness of a product feature, as well as supplying “dog whistles” to fans and advocates in the audience, and some techno-buzz for supporting the authentically important move of “design” into more fields as a management mentality and philosophy of operations.

Still, there are persistent arguments about whether DT is a perspective, a model, a prescription, or… Well, whatever it is, what if it just suddenly didn’t exist anymore? What would, suddenly, be missing?

If no one, anywhere, ever again uttered the word “ideation”, would that remove the only practical signpost to a critical chunk of evolved knowledge and action? If not, then why is it used?

And if “classic” DT consists of four (or some say five) canonical interacting parts, why isn’t the classicism recognized by consensus as either a methodology, a process, or a system — instead of whichever one is convenient in the heat of the moment?

Ambiguity about the need for special vocabularies, and the uncertainty about the classification of DT Practice as a whole, explains why many production professionals in many different fields find DT to be possibly just unnecessary as a distinctive idea; and/or, ironically, to be a seductive and highly malleable pattern that mainly brings convenience to their need to explain themselves, whether they really want to be seen as “designing” anything or not.

It is probably worth saying that “designed” is pointless as an idea unless it is felt as “designed for”. This isn’t really difficult to grasp: when you know what the “for” refers to, you’re more than halfway there. All design accomplishes the same thing: an intentional fit-to-purpose. Otherwise, there is no value in saying “design” instead of just saying “change”.

Purposefulness naturally means there is an anticipated “completion” of effort, even if the quality of the effort is not as good as one desires, or if the whole effort gets repeated. This brings up the general notion of a desired future state having a detectable difference from a current state because of the effort.

After all, getting from the “before” (current) state to the “after” (future) state could be, hypothetically, a matter of just waiting around and letting coincidence, accidents and luck grow the results. But a pattern of engagement and intervention is what makes up the “practice” of intentional purposefulness.

What you know you know

Setting aside DT entirely, there is already a recurring pattern found across a large variety of practices. Highly abstracted, it spans the current and the future with several basic interests:

· What is?

· What if?

· Why / why not?

· Who cares?

All of those interests exist simultaneously, are “live” concurrently, and associate continually with each other in what is really a network of interactivity, which is how we know the “span” is a system, not a process.

Here is what it looks like:

We also know that people who do that sort of thing need not ever have heard of Design Thinking to know what they are doing, to say what they are doing, or to do it well. They can even operate fully without a specialized vocabulary:

We can zoom in on the ordinariness of that activity and language and see it all recurring in at least three major strains of practice spanning current state to future state. Let’s stipulate that, in all of the following descriptions of those strains, we only need language good-enough to make the point. The strains are:

· Understanding — develop knowledge

· Creating — develop defined entities

· Producing — develop “deliverable” fulfillment of a demand

And what is the point? Again, just knowing that this range of patterned efforts goes on every day, with no dependencies on “DT” branded theory, lexicon, or motive, tells us a few things.

1. “Using” DT typically promotes collaboration, and there appears to be no reason why a large population of collaborators couldn’t be found from many disciplines; the modes of working are already socialized and familiar if you just point them out.

2.“Not using” DT does not mean that you are failing to meet the primary objectives and tenets of DT. This argues that referring to DT may simply amplify some reasons why already occurring practical outcomes are viable and valuable in your world of responsibilities and demand.

Politically, it is important to have enough perspective to avoid being snared in criticisms such as “the danger of doing DT Lite” or irrational presumptions that what you already do (which you may not call DT) is (mysteriously or stupidly) not human-centered.

Meanwhile, the best reason to dwell on DT is to see if it alerts you about something that (compared to what you’re already doing now) actually increases the value of your outcomes.

Closing thoughts:

Acamedia easily breeds excessive evangelism where simple advocacy would have sufficed.

Don’t expect DT to make change successful; expect change management to make DT worthwhile. DT’s influence should be requested by strategy and controlled by change management.

Finally, an analogy: pursuing good nutrition is not the same as serving food. And physical therapy, training, and exercise seem similar but are three significantly different commitments available, as needed, to some shared purpose. The point being, what are the required types and levels of need within a broad goal? Adopting operational stances aligned with DT’s “parts” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work; scoping and scaling operational adoption is the way to absorb its influence.

[ “Acamedia” and all illustrations © malcolm ryder / archestra research ]

Malcolm is a strategist, solution developer and knowledge management professional in both profit and non-profit companies across business, IT and the arts.