The core ambition of design thinking was to formalize the process of design, in order to give the capability to apply this principle to all kinds of problems, from product innovation to wicked societal problems. Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management, and Tim Brown, CEO of the design company IDEO, have largely contributed to this formalization and helped in popularizing the approach. But this came at a major cost.
For business decision makers, typically non-designers, principles must translate into methodologies to become actionable. Thus, the design thinking principle, defined as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success” by Tim Brown, had been repackaged into the now famous “empathize-define-ideate-prototype-test-and-iterate” mantra to get past the corporate doors.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson beautifully nailed it: “If you learn only methods, you’ll be tied to your methods, but if you learn principles you can devise your own methods..” Grabbing the essence of a principle, experimenting in order to understand its implications, and putting it in practice can prove itself to be a difficult task, especially in the case of an emergent principle such as design thinking. This will quickly challenge many of your assumptions about how work gets done and of your mental models. On the other side, sliding from principles to methods will only get you as far as you already know you can go. In many cases, methods act as a prescription, as a how-to approach that will lead you to tweak the context and prune particularities to fit ready-made models.
By restricting design thinking to a method, however brilliant, conceived as a tool for non-designers, its evangelists have seeded the conditions for failure, as the Stanford d.school itself recognized.