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Design Thinking is a popular approach to solving innovation challenges. It is often described as a process: empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test.  It is promoted to address problems that are ill-defined as it re-frames them in human-centric ways, leading to new solutions that can be refined through testing and iteration. Recently there has been criticism that Design Thinking is a flawed tool for innovation and in a wider context, as a problem solving tool as it tends to gravitate towards solutions that are elitist and maintain the status quo.

So where does Design Thinking come from? Design is a creative problem solving skill that has evolved over centuries. It was the Modernist movement that in the early 20th century helped set the scene for today’s practical and aesthetic design solutions that can be manufactured at low cost. The ideas behind Design Thinking started life in creativity research in the 50’s and 60’s and more recently crystallised at Stanford University before being popularised for the wider business community by David Kelly, founder of IDEO.

As a designer at the start of my career in the ‘80s I was struck by the radically different approaches to design taken by the engineering and industrial design professions. You could say engineering design was based on the scientific method (collect data, analysis and conjecture, hypothesis, experiment and review) with plenty of mathematical analysis and optimisation based on first principles. In contrast, industrial design placed personal creativity, taste and empathy with consumers as the most important skills, validated by stories of the design heroes of the past with their seminal work displayed in museums and galleries.  

In business, academic research has shown companies tend to adopt one of three generic models of innovation; technology lead, market lead and ‘fast following’. It’s a generalisation, but you can see how those from the engineering design camp might resonate with the technology lead strategy, believing that innovation flows from a technology breakthrough.  Those from the industrial design camp naturally align with a market lead approach, looking to new trends and needs in society to create opportunities. Finally, those who are most interested in the short-term bottom line may adopt the ‘fast follower’  model as the most pragmatic strategy.

If you look at the hot innovation sectors today, take Digital as an example, success depends on integrating both the technology and market lead strategies.  Creating completely new business models by better meeting customers’ needs using the most effective technology. This needs a truly holistic innovation approach and exemplars are simply today’s most valuable companies, so this logic is undeniable. 

So is Design Thinking a joined up approach that integrates traditional engineering and industrial design processes? It is certainly associated with the well-known Venn diagram linking what customers want with what is technically possible and commercially viable.

But is it the way that successful innovators think today? OK, this is an unfair challenge. Design Thinking is a simplified model that resonates with a wide audience and succeeds in encouraging some important behaviours. It makes the customer the primary reference point for innovation, something that is surprisingly easy to forget when technology becomes too exciting or daunting. It encourages questioning assumptions and the group working that is often absent in siloed organisations, essential when agile disrupters are snapping at your company's heels.  It also champions creativity that is a skill often driven out of companies in their search for operational efficiency.  It finally encourages a learning approach using experimental iteration and minimum viable products, to improve ideas based on customer feedback, avoiding the confirmation bias that can sometimes fool teams into inadvertently launching a product that won’t succeed in the market.

However, on the other side of the coin I believe Design Thinking can introduce fatal flaws for the unwary innovator and this is why we have created our own proprietary approach to innovation at Cambridge Design Partnership, called Potential Realised. Like Design Thinking, our approach is consumer centric, creative and based on learning, but it’s a more demanding, professional framework that requires an expert delivery team with a broad range of specialist skills, particularly because it is compatible with the ISO13485 and FDA standards for medical device development.

There are three major differences between Design Thinking and Potential Realised. While keeping the consumer at the heart of the program, Potential Realised fully integrates the key role that technology plays in innovation and the specialist capabilities needed.  There is a focus on the fundamental principles of the scientific method, placing learning and evidence centre stage.  This is essential to deliver technically complex products efficiently and to minimise the cognitive biases that can adversely influence outcomes. A good example is the emphasis Potential Realised places on gathering objective evidence at the front end of innovation when it can be difficult to obtain, rather relying on ‘empathy’ with the target market.  Evidence is vital at this stage because the right decisions have a profound effect on the final commercial outcomes and project costs. Built into Potential Realised are the stages needed to obtain these vital facts. 

It also recognises that iteration, while an efficient approach when costs are low at the front end, becomes an expensive mistake as investment rises and as the innovation gets closer to market. When implementation costs are in seven or eight figures your process has to include a high level of integrity.

Finally, Potential Realised is firmly based on the holistic nature of innovation, recognising a successful product launch is only as good as its weakest link and making sure all the design, technical, and business activities have their place and integrate together throughout the project to avoid pitfalls and most importantly, to allow the innovation process to be optimised financially. 

While Design Thinking is certainly a part of how successful innovator thinks, Potential Realised’s scope is much bigger; it is scalable to even the largest projects and it actively optimises the return on your investment in innovation.  It achieves this with building blocks that uncover the best possible commercial opportunity and create an efficient technical implementation and manufacturing capability.

If you would like to learn more about how Potential Realised can do this for your business, please get in touch.

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