The recent spate of articles on Steve Job’s resignation at Apple (too often sounding disturbingly like obituaries) have focused on the mystery of Job’s approach to his work. They are representative of the ongoing quest to find the recipe or secret sauce that made Apple’s products so dominant in the market place. The focus on design is always mentioned as Apples core competence. Job’s character is often critiqued but mostly the center of attention is on trying to discern his—i.e. Apple’s—design methods and materials. ‘Design thinking’ has become the normative category to use when referring to these or anyone’s methods or approaches to designing.
‘Design thinking’ in fact has become the highly recommended approach for businesses and governments to take. ‘Design thinking’ is being touted in text and video as the next best thing for solving complex dynamic problems faced by business and governmental agencies in today’s admittedly complex and rapidly changing world. However ‘design thinking’ is not the same thing as design inquiry, or design action—i.e. design—and the confusion has serious consequences. ‘Design thinking’ is being sold as a commodity, a branded recipe or set of steps that is supposed to guarantee successful outcomes by revealing the right answers in response to whatever problem descriptions are fed into clever algorithms. Design is not primarily about solving problems however. It is about something different.
When taking a problem focused approach to design, leaders, decision makers and stakeholders can constantly skirt taking responsibility and accountability for their decisions and actions by focusing on methods—by avoiding the courageous and grasping for the certain. Rollo May’s classic The Courage to Create and Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces are examples of an alternative perspective of what it means to be courageous and willing to take risks and why. Courage is not the same as the aggressiveness acted out in office politics and political governance. A focus on courage provides an alternative perspective of the heroic individual. It is dramatically different from the kind of ‘in charge’ hero of popular culture that is the anathema of those touting the importance of the group over the individual and in the process diminishing both. Both May and Campbell provide a view of the systemic interdependency of courageous individuals and their essential connection to the well being of collective lives.
Few business or governmental leaders are representative of the second type of heroic figure and it seems their constituency like it that way. Most everyone colludes in demanding a risk free environment, no worry decisions, and no accountabilities or responsibilities. People in charge are happy to collect their rewards for following prescribed steps, accepted routines and approved procedures—arriving at the right answers, just like we were all taught to do in school.
As Russ Ackoff points out <http://www.acasa.upenn.edu/p19.pdf>, panaceas are ever in demand in business, governmental agencies and other social organizations. One look at a typical Harvard Business Review’s table of contents reveals that the dominant focus is on numbering—numbered steps, numbered categories, numbered everything. We all like the safe feeling of limits set by solid numbers. A methodological certainty that saves us from having to take responsibility for our making sense of the chaos we face daily and making difficult judgments about what actions we ought to take in any situation—all without having guarantors in place to protect us from failures and unintended consequences.
Design is about courage and not about guaranteed outcomes. It is about competency, skill, ability, and character, brought into the service of others—clients, stakeholders, society and the greater good. It is a ‘conspiracy’—a breathing together—of people who understand the true nature of the challenge and the necessity of taking it head on without a bag full of ‘tricks’. There are plenty of people with bags of ‘tricks for treats’ that feed the need in organizations and institutions for easy, accessible and certain approaches to overwhelmingly complex challenges. One of my favorite political cartoons by Danziger published in the Christian Science Monitor several years ago, caught the spirit of our political and business leaders’ habit of always looking for ‘the trick’ rather than looking to themselves for the courage and competence to become designers of the real world.