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

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.

  • Jon Klokov

    August 8, 2013 at 7:44 am Reply

    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

    July 25, 2013 at 12:33 am Reply

    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.

  • Shahar Klein

    November 23, 2011 at 11:25 pm Reply

    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 year after year as the most happy in the world.
    In Israel education is expensive. The competition drives out of work 50% of ID people.
    Nobody is happy and content.
    But take a look at a recent Dezeen article:
    I think that the main point is the lack of content that drive people to move to new fields, wanting to take risks.
    It is no wonder that “Start up Nation” is Israel.
    Individuality is cultivated there while conformity is cultivated in CR…
    One more: this may be an exaggeration but a lot of designers work alone and come out only at milestones for cooperation.
    Designers are “outsiders ” that see what company-men don’t.
    I’m afraid there is a contradiction between individuality and preaching design thinking to others.

  • Paul

    November 23, 2011 at 9:45 am Reply

    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 exactly when most management gets more disinclined to tolerate commentary on something being sub par. The result can often be a death spiral if noone in sufficient authority to be immune to the repercussions of negative speech can reroute the project.
    This is not to say that everyone should just going around shouting ‘this sucks’ at the top of their lungs, and find nicer ways to say it. But eventually, the need to be extremely political about couching criticism devalues the critique, or inculcates a spirit of dis ingenuity in the culture of the company.

  • Miguel A Rosario

    November 20, 2011 at 3:46 am Reply

    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 solutions. As an architectural designer, I am always for someone standing up against my proposed ideas/concepts/designs or debating over them providing me constructive feed back. I feel that design thinking is a collective process, that enlightens all for the better. This draws out the best in all of us as it is critical to our knowledge base and ability to improve through the insight and perspective views of others. The key is to listen and sort out the valid points from such constructive criticism as well as avoid any bias views or concepts, as it will help one develop into a good designer.
    However, I must state that there are times when we are intuitively against or our gut feeling resists certain ideas or concepts without a clear understanding of why. How shall we act when this happens and we can’t, at the moment, provide a constructive reason as to why we feel against it? I am an individual that relies on my intuitive gut feeling, but I run into this dilemma from time to time. I tend to fall back and keep to myself at the moment until somehow the reason as to why is evoked. However, if I feel strongly against it, I will let it be known to the rest of the team with the hope that someone else can somehow come up with the reason as to why I feel such a way or says something that evokes that reason(s).
    With this said, I feel it is easy to please ourselves with our own creativity, however, the challenge is in pleasing others. How can we tweak ourselves to remain distinctive yet still hold a common (practical) ground? We cannot sell or contribute to the needs/or wants of individuals or society without its approval. As designers, our individual or combined creative efforts are evolutionary to the complexity of the matrix we live in. Therefore, may the best collective ideas/concepts/Designs win!

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