Archives For divergence and convergence

Living Climate Change

September 29, 2009 — 6 Comments

One of the most important ideas about design thinking is that it creates new ideas that provide new choices for business and society. As we move toward December and the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen I worry that we have far too few ideas to talk about. It is all too easy to argue over what we will have to give up in the search for significant reductions in carbon and yet there is very little discussion about what we might create as we try to resolve the most significant challenge humanity has yet faced.

At IDEO we have been thinking about this over the summer and today have launched a new site we call Living Climate Change that is intended to be a place for just such a discussion to take place. We have produced a few of our own scenarios to get the conversation started and we are trying to link to as many existing interesting ideas as we can. If you know of good design content that should be included then please let us know. In the meantime please check out the site and help us expand the conversation.

Janet Rae-Dupree wrote about design thinking in the business section of the New York Times this weekend. It is good to see the discussion about the broader role for design appearing in the mass media. The article illustrates the very gray line between the traditional role of design and the more strategic contribution that design thinking can make. It is sometimes hard to tell what happened from the physical outcomes alone which adds to the challenge when it comes to explaining what design thinking is. I find it very easy to slip toward describing what is simply good design (based on a relatively conventional brief) or what is good business using normal convergent processes. A test is perhaps whether the business (or organizational, or societal) outcome is significantly different than would have been the case if design thinking had not taken place. In other words, were new choices created not only about the product, service or experience but about the business goal itself? Did a product become a service? Did a service become an experience? Were entirely new users or markets identified? Were new to the world offerings created? These questions seem to reflect the higher bar that I believe we might expect to be the result of a broader application of the design approach.

I do agree with the comments from Lara Lee of Jump Associates and George Kembel of the D-school that we must be leary of claiming design thinking as the perfect and only approach to all problems. The ability to integrate different approaches seems to me to be at the core of design thinking itself and it would therefore be foolish to assume its primacy as a problem solving methodology. My argument would simply be that we have spent the last few hundred years assuming other approaches are best and that it is time to consider design thinking alongside the alternatives.

While I offered a simple view of what makes design thinking unique in the article, the discussion that resulted from my earlier post about definitions of design thinking gives a better impression of the richness of the subject. Check out the comments if you haven’t already done so.

John Maeda (President of RISD) would likely answer that question by saying “a banana”. He often talks about how hard it is to describe design and I agree with him.

On the other hand I think one of the biggest obstacles to using design thinking as an effective problem solving approach is anticipating what it feels like. We are not used to wondering about how processes feel. I think we assume they all feel the same and in conventional business that is probably true. They are mostly analytical, rational, formal and convergent. Analytical in that we break problems up to study them. Rational in that we take an ordered approach. Formal in that we can describe the approach and replicate it easily and convergent in that we start with available choices and work toward a single best solution. We have been experiencing processes like this ever since studying math or science at school.

Design thinking is different and therefore it feels different.

Firstly it is not only convergent. It is a series of divergent and convergent steps. During divergence we are creating choices and during convergence we are making choices. For people who are looking to have a good sense of the answer, or at least a previous example of one, before they start divergence is frustrating. It almost feels like you are going backwards and getting further away from the answer but this is the essence of creativity. Divergence needs to feel optimistic, exploratory and experimental but it often feels foggy to people who are more used to operating on a plan. Divergence has to be supported by the culture.

The second difference is that design thinking relies on an interplay between analysis and synthesis, breaking problems apart and putting ideas together. Synthesis is hard because we are trying to put things together which are often in tension. Less expensive, higher quality for instance. This is where Roger Martin’s idea of integrative thinking is important. Check out his book The Opposable Mind if you haven’t already seen it.

Designers have evolved visual ways to synthesize ideas and this is another one of the obstacles for those new to design thinking; a discomfort with visual thinking. A sketch of a new product is a piece of synthesis. So is a scenario that tells a story about an experience. A framework is a tool for synthesis and design thinkers create visual frameworks that in themselves describe spaces for further creative thinking.

I have always felt that the uncertainty of divergence and the integrative head-hurting complexity of synthesis are the unique characteristics of design thinking and they are also the things that make it really challenging.

The pay-off  is that feeling of flow that comes when ideas come together and take form. Is this when convergence is happening?

I am a big fan of a culture of experimentation as a driver of innovation. I believe it creates the divergence necessary to create the best, and least incremental, options. I also think that if an organization relies on top down direction to achieve that experimentation then it risks missing many of the most interesting opportunities. Steve Jobs aside, large companies have not exhibited a good track record when it comes to picking the right bets and I think that is because they started with too meager a set of choices.

I was wondering what the rule set might be for encouraging bottom-up or emergent experimentation such that you end up with better innovation options without the chaos or diffusion of “letting a thousand flowers bloom”. Here is my take:

1. Assume the best ideas emerge from the organizational ecosystem, including all stake-holders not just employees.
2. Set conditions so that those in the ecosystem who are most likely to be stimulated by changing external factors (technology, business factors, consumer needs, strategic threats or opportunities) are the ones who are best situated and motivated to have new ideas.
3. Do not favor ideas based on the author. Favor the relevance of the content.
4. Do favor ideas that create organizational resonance. Indeed demand new ideas gain a following, even if small and vocal, before giving organizational support.
5. Use the resources of senior leadership (the top-down bit) to cultivate, to tend, prune and harvest ideas.
6. Articulate an over-arching purpose so that the ecosystem has a context in which to innovate without top down control. (John Mackie has done a great job of this at Whole Foods)

None of these rules is necessarily easy to apply, especially for a top-down oriented organization, but I think they might achieve some pretty spectacular results. What do you think?