Design Thinking revisited: A conversation with Scott Underwood

October 27th, 2010 by Patrick Stähler

Following my blog article on Design Thinking and business model innovation, a vivid discussion about design thinking and business model thinking started. Lately, Scott Underwood joined the discussion. For over 20 years, Scott worked in the Palo Alto and San Francisco offices of IDEO, the global design and innovation firm.

During the last dozen years, his role involved writing, editing, speaking, and teaching about design thinking and the company’s history, culture, and processes. Scott is not IDEO’s spokesperson but a person with insights into the design thinking process. I would like to share his insights with you on the importance of the problem

definition phase and of challenging the assumption of your thinking. Below, you find what Scott wrote in his comment. I have added some emphasis to what Scott wrote.

Scott Underwood, formerly with IDEO, on Design Thinking

Patrick, I can’t give an answer that applies to all of IDEO; I’m not a spokesman, so this is my opinion: Despite definitions that we see in books and websites, design thinking remains a fairly fuzzy and dynamic concept — the phrase “nailing Jello to a wall” comes to mind. However, the problem definition phase of a project is a key component, and this is where not only big corporations but individuals like me fail.
People and teams are measured by what they get done. Design thinking asks that, before we try to *do* things, we spend a significant portion of time at the start of a project questioning assumptions. This can look a lot like doing nothing important. It might look like shopping, or visiting a theme park, or interviewing grandmothers, but it doesn’t look like design, and it doesn’t seem to get the project closer to completion.

It’s only when the team gets an insight that helps turn their project in a new and valuable direction that that initial investment of time and energy becomes clear. “Remember that thing we saw? What if we…”

So, I absolutely agree with you: It is crucial to ask the right questions, and I think Design thinking helps give people who are used to solving problems quickly a method (and permission) to slow down and determine whether they are solving the right problems. This may go against corporate culture, because it may mean questioning your boss’s assumptions.

Other aspects of design thinking also have trouble at large companies, like collaboration across departments, and rapid and iterative prototyping, and messy dedicated project spaces, etc., etc. All of these things have been around for decades under a variety of labels. And it’s probably true that both IDEO and design thinking suffer from hype.

But underlying that, everyone I know there is practicing design thinking principles because they are effective, and there’s an honest enthusiasm in promoting them to others — especially to people who don’t see themselves as designers, but who are called upon to “design” in their jobs (whether planning a significant project or improvising an on-the-spot solution) every day.

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