Back to Basics: What is Design Thinking?

Back to Basics: What is Design Thinking?

Last week, I published a post with a very simple goal – define innovation so we can stop debating what it means and start doing it.

The response was amazing.  So, I figured that this week I would tackle another buzzword – Design thinking.

We’ve all heard it and we’ve probably all said it but, like “innovation’ we probably all have a different definition for it.  In fact, in the last few months alone I’ve heard it used as a synonym for brainstorming, for customer interviews, and for sketching while talking.  Those things are all part of Design thinking but they aren’t the entirety of Design thinking.


What I tell my clients

When a client asks if we’re “doing Design thinking,” here’s what I say;

“Yes, because Design thinking is a way of solving problems that puts customers and stakeholders, not your organization, at the center of the process and seeks to produce solutions that create, capture, and deliver value to your customers, stakeholders, and your company.”


The Basics
  • What: One could consider the official definition of Design thinking to come from Tim Brown, Executive Char of IDEO, who stated that “Design Thinking is 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”
  • Why: Useful in solving “wicked problems,” problems that are ill-defined or tricky and for which pre-existing rules and domain knowledge will be of limited or no help (or potentially detrimental)
  • How:
    • Inspiration: Understand the problem by building empathy with stakeholders (deeply understand their functional, emotional, and social Jobs to be Done) and document that understanding in a brief that outlines goals (ideal end state), bounds (elements to be avoided), and benchmarks against which progress can be measured
    • Ideation: Generate ideas using brainstorming to develop a vast quantity of ideas (divergent thinking) and then home in on the ideas at the intersection of desirability, feasibility, and viability that best fit the brief (convergent thinking)
    • Implementation: Prototype ideas so that they can be tested, evaluated, iterated, and refined in partnership with customers and stakeholders, ensuring that humans remain at the center of the process.
  • When: At the start of any R&D or development process
    • Traditionally, design was involved only in the late stages of development work, primarily to improve a solution’s functionality or aesthetic. Design Thinking’s ability to pull the designer mindset into the earliest phases of development is, perhaps, one of the biggest impacts it has made on business and technical fields
  • Where: Can be done anywhere BUT, because it is a human-centered approach, it must involve multiple human beings through the process
  • Who: Anyone who is willing to adopt a “beginner’s mind,” an attitude of openness to new possibilities, curiosity about the problem and the people with it, and humility to be surprised and even wrong


Important Points & Fun Facts
  • Design Thinking IS a human-centered design approach. This means that it seeks to develop solutions to problems by involving the human perspective at every single step of the process
  • Design thinking is NOT synonymous with user-centered design though user-centered design could be considered a subset of Design Thinking because it gives attention to usability goals and the user experience


  • Design Thinking was NOT invented by IDEO, but I would argue that they have done more to popularize it and bring it into the mainstream, especially into business management practices, than any other person or firm.
  • Design Thinking IS the product of 50+ years of academic and practical study and application. Here’s some fun facts:
    • 1935: The practice of Design thinking was first established by John Dewey as the melding of aesthetics and engineering principles
    • 1959: The term “Design thinking” was coined by John E. Arnold in his book Creative Engineering
    • 1991: the first symposium on Design Thinking was held at Delft University in the Netherlands
    • 2000s: Design thinking is widely adopted as an innovation approach thanks to books by Richard Florida (2002), Daniel Pink (2006), Roger Martin (2007), Tim Brown (2009), and Thomas Lockwood (2010)
    • 2005: Stanford’s begins teaching Design thinking as a general approach to innovation


  • Design Thinking is NOT just for radical/breakthrough/disruptive innovation
  • Design Thinking IS useful for all types of innovation (something different that creates value) resulting from wicked problems. In fact, as far back as 1959, John E. Arnold identified four types of innovation that could benefit from a Design thinking approach:
    1. Novel functionality, i.e. solutions that satisfy a novel need or solutions that satisfy an old need in an entirely new way
    2. Higher performance levels of a solution
    3. Lower production costs
    4. Increased salability


If you want to learn more…

As noted above, there are lots of resources available to those who are deeply curious about Design thinking.  I recommend starting with Tim Brown’s 2008 HBR article, Design Thinking, and then diving into IDEO’s extremely helpful and beautifully designed website dedicated entirely to Design thinking.


