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Storming Design Thinking

Updated: Jul 29, 2019

Making Sense of Harvard Business Review

Hello again Humantific readers. This week we are doing something we don't usually do. In the last few weeks several readers have asked us, via twitter and email, what we thought of an article that appeared recently in the Harvard Business Review so we decided to make this the focus for this weeks’ post. What we thought would not fit in the little comments box over there so we will post it here for our readers…:-)

Upon reading that particular article in the Harvard Business Review by Natasha Iskander ambitiously entitled “Design Thinking is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo” we were reminded that the storming of Design / Design Thinking is not new, taking on many forms over the years, from informed to uninformed and many shades in between. 

With open minds we can see the storming is often useful, at other times counterproductive and occasionally just plain entertaining. For those who might not know, that storming is often coming from inside the design communities as much as from external players, competitors, detractors.


Of course grappling with, or ignoring waves of internal and external storming is a natural part of any vibrant professional community. In reading the rather forceful HBR article I was reminded of Edward de Bono’s “Mechanisms of Change” framework and in particular his reference to “Hegelian Clash” (see image below). There has never been any shortage of storms and clashes in the always turbulent, never quite where it should be Design / Design Thinking community. Not so surprisingly, the rise in popularity of Design Thinking, seems to have attracted, like bees to honey, many detractors from other fields, perhaps not getting the attention they deserve.

Seeing many in the marketplace right now running around chasing the narrowly focused “Agile” it was, in a way actually refreshing to see this HBR attempt at referencing Design Thinking at the scale of societal change. It is a subject that we have contributed to many times over the years so we know it is not without its complications. 

Philosophy is Not Methodology 

Many of our readers will know that since 2005 we have ourselves been among the advocates for a serious rethinking of Design / Design Thinking methods. Since then we have been pointing out a disconnect between broad design / design thinking philosophy and the actualities of narrow design / design thinking methodology, particularly noticeable at the scale of organizational and societal changemaking. 

As a methodology oriented practice, we have for some time, been sharing our perspective that most main-stream forms of methodology being framed today as Design, and or its derivative “Design Thinking” are actually assumption-boxed methods, geared for product/service/experience creation. Not to be too cryptic: Perhaps as much as 90% of the design industry remains focused on selling product/service/experience creation as “Design Thinking.”

Along the way, since 2005, we noted that although the popular notion of transporting the methods and tools from Design Scale 2 (products/services/experiences) to the terrains of Design Scale 3 (organizations) and Design Scale 4 (societies) might in theory sound like a good idea, it seldom works well in the complex real world.

Embracing that difficult realization early on, it was around 2005 when we began introducing the notion of Skill-to-Scale, suggesting that as challenges scale in complexity different methods, skills and tools are going to be required. In everyday practice we have been operating on the other side of that realization since then.

Since it first appeared, Skill-to-Scale has remained a perspective that is 180 degrees different from the traditional notion, still popular in academic design circles that design is a form of magic thinking that can, in its intuitive state, be applied to any scale of challenge anywhere. 

Having presented the case for methodology change within Design & Design Thinking/Doing at many conferences around the world we know that the call for Skill-to-Scale has been percolating in plain sight for years. Certainly it was there for anyone to make use of and we were happy to make that storming contribution. Take it or ignore it, we hope there will always be room for informed internal community storming, as changemaking is what Design & Design Thinking/Doing is supposed to be fundamentally all about.

Image Credit: The OTHER Design Thinking: Moving Beyond the Crossover Era, 2013, Humantific.

“Interpretive Engagement”

Having said that, the rather confused and confusing high profile Harvard Business Review opinion piece by Natasha Iskander, being positioned as thought leadership is unfortunately an example of uninformed, highly presumptuous and surprisingly aggressive storming. How this hiccup ended up being in the HBR is a bit of a mystery but maybe not so surprising given some of the other articles appearing there related to this subject. Very few have advanced the subject.

Natasha Iskander is apparently an associate professor of Urban Planning and Public Service at New York University. Iskander’s storming is not only uninformed but the undertone of it is just plain nasty which undercuts any validity it might have had.

