The essence of Design Thinking


That said, what exactly DT means differs depending on who you ask, just like with any relatively new concept. In Montréal’s creative ecosystem—if you gauge by workshops offered via Infopresse, Les Affaires, La Fctry, and more—we’ve adopted the IBM philosophy: DT has become first and foremost a marketing methodology, from customer experience (CX) to user experience (UX).

Through the eyes of these experts and teachers, DT is most notably an approach that puts humans “at the heart of the thinking process.” Which is an excellent starting point to initiate managers into how DT works. That said, this definition does not provide a full understanding of the methodology, and positions DT as an ideation tool to improve a product or service—or, at the very most—a marketing process.

The Design of Business

In reality, DT can be used as a methodology to resolve complex challenges at every level in an organization. Sometimes a complex challenge does not need to place a human at the heart of the thinking process. Sometimes the challenge is a digital one, which requires a machine, building, algorithm, or procedure to be the centre of this process.

In his book The Design of Business, the father of modern DT Roger Martin stresses the essence of the idea: “Design Thinking is the ability to think like a designer.”

“But, Arnaud,” you may be thinking. “Did you bring me this far just to tell me DT is the ability to think like a designer?”

Yup! It’s right there in the name.

Think about it for a minute. How does a designer, artist, painter, or musician think? And how can we incorporate this way of thinking into management? The questions may be easy, but the answers… not so much.

Let me sum up Martin’s idea in a few words: Modern managers like you and me are far too pragmatic, analytical, and mathematical. Our kind found a passion for data in the 1980s and the honeymoon never ended.

When we meet a challenge, we want to frame the problem like a scientist and look for reliable, measurable data to solve a problem in the most linear, least risky way possible. The more binary the solution (in 0s and 1s), the happier the manager. The more difficult the challenge is to frame, the more complex the solution, the more dizzying it is.

But an artist’s approach is very different:

  1. Although an artist has access to data that can influence their creative process, they will rarely classify and analyze this data. Instead, artists rely largely on intuition—the very foundation of creativity;
  2. When staring at a blank page, an artist’s challenge is never clearly defined and certainly not linear;
  3. As the artist finds solutions, the challenge they face will begin to evolve;
  4. The artist must work with trial and error—test and validation. Or else they will never stop staring at a blank page;
  5. An artist is comfortable with risk taking and understands that the reward will pay off.

In other words, the essence of DT is not to put humans at the heart of the thinking process.

More than anything, DT is about enabling a manager and their colleagues to leave room for intuition. They need to view their organization as an incomplete painting that’s ever approaching perfection. They need to create a culture of trial and error and encourage constant, incremental change in the company.

And most of all, they need to accept that they will never be able to solve a complex problem—because complex problems continue to change as they’re being solved. It doesn’t matter if you’re an accountant, finance specialist, HR director, or engineer.

On a personal note, DT comes up in my favourite moments when talking strategy with clients. The confused looks on managers’ faces when I say “Put away your computers, because you won’t be needing Excel spreadsheets for the next 4 hours of this workshop” is just priceless. That’s when the artist suddenly steps into the room.


How about you? Are you a manager who knows how to think like an artist?


Photo credit : Robert Keane / Unsplash

Arnaud Montpetit
Vice-President, Strategy