Implementing Design Thinking 2: Have the Guts to Say it Sucks

By Brian Ling November 17, 2011

I’ve found that one of the big reasons why Design Thinking fails in organizations, is that no one has the guts to stand up and say that an idea/concept/proposition sucks.

This point is an extension of our last article where we encouraged you to focus on the outcome rather than the process. In this article we encourage you to make sure that there is a good filtering system in place and a team of highly engaged people.

There are many reasons why people do not highlight something that sucks. Here are a few that I can think of:

1) There is no culture of creativity or space to make mistakes in an organization. When people who work in hierarchical organizations, they are often afraid of getting reprimanded for stepping out of line or coming across as not a “team player”.

2) Group dynamics can be a big factor. Especially tough when the group is tight and individuals don’t want to hurt the feelings of others. Put it this way, you have to accept that you are not going to be everyone’s best friend.

3) The organization has spent so much time, money and resources on the project that people feel afraid to recommend that the organization walk away from that investment.

4) I have seen on many occasions low quality work getting delivered, as the people working on the job are either not discerning enough, or lack insight on the quality of work they are producing, or fail to understand the requirements of the brief. The people working directly on the project should be the first filter, and hence why companies such as Apple have a culture of asking, “can this be better?”

5) There are many personal (or cognitive) biases that can come into play that design and innovation managers need to watch out for. Some of my favorites include:

Status quo bias — the tendency for people to like things to stay relatively the same.

Bandwagon effect — the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same. Related to groupthink and herd behavior.

Experimenter’s or Expectation bias — the tendency for experimenters to believe, certify, and publish data that agrees with their expectations for the outcome of an experiment, and to disbelieve, discard, or downgrade the corresponding weightings for data that appears to conflict with those expectations.

6) Finally, people in the team just lack motivation to raise their hand. Design and innovation often only comes when we push ourselves to the edge and beyond. Unengaged, unmotivated, and disenfranchised people will likely not care enough to take the effort to even try.

Of course when you do stand on your soap box and say this “sucks”, you should make sure what you are saying makes sense, and that you have developed a high level of what I like to call problem solving intuition that is underpinned by a list of evaluation criteria or key design principles.

Trust your gut, when it tells you to stop and think. After that, trust science to help you decide.

If you are interested in a little further reading, check out how Oren Jacob, the former chief technical officer of Pixar, had the guts to stop Toy Story 2 eight months from its launch date, because it was not good. If we consider that Pixar invested 3 years on this project, we can really appreciate how difficult a task it was for Oren.

Implementing Design Thinking is a regular series of posts, where I share my thoughts and experiences in helping companies implement Design as a tool for business success and achieving Design Leadership. Check out the rest of my articles here.

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Brian Ling

Brian is the Founder and Design Director at Design Sojourn, a Design Led Innovation Consultancy. He is a multi-award winning design leader, and specialises in strategic design and innovation programs that drive successful organisations. Brian’s 20-year career in design, driven through a deep understanding of human behavior, spans over multiple domains such as consumer electronics, government, healthcare, non-profit agencies, hospitality, F&B, retail, online solutions and best in class service experiences.

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7 Comments on "Implementing Design Thinking 2: Have the Guts to Say it Sucks"

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Jon Klokov

YES. It is -so- hard to people to give honest feedback these days. In my industry, there is a ton of pressure to just conform to other ideas, even if they are terrible. It’s worse when your boss is pushing for an idea that is plainly bad. Thankfully, having the guts to stand up and say no isn’t lacking in my company!

James Curran

There is definitely a misunderstanding of design within many businesses. So many think of design as the way a thing looks rather than its purpose. This is particularly the case in graphic / web design but no doubt occurs in other disciplines of design too. I think a little education would go a a long way in this regard.


[…] you have used this process, failed, and iterated, sometimes you’ll find that the problem that was defined early on is actually a […]

Shahar Klein
More than a year after moving from Israel to Costa Rica I have my reservations. There is not one ID firm in CR. There is large hi-tech industry and other modern industries here. While there is 4.5 m population here and academic education is almost free ( LOT of engineers!) there is almost no development of new products. Most of the industry is service oriented (serving US and multi-nationals). While giving creativity workshops I discovered that team work is the most valued issue with workers. There is almost no competition in any area, personal or commercial. And people are rated… Read more »
I think point #1 is actually understated. It’s not just that people are ‘afraid’ they will be told they are not a team player if they say something sucks, it’s actually the case that that’s true. Many companies teach you to ‘bookend’ all negative statements with positive statements before and after, regardless of whether those are there are not. And most management will literally reprimand you for saying something sucks, even while they admit to you that it’s the case (in fact, particularly when it’s the case). Further, when a project is ‘sucking’, morale is generally dropping – and that’s… Read more »
Miguel A Rosario
I feel this is an excellent article and that many, if not all the points made are valid. I believe the that leaders of design firms, whether product or architectural, must take the initiative and make the valuable effort to create a culture where individuals are not afraid to disagree with an idea/concept/proposed design. It is also their responsibility to serve as an aspiration and keep the team motivated, energized, and educated, in order to stimulate a creative environment. If not, it becomes detrimental and will hinder the firms ability to come up with the best or most innovative design… Read more »

[…] Design Thinking 1: Focus on the Outcome not the Process Implementing Design Thinking 2: Have the Guts to Say it Sucks Implementing Design Thinking 3: Next Week Implementing Design Thinking 4: TBC… AKPC_IDS += […]


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