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 / Autumn 2009 / Issue 56(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Thought Leader Interview: Tim Brown

So how do we do a better job of creating new choices? Classically, most organizations, when they think of innovation, tend to think fairly narrowly in terms of technological R&D. But if you go back to Peter Drucker and his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Harper & Row, 1985), he described seven sources of innovative opportunity, and only one is technology. [The others are the unexpected, incongruities, process need, changes in industry structure, demographics, and changes in perception.] Most corporate R&D teams don’t have particularly good mechanisms for drawing on these other sources and creating new choices on a continuous and sustainable basis. But designers — through happy accident, not through intent — have gradually discovered a set of approaches that work reliably.

S+B: How can you tell when an organization is practicing design thinking?
Its offerings meet the unexpressed needs of the people it’s trying to serve. At its best, the design profession creates relationships between people and technologies — either classic forms of technology like iPods and automobiles; or the technology of our built environment, such as a city’s rapid transit system; or the technology inherent in methods of communication, like those of an organization. By better understanding the needs of those you’re trying to serve and expressing those needs in the form of insights that you develop and prototype, you end up with new and interesting choices.

S+B: Does this take a particular talent, or can you get there through processes and practices?
I fall on the “process” side in the “genius or process” debate about innovation and creativity. We were all really good at this stuff in kindergarten. We can all make things, even if we’re not experts in a shop; we can act things out; we can tell stories; we can look at the world and draw insights. These are basic human capabilities. Most kids are comfortable using building blocks to figure out, say, how high the stack will get before it falls over. They draw pictures to visualize their ideas. They design constantly.

Of course, many people get the creativity beaten out of them in the conventional school experience. Professional education systems have invested enormous amounts — appropriately — in educating people to be great analytical thinkers. But they haven’t invested much in educating creative thinkers. An awful lot of designers didn’t do particularly well in conventional schools, and went off to art school or elsewhere.

S+B: Say more about the nature of a design thinking process.
All the methods that improve thinking, whether the scientific method or any analytic approach, are processes. You don’t have to be analytically gifted to use them. Design thinking is another such method. It can be used relatively reliably by people who aren’t necessarily thought of as being creative.

But unlike more analytical methods, design thinking taps into intuition as well as rational thought. You can’t put your process into boxes and check everything off, and that is one of the challenges of any creative methodology.

In fact, the same challenge exists within the scientific method. How do you get to your hypothesis? Often through a creative leap. The best scientists use intuition to form their hypotheses and then prove or disprove them through experimentation and analysis.

In the past, some people have tried to define design methods as either purely creative — as if just “getting out of the box” were enough — or purely analytical. In the 1960s, the design movement got so dry that it wrung every last bit of intuition out of the process. Generally, when you get to either extreme, it leads to less-effective solutions.

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