Design Thinking in Crisis: A report on the Thinkers Corner dialogue with Tim Brown By Rosanna Sibora

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Bettina Rollow Organisational developer, Executive coach

Tim Brown Chair, IDEO

Two years ago I had the privilege of meeting Tim Brown in Vienna, the godfather of design thinking. At this year’s Global Drucker Forum this year we listened to his views on how creativity and design thinking can help us navigate the global crisis and find new paths to a brighter future.

Drucker Forum 2020

Rapid change and its opportunities

The together-alone paradox is our new normal and is challenging all areas of our lives. We realized that conditions can change very quickly and it’s not just technology that moves very fast. Tim Brown pointed out that usually even the most dramatic disruptions take years to play out: “During the pandemic the context in which our systems are operating has changed dramatically quickly. This rapid change created incredible stress in our businesses and systems.” In the redefined world we learned our lesson: “We need ways of dealing with a rapid change, not just in the area of technology. We have to find ways of adapting more speedily than in the past.”

On the other hand, this situation has also created great opportunity: “Evolution is capable of speeding up when conditions and environment change quickly”. This is why we should see the crisis also as a chance for transformation. Not just for companies, but also for societal systems. This is where design thinking can help. Tim expects that we will come out of the crisis amazed by how much innovation has actually happened.

How to shape a better world?

He recalled a quote from Herbert Simon: “Whenever we shape the world to meet our needs, then we are designing.” The world changes either because of nature, accident or intention. The intentional change can be described as a design: “We are designing all the time and everywhere. It’s whenever we wish to shape the world to meet our needs.” Hedescribed design thinking as a “codification of the mindsets and methods that we use to do the shaping of the world.”

He then emphasized the human-centric character of design thinking. Only learning about humans’ needs first makes it possible to imagine solutions to those needs: “Design thinkers are able to imagine things that don’t exist. The more creative the people are, the more unusual the solutions are. It takes remarkable creativity to imagine something no one else ever imagined before.” The process continues with turning the ideas into tangible, valuable things, so that people can interact with it and share their feedback. Constant iterations are the key to success: “That process never stops. Designing keeps going on forever.”

Return on creative capacity

The crisis has redefined the environment around us and its rules. It is essential to overcome the fear and tunnel vision caused by the unexpected change and uncertainty. Fear makes us blind  to new opportunities. Tim emphasized the importance of having creative capacity within the organizations in order to tackle the unexpected challenges: “Those who already had significant creative capacity, were able to respond very quickly to the crisis and pivot activities to do new things.”They were able to define answers to the new problems  extremely fast. The question which leaders should ask themselves is: do we have enough creative capacity to react to unexpected situations? Creativity should not be exclusive. “Creativity is something we should be able to apply on regularly”, he said.

New opportunities for the new world

He also sees the crisis as an opportunity for redesigning many societal systems.

One of the positive outcomes is the way in which we are understanding the potential benefits of ideas like the circular economy: “Having big supply chains, stretched across the globe really causes a problem when we have a crisis. A better blend of local and global and more circular supply chains is going to help us with climate change, resource use and being more resilient in future.”

He further emphasized the urgency to build systems, which can help society cope with change and speed up the adaptation process, so that we leave no one behind. He also invited us to rethink the aspects of systems we are living in: “We need to do a much better job in balancing the needs of different species in the system. Part of that is getting away from the fixation on growth. We have to measure other kinds of activity in our economy. Every system has an ultimate limit to growth, and we are exceeding those limits. We as human beings will pay dearly for that at some point. We already are.”

Experiment, fail and learn

Again Tim offers us a lesson: he suggests applying creativity to think further into the future, to think about more dramatic options. We need to build the habit of imagining our futures, futures which could possibly make our world a better place. An appealing futuristic vision helps society to have more energy to make the vision a reality. It may not be those dramatic versions that get built first, but we can learn so much from that process: “You have to treat failures as learning.” The only true failure is doing nothing.

About the Author:
Rosanna Sibora is Head of IT Innovation at Universal Music.

This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the fully digital 12th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “Leadership Everywhere” on October 28, 29 & 30, 2020.

One comment

  1. Yes, As Designers, we need to do an experiment, fail and learn. That the reason it is called experiential learning.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Godfather of Design Thinking.
    It’s just a willingness to solve the problem to change the current system.
    Awesome article.
    I have also done some research on this, would like to share it with you too.

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