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Harvard Downstreams Design Thinking?

Updated: May 1, 2019

Humantific CoFounder GK VanPatter has published another post in his popular ongoing “Making Sense Series.

“We were delighted last week to see Harvard Business School doing a heads-up in the direction of the already existing design thinking leadership movement! Ten + years after it began that is real and long awaited progress! Wooooo Hooooo!

Rather slow to recognize the business communities significant interest in next generation design thinking capacity building Harvard Business School announced that it has awakened to the opportunity and will be in 2016 formally jumping into the design thinking education business.

“Harvard Business School is emphasising design thinking as one of its big focus areas for leadership teaching in the days ahead.”

Being strategic design practitioners involved in the innovation leadership skill-building and innovation methodology communities for many years we were particularly interested to see what Harvard has in mind…:-)”

“It seems to be not 100% clear why Harvard, with all of its resources, would choose a person with no strategic design practice or design education background to lead such an important initiative but this route taking has been seen in other graduate business schools as well. It sets an odd tone of leadership if the subject is to be design thinking in real world application settings. To us such maneuvers are rather fundamental red flags but diversity of offerings in the marketplace are always welcome and inevitable.

The good news is that Harvard’s initiative leader, professor of business administration, Anthony Mayo is seeing design thinking as a new form of leadership.

“Our philosophy at Harvard is that [other business schools] everybody has leadership…Going forward [our] big focus [at Harvard] is [going to be] leading innovation and leading change.”

Of course our Humantific readers will recognize that the innovation and changemaking leadership orientation aspect of Harvard’s announcement aligns with what we have been teaching organizational leaders for a decade.

The other part of the Harvard news, perhaps disappointing to some, but not surprising, was that like many other graduate business schools Harvard seems to have settled on assuming that design thinking for its students will be about creating products and services (Design 2.0).

Harvard’s “Mayo said design thinking basically means not designing a product or service in a vacuum.”

Suffice it to say that perspective differs from what is already going on in the strategic design practice community. Mayos’ rather old-school understanding is known in the strategic design practice community as the downstream “stay in the box” view of design thinking as it represents an already superceded foreshortening. Ten+ years out in front of that logic the strategic design practice community has never agreed to surrender to such a limited perspective of possibilities for design & design thinking.

From a methodology perspective, making those kinds of product/service outcome assumptions up front would seem to place the Harvard design thinking methodology downstream from the methods being taught by Humantific Academy.

What Professor Mayo appears to be talking about is technically not design thinking but rather product design thinking and service design thinking being knowingly or unknowingly redepicted as what design thinking is at Harvard. That misstep is widespread in the business schools and well as in mainstream business media. This is one reason why strategic design practice leaders don’t look to the graduate business schools for methodology innovation. In the arena of design thinking knowledge the graduate business schools are essentially playing catch-up on a steep and shifting learning curve.

Not often talked about, the giant built-in assumption found in such downstream methods is that your organizational challenges have at the outset already been predetermined to be product or service related and thus will be the outcomes. To say this in another way: All outcomes of downstream methods are products, services or experiences regardless of what the actual challenges might be.

Our readers will know that this is not what we are teaching in Humantific Academy.

In the context of complex organizational and societal changemaking making such assumptions up front doesn’t make much sense. Experience tells us that in organizational and societal change settings (Design 3 & Design 4) using tools that assume you know what the challenges are at the outset is a recipe for a lot of expensive innovation misfires. We can have those kinds of methodolgy conversations with our Humantific clients as we have no product creation legacy orientation, as many of the American graduate design school programs do that are now being copied by the graduate business schools.

If in your organization, the strategic work has already been done to determine that your challenges are product, service or experience related then downstream design thinking methods are useful. If your leadership team recognizes that your organizational challenges are fuzzy and or uncertain don’t get stuck in downstream situational methods, whatever the creative repackaging might be.

Not always being made clear by the graduate business school programs, we already know that the methods of design thinking differ from challenge scale to challenge scale. Beyond the marketing rhetoric, innovation methods have to match the type and scale of the intentions, in order to be effective. This realization known as skill-to-scale has not yet arrived in the vast majority of graduate business school design thinking programs that now exist.”

[Figure 1: NextDesign Geographies Framework, 2005-2016, GK VanPatter & Elizabeth Pastor]

In actuality properly executed design thinking makes no up front assumptions that the challenges are known at the outset. If you are making challenge and solution assumptions up front you are already downstream.

In Anthony Mayo’s description of what Harvard Business School has in mind we also noticed a heavy emphasis on “empathy”as if that alone was going to be a holy grail. Certainly our Humantific readers already know that human-centered empathy is a basic design thinking orientation and not in itself a methodology….:-)

At the end of the day focusing on teaching downstream design thinking methodology won’t place Harvard Business School in a position to reflect what is already going on in the strategic design practice community, let alone lead it. Regardless it is great to have Harvard joining the design thinking leadership party. It seems likley that their participation will heighten basic awareness of design thinking in the business community.

Humantific has been teaching how to apply team-based strategic design thinking to organizational challenges for a decade. For us design thinking is not a hot topic, not the flavor of the month, not a band-wagon to jump onto but rather deeply fundamental to how we do what we do with organizational leaders in real world settings. That on-going experience informs how we teach others what is at this point a hybrid approach to innovation, collaboration and changemaking.

The organizational leaders building innovation skill and capacity with us in Humantific Academy recognize that they face a wide range of often fuzzy organizational and societal challenges/opportunities. They recognize that organizational innovation and changemaking leadership is not just about creating more products, more services.

Our Humantific focus remains on deeply up-skilling, not tactically focused product/service creation personal, but rather adaptable, strategic design thinking leaders.

Good luck to all.



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