Design Thinking ≠ Innovation Strategy

But a situational assessment can help create the key linkage!

Is design thinking a strategy? A philosophy? A mindset? A process? A toolkit? These were some of my burning questions as I immersed into the world of design thinking. I was enamored with all its possible applications, including the role it could play in driving corporate innovation, building start-ups, and even designing one’s ideal life.

Much has been written about what design thinking is/is not. As I looked to incorporate design thinking into my world of brand marketing & innovation, I quickly concluded that design thinking by itself, is not an innovation strategy.

Limitations of design thinking as an innovation strategy

Design thinking begins with building empathy for your ‘design target’. But why are you designing for your ‘design target’ in the first place? What are you or your organization trying to achieve at a broader scale? Is your organization trying to solve for world hunger? Is your company a start-up striving to be the market leader for the next gen of virtual reality products? How do you filter & focus your innovation efforts? A good innovation strategy addresses these key context-setting questions. Design thinking by itself, will not.

However, design thinking paired with a strong situational assessment, can be a key foundation for your innovation strategy & process!

Design thinking by itself, lacks the broader context & vision to serve as an innovation strategy. A strong situational assessment can provide this context and bridge the gap between design thinking & strategy. 2 pointers for building a situational analysis:

1. Use a simple framework for your situational analysis

I’ve found something as simple as the classic 3Cs model from Kenichi Ohmae can work wonders as a situational analysis. It’s components include:

  • Customer – Understand potential customer segments, customer needs, market sizing; it’s helpful to spend time identifying your target customer / ‘design target’ up-front before entering the ‘Empathy’ stage of design thinking
  • Competition – Identify who they are, what they stand for, what they offer, and their competitive advantages/disadvantages vs. your organization
  • Corporation/Company – What is your organization’s strategy, vision, reason for being?  What are its strengths & weaknesses?  This information will serve as a helpful guide & filter as you incorporate design thinking into your innovation strategy.

2. Invest the upfront time to build a thoughtful situational analysis

A thorough situational analysis upfront will serve as the guiding star for your innovation strategy & design thinking initiatives, enabling not only speed to market, but also speed to market with the right innovations.

If you are at a large Fortune 500 company, your situational analysis may be fairly straight-forward. Organizational strategy may already be defined and data aplenty. However, if you’re in a more entrepreneurial part of the organization or at a start-up, building a situational analysis may be more nebulous & time consuming. Regardless of where you are, make sure to invest the time to build a thoughtful situational analysis before diving into design thinking for innovation.

Design thinking is not an innovation strategy but a situational assessment can bring the components of design thinking one step closer to a complete innovation strategy. Invest the time to build your situational analysis upfront, your design/innovation team will thank you later!

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