Simplifying the Complicated World of Design Thinking

As part of an ongoing effort to add insight into some of the most successful business tomes, I am pulling my favourite leadership books off the shelf and giving them another worthwhile read.

I know that inspiration comes in many forms: the people you meet, the jobs you hold and, of course, the books you read. As part of an ongoing effort to add insight into some of the most successful business tomes, I am pulling my favourite leadership books off the shelf and giving them another worthwhile read. To get the ball rolling, Tim Brown, bestselling author of Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organisations and Inspires Innovation, kindly agreed to share thoughts on his book, his ideas and his inspiration. This book is essential reading as every business needs to embed innovative thinking and behaviours into its DNA to be sustainably successful.

A quick search will reveal glowing reviews from an impressive list of publications such as Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Business Week - to name but a few. We were also proud to sing the praises of Brown's book in our recent blog, while recognising its ability to bring an "essential way of thinking to the forefront of business, effectively changing the way the world views and values future leaders."

According to the book's jacket, Brown challenges "the myth of innovation [that] brilliant ideas leap fully formed from the minds of geniuses." Given his enthusiasm for the subject, perhaps it was inevitable that Brown's book would become a bestseller. Six years on, it is still the perfect entry into the complicated topic of design thinking. It certainly comes as no surprise that Brown's book should centre on the importance of design, not just for business but for the world at large. After all, Brown is president of an award-winning global design firm IDEO, which takes a human-centred, design-based approach to business. In short, he knows what he is talking about.

Is your book for leaders or designers?

This wasn't explicitly written as a leadership book. The idea was to help leaders deal with a world of constant change - to try and get the idea across that design thinking is for everyone. More CEOs are asking about this though, as any professional designer knows this stuff already.

Do you believe anyone can be a leader?

There are certain kinds of leaders, like the ones we have most revered in the past that do require certain kinds of natural talent, such as willingness to lead from the front. But what we are seeing today is organisations that need to be flexible, agile and innovative. They need a different form of leadership. It is more about creating the stage versus being the star. Curatorial talent of a leader is still valuable, but the notion that the head of the organisation has the best ideas was never a smart one, and it certainly isn't today.

What is the main message of the book?

To apply design thinking to any part of the organisation and anything an organisation does. That leadership needs to exist right down to the bottom of the organisation by putting the tools of design into the hands of everyone.

When did you first come across the term 'design thinking'?

There is evidence that the term was used for decades. But for me, it came from a conversation with (business partner) David Kelley. We knew there was a need to break out of the rather narrow definition of what design was and who did it. We needed a way to talk about design that didn't immediately conjure up The New York Times' style review. We started using [the term design thinking] a lot more - and the world has picked it up.

What made you choose to write a book on the subject?

I was interested in the fact that there was a huge opportunity to have impact on the world in a different way [with respect to] wider designer challenges.

What was your writing process?

I am not a professional author. I wrote the Harvard Business Review article first, about a year before the book. People came to me with the article and asked why I was not writing a book, including publishers. I tried to approach it as a design problem and I got a lot of help from others in the process.

Can we expect another one?

I haven't written a second book because I had a huge body of knowledge - 20 years of my career and IDEO's career - to draw on. Also, the opportunity to communicate and explore ideas online is so big these days and the feedback loop is so much tighter. Now I can have immediate conversations - is that not more powerful than a book?

What do you consider to be your biggest professional achievement to date?

For one, it is having designed IDEO and what it represents to the world. On the other hand, I am tremendously delighted to be a part of a movement to unlock design thinking - unlock a desire for it that wasn't there before. Last year 14,000 candidates applied to work here, and we employed about 100. More young people have [an aspiration] to follow a creative career and make a dent on the world. If I had anything to do with unlocking that desire, I am very proud of that.

How can more leaders encourage innovation?

Companies are designed as optimisation engines. They are designed to do what they do better and better and better. There is little space inside them. Organisationally they need to step back and see what is changing and what we need to do differently. Today's fundamental systems are disrupted so quickly. Internet, social media, connectivity is disrupting every system we have, as is financial instability, social instability and climate instability. Many of the major forces that affect business are changing fast and acting in volatile way. You have to find more space to explore and look for new answers [rather than] optimising a world that probably doesn't exist today and definitely won't in the future. The average life of companies is going down, and maybe as a society we don't care that much - but if you are in one, you should care about it.

What advice would you give to up-and-coming leaders of the design world?

Get as good at creating new choices as you are at making choices. Create choices that you can then make. If all you are doing is choosing from the same set of alternatives that everyone else is choosing then you are probably not asking big enough questions.

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