Ironically pointing out that “Most critics have missed the main problem with design thinking” Iskander proceeds to completely miss the central issues facing design in the context of societal changemaking today. She writes close to what the issues are but she drives right by. She cannot quite seem to see what those issues actually are or put them into on-target words. Like an angry boxer in the ring she appears to be flailing with her punches.

In case you missed it, Iskander‘s numerous rather astonishing zingers included these: 

“When it comes to design thinking, the bloom is off the rose.” 

 “[Design Thinking]…is little more then basic commonsense…repackaged and marketed for a hefty consulting fee.”

“[Design Thinking] is a strategy to preserve and defend the status quo…an old strategy”

“[Design Thinking] privileges the designer above the people she serves,…”

“[Design Thinking] is fundamentally conservative.”

“[Design Thinking] privileges the designer and in doing so limits participation in the design process.” 

“[Design Thinking] limits the scope for truly innovative ideas, and makes it hard to solve challenges that are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty.”

“[Design Thinking] bears an uncanny resemblance to an earlier model of problem-solving celebrated in the 1970s and 1980s for the superior solutions it was supposed to produce.”

Rational-Experimental Problem Solving

As if trashing Design Thinking with little knowledge was not enough Iskander also ropes in another community of practice that she describes as “rational-experimental problem-solving” but seems to know little about.

"Rational-experimental problem solving begins with a presumption that the search for a solution starts by relying on existing data about the problem.”

 [Rational-Experimental] approach to problem solving,… was a simplified and popularized version of the scientific method… design thinking is a stylized — some say "dumbed down" version.”

“..both approaches move toward developing a theory about how to solve the problem or design challenge.”

“…both methods advise trying out the proposed solution. It’s called “implementation” in the older approach whereas the newer version exhorts adherents to “prototype.” (Though similar, the latter requires more Post-It notes.)”

”Protecting the thinking and the rational-experimental approach implicitly establish problem solving as the remit of the powerful, especially when it comes design for social ends.”

“They turn the everyday ability to solve a problem into a rarified practice, limited only to those who self-consciously follow a specialized methodology.”

You get the picture. It goes on and on. I stopped counting the flat-out factually incorrect statements at thirty in that piece. I consider it to be no longer useful storming after twenty-five or so factual errors. Suffice it to say there is more competitive fiction there then informed analytical fact.

Without understanding that Design Thinking is not one thing, not one method, not one scale, the author appears to be criticizing one experience she had in the context of public planning where she disagreed with the outcome and blamed the process that she experienced. I have no idea who exactly was driving that train but evidently it did not go well from Iskander’s perspective. She appears to have been making project observations not as a stakeholder but rather as a competing consultant. 

Somewhat oddly the HBR article indicates that Iskander seems to be particularly angry at what she perceives to be existing power dynamics around societal change issues. She evidently seeks to bring that advocacy into cocreation and perceives Design Thinking as a mechanism blocking her from doing so, from taking those reigns.

After considerable noise Iskander comes out of her rambling accusation fog recommending her own expertise in something called “Interpretive Engagement” introducing it as “A Radically Open Alternative.” Typical in this kind of critique expertise is fine as long as it is hers. No big surprise there.

Methodology Whisperer

Jumping from the specific to the general in the worse way possible Iskander competitively paints a rather nasty picture of both Design Thinking and Problem Solving without understanding what she is painting. She appears to be a novice in the subject of innovation methods in general depicting herself forcefully as an expert.

Reading Iskander’s HBR story with your Methodology Whisperer Hat on it is not difficult to see that what she is really describing is what happens when assumptions are made that the tools, skills, focus, process and behavior orientations of Design Scale 2 (products/services/ experiences) apply to the challenges at Scale 4 (communities/societies). What can be seen in Iskander’s story is not a failure of Design Thinking but rather a failure to recognize and clearly articulate that different scales of challenges require different methods, skills and operating system to engage effectively. 

The rather mindbending complexity is that in her HBR case study story it is clear that several parties have been entangled in those misguided assumptions including some folks in the design community. That makes for a difficult, extra complex story that, to be fair, extends beyond Professor Iskander herself.

