The Cargo Cult of Design Thinking

I often speak with leaders of organizations, and they tell me they want their people to be more innovative. “Our SVP is wanting our whole group to do that Design Thinking thing,” or “Our company’s growth strategy is dependent on innovation.”

According to the 2015 US Innovation Survey by Accenture, 84% of executives believe innovation is critical to success. Accenture asserts that they just don’t know how to do it. Executives are on the right path, but aren’t effectively instilling innovation in their businesses.

Real problems, real solutions

If organizations really want to drive innovation and create concrete innovative solutions and products, Design Thinking is an excellent place to start. Design Thinking refers to a set of creative problem-solving techniques that are used to discover human-centric, customer-focused solutions to real world problems.

Design Thinking is a highly effective tool for driving innovation in any company. Unfortunately, I hear people complain that Design Thinking does not work – “We tried that, and it didn’t work for our company” or “Design Thinking is not the way to go.”

Agree to disagree

But when I dig into why Design Thinking is not working for them, I get answers like Tim Malbon’s in his article titled The Problem with Design Thinking. “Design Thinking delivers a wonderful day or two off from the realities of boring old business-as-usual. You’ll always remember the day you were let out of your work cubicle (aka veal-fattening pen) to ‘play’ with Sharpies and Post-Its along with colleagues on Brainstorm Island. […] However, in terms of lasting, impactful, commercial innovation, the Design Thinking scorecard doesn’t look so healthy.”

Tim is a founding partner of Made by Many, a digital product innovation and strategy company. He’s a smart guy, but I feel he falls victim to the same type of thinking that many other executives do which I call the “cargo cult of Design Thinking.”

Cult following

A “cargo cult” is a term to describe belief systems that developed among less technologically advanced societies when new and foreign technology was introduced. For example, during World War II, an enormous amount of supplies and equipment were airlifted to the islands of Melanesia, from which the indigenous people benefited greatly. After the war, the shipments stopped and they didn’t know why. To lure back planes loaded with desirable goods, the Melanesians cut airstrips out of the jungle and made replicas of the planes and equipment that had brought the goods that they desired with the hope that the supplies would return.

Hand-made replicas of the planes and equipment that brought cargo.

“Sometimes management works the same way with regard to innovation – they act out rituals and create models of the things they think will bring them the ever-elusive creativity they seek.”

Sometimes management works the same way with regard to innovation – they act out rituals and create models of the things they think will bring them the ever-elusive creativity they seek. They want their workforce to be innovative, but they don’t know how to get it to be. So they’ll do any number of things, such as:

  • Designate a “creative room,” stock it with bean bags, toys, and sticky notes, fill it with team members … and then tell them, “OK, go innovate!”
  • Send some poor soul to a two-day class, and hope they come back and “infect” the entire organization with creativity.
  • Give some other person a title like “Creative Lead,” and charge them with making the organization more innovative.

And so on. To be expected, this cargo cult-style method of introducing innovation doesn’t work.

So what does it take to make design and innovation work for an organization? First, an acknowledgement that design- and innovative thinking are not easy. The Design Thinking process may look simple and fun from the outside, but true creativity doesn’t just happen – it takes knowledge and deep understanding of proven theories and mechanics, training, and above all, practice.

No train, no gain

When you identify an organization that has successfully made Design Thinking part of their culture, you’ll also see that the organization has made a commitment to training.

According to Intuit Labs, “each and every employee is expected to think like an entrepreneur, and it’s everyone’s job to create, to invent, and to look for new and better ways to improve our customers’ lives. […] We all learn the techniques, and practice the behaviors to be innovators and help our customers around the world be prosperous.”

As Brad Smith, former CEO of Intuit explained, “At Intuit, innovation is everyone’s job.” This is the way it should be. Innovation is not just one- or two-day training sessions for a few people; it is a way of working for the entire company. Organizations like Intuit look at training as an investment in their entire workforce.

Investing in training is key to making your organization more innovative and creative. Instead of converting an empty office into a “creative cave” and filling it with toys, find out more about the training course I’ve built for organizations like yours; it specifically makes Design Thinking approachable and doable for non-designers.

If you’d like to explore how this program can transform your workforce, let’s get to know each other.