By Rod Collins
Whether we like it or not, today's business leaders find themselves in a completely different world with a completely different set of rules. They are rapidly discovering that a 19th-century management model is ill equipped to handle the complex challenges of a 21st-century post-digital world. Tim Brown's Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation is an insightful guide for business leaders who are ready to accept that managing at today's speed of change is only possible if they change how they manage.
For the past hundred years, management practices have been shaped and guided by the tenets of analytical thinking. In this context, the fundamental work of management has been defined as problem solving and the pursuit of the “one best way.” Accordingly, managers have been “taught to take a series of inputs, analyze them, and then converge upon a single answer.” This brand of convergent thinking has reinforced the notion that organizational intelligence is essentially a function of individual smarts, which explains why traditional management reveres the heroic leader, the star performer, and the lone genius.
However, Brown points out an overdependence on convergent thinking could be hazardous, if not fatal, in today’s fast changing times. That’s because convergent thinking is not good at discerning the future or exploring new possibilities. When the pace of change is accelerating, the business leader’s central challenge is to create the future when the past is no longer an indicator of what tomorrow will bring. According to Brown, meeting this central challenge requires complementing convergent thinking with divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the capacity to identify options and hold multiple, sometimes paradoxical, ideas in tension to produce breakthrough solutions. Brown refers to this integration of the divergent and the convergent as “design thinking.”
Design thinking is an iterative dance between the nonlinear and the linear, between exploring options and narrowing choices, and between making discoveries and making decisions. Accordingly, design thinking recognizes that our best intelligence comes from the blending of analysis and synthesis, and that each of these processes are equally important. This means that business leaders have to get comfortable with the messiness of the creative process, and they have to learn embrace the chaos that usually precedes the unexpected discovery. In fast changing times, it is the unexpected discovery that often reshapes a market.
Brown correctly counsels leaders that reaping the benefits of design thinking will require a shift from the hierarchical cultures that dominate most of our businesses. Both fast changing times and design thinking call for organizations that are built for speed, innovation, and collaboration. Hierarchies are not designed to support any of these needs because they are inherently slow, incremental, and compartmentalized. However, Brown advises that those leaders who successfully make the transition to a design thinking culture “are likely to become more deeply engaged, more highly motivated, and more wildly productive than they have ever been before.”
When business leaders adopt the disciplines of design thinking, their day-to-day business processes create space for everyone’s voice because they come to understand that nobody is smarter than everybody. They recognize that the key to unlocking extraordinary performance is the capacity to leverage their collective intelligence through the iteration of synthesis and analysis, the integration of the divergent and convergent, and the blending of bottom-up exploration and wise guidance from above. But most importantly, they are fully prepared to manage at the pace of change because their management architecture has been redesigned for speed, innovation, and collaboration.