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Design Thinking: Fad or Value-generation tool?


Author: Michel Thiry     Source: PMR
Design Thinking: Is it just a new fad? Is it useful? How to apply it effectively to generate value?

Is it just a new fad?

As an architect, I came upon design thinking very early in my career; we used to brainstorm ideas as sketches and concepts and refine them through a series of divergent-convergent thinking processes to end up with solutions that we could build.

When I started practicing value management in the late 80’s and early 90’s, we used the principles developed by Larry Miles at General Electric in the late 40’s. Larry Miles, who developed Value Analysis, used a “job plan” based on Design Thinking concepts, but went a step further by separating “creativity” and “judgment” in two distinct sequential steps (Miles, 1989).

In 1970, Edward de Bono published “Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity”, that became a bestseller and influenced a whole generation of students and managers. The basic concept of lateral thinking is to go through a lateral (divergent) thinking process before aiming for a solution (convergence). It promotes the use of creative thinking before going into the “solving” process.

Both Miles and de Bono advocated creative ideation to identify divergent and innovative ideas and promoted the progressive elaboration concept, which is now labelled as “Set-Based Design”, as a framework for problem-solving and decision-making. They both promoted solutions that met the customer’s needs over technical “quality” or basic product requirements. Their ideas are the foundation of Total Quality Management (TQM), Lean Management and Six Sigma, among others

So, to answer the first question: Design Thinking is not just a new fad, because it has been around as a structured process for at least 70 years.

Is it useful? 

Design Thinking is first and foremost a decision-making process. Traditionally, the quality of decisions was measured either through “the ‘efficiency’ of the decision process, based on decision theories, or ‘satisfaction’ of the decision-maker with the decision, based on judgement theories.” (Thiry, 2001, p.13). 

The first approach is based on the availability of accurate data, which implies a rational decision process and only works well in low uncertainty, where you have enough data, or in a low volatility context, where you have time to collect data.

The second approach is speculative because it is mostly based on probabilities and projected outcomes. It is only effective in low ambiguity where there is a clear path to the solution, or in low complexity where there is little risk of emergent impacts.

Both the above approaches assume that the decision, once taken, is going to be implemented because the environment will remain relatively static. It has been the basis for business decisions for more than a century. 

In a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) context, where accurate data is unavailable and emergent inputs are continual, these classical measures are useless. Action theory and learning decision models have aimed to counter this difficulty by developing a concept of feedback and iterations (Argyris and Schon, 1978; Senge, 1990).

Design Thinking is more useful than traditional decision models in a VUCA context since it is based on Organizational Learning, the process by which an organization improves itself as it gains experience and based on that experience creates knowledge. In this sense, it is mostly useful when combined with Set-Based Design.

How to apply it effectively to generate value?

Value is a ratio between the alignment with the stakeholders’ expectations and the achievability of the selected solutions. Value generation requires the combination of Design Thinking with Set-Based Design: “considering sets of distinct alternatives concurrently and delaying convergent decision making.” (Gosh & Seering, 2014). 

The process starts with sensemaking (Weick, 1995), a divergent approach used to identify stakeholders’ needs and expectations, as well as engaging stakeholders in the decision process. It is followed by a convergent process to organize those needs expectations into clear strategic objectives (The WHY?). 

A second divergent process of creative ideation is then initiated asking the question HOW? Solutions are then elaborated using a convergent approach to assess alignment and achievability of options and, finally, a choice is made as to which solutions respond best to the objectives.

This process, which can be repeated as required, allows teams to identify key objectives and link deliverables to those objectives in a robust fashion; it also allows teams leading strategic initiatives to set measures for value (a Value Index) and clearly focus the team’s effort in a VUCA context where solutions may need to evolve rapidly while keeping alignment with the goals.

Whereas a traditional approach would use a command and control approach, identifying existing stakeholders, defining requirements and outlining reporting channels; a design-thinking approach requires stakeholder engagement to assess needs and uncover expectations and allows for the building of relationships.

In a low uncertainty, low ambiguity context decision makers can rely on rational decision-making tools, they make big early decisions and use a linear decision process based on predictive planning. In a high uncertainty, high ambiguity (VUCA) context, they will use sensemaking, make series of small ongoing decisions (Design Thinking) and use an iterative decision process based on adaptive planning (Set-Based Approach).


Argyris, C., & Schon, D. A. (1978) Organizational Learning: A theory of action perpective, Wokingham, Addison-Wesley.
De Bono, Edward (1970) Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step, Harper & Row 1973 paperback
Ghosh, Sourobh, and Seering, Warren. "Set-Based Thinking in the Engineering Design Community and Beyond." Proceedings of the ASME 2014 International Design Engineering Technical Conferences and Computers and Information in Engineering Conference. Volume 7: 2nd Biennial International Conference on Dynamics for Design; 26th International Conference on Design Theory and Methodology. Buffalo, New York, USA. August 17–20, 2014. V007T07A040.
Miles, Lawrence D. (1989) Techniques of Value Analysis and Engineering: 3rd Edition. Lawrence D. Miles Value Foundation. Kindle Edition.
Scaled Agile Set-Based Design: 
Senge, P. M. The Fifth Discipline - The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Currency Doubleday, New York, NY. 1994
Thiry, Michel (2001) Strategic Decision Management in Organisations: Towards an integrative model of decision making and implementation, Masters Thesis, Birkbeck College, U. of London (unpublished)
Weick, K.E. (1995) Sensemaking in Organizations. London: Sage Publications

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