Design Thinking Is Learning by another Name and Approach

The design thinker enables the organization to balance exploration and exploitation, invention of business and administration of business, and originality and mastery. Design thinking powers the design of business, the directed movement of a business through the knowledge funnel from mystery to heuristic to algorithm and then the utilization of the resulting efficiencies to tackle the next mystery and the next and the next. The velocity of movement through the knowledge funnel powered by design thinking, is the most powerful formula for competitive advantage in the 21st century.—Roger Martin, The Design of Business, Why Design Thinking Is the Next Competitive Advantage

As a futurist and advocate for organizational learning, I find I am a kindred spirit with the growing number of proponents of design thinking. We reason our way to strategy and innovation through a similar process.

Roger Martin, author of The Design of Business, explains that we are using abductive logic. Thanks to Martin I can better explain what’s in that “black box” of my mind after I have scanned an organization’s issues and opportunities and make the leap to exciting possibilities.

“Abductive reasoning drives the intuitive spark that leaps across the gap separating the world as it is from the world as it might be,” Martin explains. We have to rely on abductive reasoning because it is not possible to prove any new thought, concept or idea in advance.  Instead we look at the mysteries and discover what could be valid to produce the outcomes we need.

But design thinking injects the pragmatism into intuition and innovation that I appreciate in my own practice. Martin describes design thinkers as balancing exploration and exploitation, originality and mastery. As I say often, “a vision is only a dream without a commitment to act.” We have to keep originality and mastery in balance to keep our organizations effective.

Martin’s concept of a knowledge funnel appeals to my own awareness that organizations have to take a new idea or insight into pilot testing and application to truly refine it. At this heuristic stage it does take knowledgeable and skilled people to shepherd the new possibility into reality. But our aim should be to move the idea into an algorithm stage where the new direction or innovation is fully developed and can be widely deployed by anyone in the organization.

And then we start all over again because conditions do change. Whether we are futurists or design thinkers, we observe the mysteries again and imagine what they could mean for our organization. Then we choose another issue or idea, a new direction or product, and take it through the knowledge funnel.

So I do take one exception with Martin’s assessment. Learning, not design thinking, is the real competitive advantage. Design thinking, likes futures thinking, just frees us to do it in a more creative and yet disciplined way.