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Mar 16, 2010

Design thinking's role in the survival of organizations


By Tom Tavares

Why are most companies hindered by a low level of innovation? Analytical thinking, according to Roger Martin, who presented at a recent Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto. Specifically, most business people rely on deductive reasoning rather than design thinking. Analytical thinking is fine for polishing existing practices but seldom leads to breakthroughs in knowledge.

As the pace of technological change continues to accelerate, design thinking will play an increasingly vital role in the survival of companies. Organizations capable of moving fluidly through the knowledge funnel — from mystery to heuristic (design thinking) to algorithm to computerization — will have a competitive edge on less innovative enterprises.

Design thinking has important implications for HR, particularly in talent management. Firms should be assessing this competency in selecting staff, rather than recruiting more run-of-the-mill specialists. Presumably companies with online assessments will have an even bigger competitive edge as change accelerates. Or will they?

Though most firms suffer from a low level of innovation, they are also hampered by weak internal communication, poor teamwork and sporadic performance feedback. These behavioural patterns are strikingly similar regardless of the industry, company or people involved because of focus. The human mind operates like the zoom lens of a camera and companies have the same basic structure — jobs confine attention to a narrow field of activity. When attention is focused, it’s easier for people to break problems down than to connect the dots in new ways and innovate.

Focus accounts for several other common problems. When people work in narrow job compartments, they are isolated from one another, which weakens internal communication, teamwork and performance feedback. Traditionally, these patterns of behaviour have been seen as separate issues requiring different solutions: creativity training, employee surveys, team building and annual performance reviews. Unfortunately, these tools have had no lasting impact on day-to-day behaviour.

However, in unusual cases, a new leader arrives or a team jells and people become more open, innovative and co-operative, which reduces isolation between leaders and staff. Instead of the 10 per cent of minds in management trying to solve all the problems, the intelligence of the other 90 per cent of employees is engaged in solving problems.

The choice of heuristic for organizational performance has important implications. If it is design thinking, HR needs to assess, select and promote individuals with this capability, which still leaves issues with internal communication, teamwork and coaching. If the heuristic is focus, leaders need to manage the quality of interaction within their companies more systematically. As change accelerates, the efficiency of managing one core factor rather than five surface problems translates into a growing competitive advantage.

Tom Tavares is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on organizational effectiveness and a senior organizational psychologist. In addition to managing in large corporations, consulting in varied industries and coaching executives, he has written extensively about the relationship between business performance, behaviour and change. He can be reached at

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