Sunday, February 17, 2008

Design thinking and the hype cycle

"Design thinking" refers to an approach to design that combines art, craft, and analytical skill to produce unique, innovative consumer products. Done properly, design thinking can be usefully applied to customer services, business processes, and strategy as well. I've blogged about design thinking before, and remarked on some of the good work others have done to describe this hard-to-define concept. A lot of companies are starting to take notice of design thinking, and are wondering how to apply it to their own problems.

Like any promising new (to business execs) process, there will be a shake-out period until companies figure out how and when to apply design thinking to anything more than product design. Some writers are already predicting a possible backlash as design thinking fails to deliver a silver bullet solution for every problem. To borrow a concept that is applied to new technologies, design thinking is moving up a "peak of inflated expectations" phase with regards to its utility for solving business process and strategy problems.

Gartner research and consulting publishes a "hype cycle" each year that tracks the acceptance of new technologies. According to their theory, technologies follow a trajectory that begins with a "technology trigger" and ends with a "plateau of productivity" in which the technology is properly utilized. Between these beginning and ending phases are the "peak of inflated expectations," "trough of disillusionment," and "slope of enlightenment" phases.

The same analysis can be usefully applied to business processes. TQM, Six Sigma, CMM, and a number of similar processes, have been embraced by management initally as a cure-all for their company's ills. The process moves up the "peak of inflated expectations," only to fall into disfavor when it fails to deliver on all of its champions' promises.

If design thinking is on the up-slope of the peak of inflated expectations, it can be predicted that it will eventually fall into the trough of disillusionment one day. Champions of design thinking should prepare for that phase, taking care not to oversell it before it's entrenched in the company culture, and nuturing it through the hard times. Eventually design thinking will reach its plateau of productivity phase, to the benefit of the company's bottom line.

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