Here’s what I’d like to learn…
  • Was this helpful in clarifying what Design Thinking is?
  • What, if anything, surprised you?
  • What else would you like to know?


Drop your thoughts in the comments or shoot me an email at

Back to Basics: What is Innovation?

Back to Basics: What is Innovation?

When I worked on P&G’s WalMart sales team, one of my bosses was a big guy with an even bigger personality.  He shared his opinions loudly and broadly and one of his opinions was that we needed to stop using the word “breakthrough.”

“If I have to hear one more time about some new ‘breakthrough’ soap, I will throw you out of this office myself!” he would bellow.

Years later, I can’t help but wonder what he would think of the word “innovation.”

In May 2012, The Wall Street Journal published an article positing that, as the word “innovation” increased in usage, it decreased in meaning.  The accompanying infographic said it all:

  • 33,528: Times “innovation” was mentioned in quarterly and annual reports in the previous year
  • 255: Books published in the last 90 days with “innovation” in the title
  • 43%: Executive who say that their company has a Chief Innovation Officer or similar role
  • 28%: Business schools with “innovation,” “innovate,” or “innovative” in their mission statements

That may seem like a lot but, remember, that data is nearly 8 YEARS OLD!

The desire for and investment in Innovation in all its forms – accelerators, incubators, startup/venture studios, corporate venture capital teams – has only grown since 2012.

While this may seem like a good thing, the fact that the success rate of innovations hasn’t changed, means that most people react to “innovation” the same way my boss reacted to “breakthrough” – if you bring it up, they throw you out.

To avoid getting thrown out of offices, one of the first thing I do with my clients when we begin working to build innovation into an enduring capability within their companies, is re-establish what innovation is and is not.

Innovation IS something different that creates value.

When people hear the term “innovation,” they tend to think of new-to-the-world gadgets that fundamentally change how we live our lives.  Yes AND it’s many other things, too.  Let’s break down the definition:

  • “Something” includes products and technology, it also includes services, processes, revenue models, and loads of other things. Consider this, many would argue, quite convincingly, that the Toyota Production System was one of the biggest innovations of the 20th century
  • “Different” often surprises people. After all, even Merriam Webster defines innovation as “something new.” But here’s the thing, one of the most commonly cited innovations, the iPhone, wasn’t “new.”  Even Steve Jobs admitted it when he said, in his keynote speech, that Apple was introducing three products – a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a mobile phone, and an internet connected device.  The iPhone was, however, different because it combined those three devices into one.
  • “Creates value” is probably the most important part of the definition. All innovations solve problems.  Solving problems creates value.  If you solve a big problem, either because it’s a problem lots of people have or it’s a very painful problem a few people have or something in-between, you create a lot of value for others and for yourself.
Innovation IS NOT a one-size-fits-all term.

Think of it this way, both a Kia and a Maserati are cars, but you wouldn’t expect to pay Kia’s price tag and get a Maserati (and vice versa).  Similarly, both a convertible and a pick-up truck are automobiles, but you wouldn’t use your convertible to carry building equipment to a construction site.

With a definition as broad as the one above, it’s possible for “innovation’ to become even more meaningless as it gets applied to more things.  That’s why it’s important to identify different types of innovation.

There’s no universally accepted set of innovation types, which is why I recommend companies consider defining at least three types that reflect their business and forward-looking strategies.

