Why not forget Design Thinking and try Multidisciplinary Thinking instead?

Dev Patnaik, in his well written article at Fast Company, reminds me of a big problem with Design Thinking: vagueness in its definition. Even here at Design Sojourn, we have tried, with limited success, to discuss and dissect its definition.
Patnaik does not “open a can of worms” by defining Design Thinking, but instead encourages us to forget Design Thinking and try Hybrid Thinking instead.
In his article, he recounts the success of Claudia Kotchka, as P&G’s VP for design strategy and innovation, and how during her nine years in that role, helped P&G double their revenue (2000-2008) by successfully making innovation happen at P&G.

Indeed, the real power of Claudia’s story is that she isn’t a designer. I see this phenomenon all the time: accounts who lead a design revolution, former journalists who manage a technology lab, even doctors who become agents of organizational change. All of these cases suggest that something bigger is going on, more powerful than the adoption of a single school of thought. The secret isn’t design thinking, it’s “hybrid thinking”: the conscious blending of different fields of thought to discover and develop opportunities that were previously unseen by the status quo. Claudia’s lack of experience as a designer didn’t make her a weaker proponent of design, it made her a stronger one. She immersed herself in design thinking and then merged it with her experiences in accountant thinking, marketing thinking, and several more besides. To walk away concluding that design thinking is what makes P&G great would be like going to the movies and concluding that Indiana Jones is a great hero because he always wears a hat.
Hybridity matters now because the problems companies need to solve are simply too complex for any one skillset to tackle. We’re in an era when car companies are trying to grapple with massive changes in technological capability and market need, when cell phone companies are trying to own global entertainment, and when snack food companies face extinction unless they figure out how to promote health and wellness. As Lou Lenzi, a design executive at Audiovox, once told me, if you want to innovate, “You need to be one part humanist, one part technologist, and one part capitalist.”
Hybrid thinking is much more than gathering together a multidisciplinary team. Hybrid thinking is about multidisciplinary people.

I agree with Adam Richardson, that Hybrid thinking sounds less “human” focused than Design Thinking which is all about a user centered approach. Long time readers would not be surprised for me to state that I find that this is very similar to the Multidisciplinary Design approach that I have long been an advocate of. Still Patnaik’s article is a good read, and I like his point that it is not only about multidisciplinary teams but multidisciplinary people, or in our situation, multidisciplinary designers.
Via: Adam Richardson’s blog.

2 Comments
  • Kevin Garcia

    September 1, 2009 at 2:58 pm Reply

    I think this really highlights one of the big failures of many design focused education programs (not all, mind you, but it’s becoming increasingly rare to find a multidisciplinary approach to anything).
    As a graphic designer, I find that not all my interests fall within my field. That in fact, if I do nothing but follow my field and other graphic designers, that my work suffers as a result. It becomes too plastic, too entrenched in the flavour du jour.
    It is precisely the breadth of thinking, of exploring beyond your doors. Of expanding your mind and having varying interests that make innovative design possible.
    Very rarely is innovation found in the Status Quo. And many times that is because we are so focused on design principles and rules, that often times we miss the obvious innovation. That’s where approaching a problem from a different perspective makes all the difference.
    Great read.

  • DT

    September 2, 2009 at 10:48 pm Reply

    Hi Kevin,
    Thanks for taking the time to leave your comments. You are right many design education programs struggle with this. However do consider the delicate balance they have to achieve, which is training the student with the minimum skills required to be employable in industry vs. enough variety to start the graduate on a growth path fueled by a hunger of knowledge.
    It is difficult indeed.

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