Photo by:  Jos van Wunnik

Photo by: Jos van Wunnik

Design thinking is often referred to as a toolkit, and the metaphor can be apt (however, I have yet to hear design thinkers called handymen or women, despite how handy we can be). On any given project, design thinkers use a series of frameworks and activities to uncover human needs, synthesize findings, ideate broadly, build prototypes, and test assumptions. The process can feel akin to carpentry; sizing up each task of the project, reviewing the toolbox, and selecting the appropriate tool for the task at hand.

But the metaphor invariably disappoints when it is relied upon the most. Imagine: you are in line for lunch on a Wednesday, the last day of a three-day design thinking workshop where you, your colleagues, and your executives have been re-envisioning future states of your business —and you are exhausted. You’ve reviewed the research, uncovered the insights, brainstormed yourself dry, and prototyped half a dozen of your most promising concepts — but the customer is unimpressed.

What went wrong?! You and your team used the tools! You followed instructions and hammered away at the problem, generated countless possibilities and even built solutions to show the customer, a process that normally takes you and your competitors months! This whole design thinking craze is starting to feel like an overhyped scam.

Actually, the “toolkit” did precisely what it was designed to do: test assumptions creatively, instead of debate them in a conference room. While each step has inputs and outputs, they have no built-in quality control. Quality depends on whomever is using the “tool.” And, just like the tools in your garage, mileage counts in design thinking. Just as an experienced carpenter would not give a power drill to a kid who has never used a screwdriver, not all design thinking frameworks and activities are appropriate for all participants. In fact, calling them “tools” is misleading.

We need to think of design thinking “tools” as a whetstone for your creativity. Design thinking is not a linear process and the outcomes are not always effective—quite the opposite! Design thinking is a creative mindset that embraces getting lost in the woods — failing early and failing often in order to learn as much as possible. While you shouldn’t rely on design thinking workshops to resuscitate every entrepreneurial venture in your portfolio, your team will certainly leave a workshop feeling more creative than they have since grade school.

It’s the poor carpenter who blames his tools — so ditch the “tools.” First decide where you want to more creatively meet your customers’ (or new customers’) needs. Then dust off the activities to hone your skills and embrace the failures (and learnings!) that inevitably come with creativity.

How do you hone your design thinking skills? Leave a comment below or send me a message: @madeemology

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