Since we have been among the firms talking about that methodology mismatch and the need for change for more than a decade it is not difficult for us to recognize the hiccups and the disconnects in such stories. Just to be sure, along the way we went and wrote a book on the subject examining 80+ years of innovation process design across numerous knowledge communities. At this point we are quite certain that the Challenge / Methodology Mismatch exists and is rather widespread. 

With a little more knowledge and enlightenment what Iskander could have said is simply that whatever the name of the approach happens to be, it now seems clear that tools, methods and skills geared and preassumed for product/service/experience creation are not a good fit within the context of highly complex fuzzy societal challenges. We would have been happy to agree with that observation. 

A very different consideration, adding yet another layer of complexity is the authors rather ambitious overlay suggestion that her “Interpretive Engagement” approach trumps Design Thinking.

Image Credit: What Is Interpretive Engagement, 2018, Natasha Iskander, NYU.

There is no evidence in her publically visible materials on “Interpretive Engagement” that comes anywhere near making that case. Looking at the authors one page depictions of her conversational approach there does not seem to be much there-there. 

It seems rather preliminary in comparison to the considerable bodies of methodology knowledge found in the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) and Design / Design Thinking/Doing communities of practice that she is criticizing.

Unless there are additional explanation materials somewhere, to paraphrase Professor Iskander: When it comes to "Interpretive Engagement" that rose has yet to bloom…:-)

I have no doubt many colleagues in the practice community would welcome a side by side comparison between Design Thinking and the “Interpretive Engagement” approach.

Certainly other conversational models including “World Café” have been around for years but are generally considered lite-weight and useful primarily for fact-finding. It is common knowledge that conversational fact-finding is enjoyable but as a standalone it does not create effective outcomes. As useful as conversational fact-finding is, it does not amount to a complete innovation process. After fact-finding other skills are now required that are not yet common to everyone. Those skills now include real-time open challenge framing. How to move beyond just conversations and towards meaningful cocreated human-centered action is an underlying objective of many process models, including the Strategic versions of Design / Design Thinking. 

Of course there are already firms operating in the arena of human-centered organizational and societal changemaking but evidently Professor Iskander has not yet encountered one. In the PostDesign Thinking era, already underway, many human-centered and life centered approach versions are bound to appear, not all of them branded as “Design Thinking.”

Overwriting and or dumbing-down the already rather loosy-goosy “World Café” conversational approach rebranding it “Interpretive Engagement” does not a revolution make. 

Mechanisms of Change

At the end of all the storming and norming, the good news is we each get to decide, not only whether “Interpretive Engagement”, Design Thinking or one of the other emerging hybrid methods now in play advances performance in our various real worlds. We each get to decide which approach adds significant value to the context we are operating in and which amounts to one of those “nothing-burgers”…:-)

From our Humantific perspective the bigger question that springs from this HBR article, perhaps what matters most, is less about the ambitious uninformed details within and more about the question of what kind of Change Mechanisms do we want to engage in the our design communities of practice. Do we want change to be externally driven and or internally driven, or a combination thereof? Who should be driving the change in our own community of practice? Whose responsibility is changemaking?

Do we want to be proactively acknowledging the need for methodology update change in our community and related education institutions and drive it or do we want to wait around for the next uninformed externally driven “Hegelian Clash” wrapped in Harvard Business Review to arrive? 

Edward de Bono reminds us there are numerous Change Mechanism choices and this seems like a good moment to revisit them.

Image Credit: Future Positive, Edward de Bono, Humantific Collection

We all get to choose our Change Mechanisms and not choosing is also a choice.

For Humantific it has not always been easy but we have already made our choice: We gravitate towards these:

Change Through Awareness

Change by Leadership

Change by Alternative Paths

The increasingly complex future is arriving whether we all like it or not. Let’s proactively get ready!

If you are not getting the proactive leadership that you can clearly see is needed in your graduate school, your network, your organization, your department, your team, grab some courage, stand-up and speak-up! Other leadership options and Change Mechanism options are always available to engage.

Good luck to Professor Iskander and to Harvard Business Review.

Good luck to all. 


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