One of the most common set of innovation categories is based on the degree of change required for implementation:

  • Core Innovation requires minimal or no change to the current business model (customers, offerings, revenue model, resources and processes). Also known as Continuous or Incremental Innovation, this is the unglamorous but deeply important work of constantly improving what you do and how you do it.
  • Adjacent Innovation changes a significant change to at least one element of your business model. It could be changing who you serve, like expanding from interventional cardiologists to general cardiologists, what you offer, like P&G’s expansion into “durable goods” when it launched Swiffer, or how you offer or deliver it.
  • Radical innovation is the stuff that gets all the press. These innovations fundamentally change the business, like IBM moving from computers to business services.  These innovations are high-risk and require a lot of time, money, and patience to see to fruition.  This type of innovation is also called “Breakthrough” but, for obvious reasons, I shy away from that term.

There are many things that need to be done to shift innovation from buzzword to business capability. Defining innovation AND at least three different types is only the first step in moving from innovation theory and theater to building innovation into a true capability that drives sustainable growth.

Or, as I would tell my old boss, “It’s the first step.  But it’s a breakthrough one.”

Originally published on December 30, 2019 on

It’s Time to Stop the Innovation Snobbery

It’s Time to Stop the Innovation Snobbery

My name is Robyn and I am a recovering Innovation Snob.

I didn’t realize I was an Innovation Snob until a few days ago when I read the following in CB Insights’ report State of Innovation: Survey of 677 Corporate Strategy Executives, “Despite deep fear and talk of disruption, companies invest in the small stuff… 78% of innovation portfolios are allocated to continuous innovation instead of disruptive risks.”

“That’s exactly what they should be doing,” I thought to myself. “After all, the Golden Ratio often preached when discussing innovation portfolios is that 70% should be allocated to Incremental or Sustaining innovations, 20% to Adjacent innovations, and 10% to Disruptive or Breakthrough Innovations.”

That’s when it hit me:

  1. When talking about “Incremental Innovation,” we actually mean “Incremental Improvement.”
  2. Because we mean “Improvement” (even when we say “Innovation”), we don’t value Incremental Innovation in the same way that we value the innovations that introduce truly new things (products, services, technologies, business models) to the world and dismissing it as “less than” those “higher forms” of innovation.
  3. Dismissing Incremental Innovation as “less important/valuable than” other types of innovation is not only snobbish and hypocritical, it is incredibly ignorant. Incremental Innovation is exactly this type of innovation that a company must do in order to stay competitive today AND fund the Adjacent and Breakthrough innovations that will define it’s future.
  4. I am 100% guilty of telling people that Incremental Innovation is important and then rolling my eyes when someone pitches an incremental improvement as innovation

I hate it when I get all self-righteous and judgey about someone or something only to realize that I am just as guilty.

Cher from Clueless making a face after hitting a car

Ooops, my bad

How did we get here?

There’s probably lots of reasons for this gap between what we say (“Incremental Innovation is an essential component of any innovation portfolio”) and what we do (“Incremental innovation isn’t real innovation”) but these are probably the 3 biggest drivers:

  1. Incremental Innovation will not make you famous. No company has ever landed on Fast Company’s “Most Innovative” list because they launched better/faster/cheaper/easier to use versions of their existing products. No one has ever been invited to speak at TED because they made a slight improvement to someone else’s idea.
  2. Incremental Innovation will not make you rich. Entrepreneurs with dreams of starting a unicorn company (and realizing the massive payout that comes with it) don’t look for things they can improve, they look for things they can “disrupt.” Companies know that Incremental Innovation is better suited to helping them maintain their place in their industry, not catapult ahead to the top of the heap. Consultants know that no company will hire them to help with Incremental Innovation, so they publish and preach and sell the promise of cheap and risk-free breakthroughs.
  3. We are so desperate to be seen as Innovative that we’re afraid to be honest. Words matter and, even though it’s a buzz-word, companies love the word “innovation.” Their annual reports and quarterly calls are filled with it, employees are measured on it, valuation premiums are calculated using it. As a result, we know that we are more likely to get budget, people, support, recognitions, raises, and promotions if we say we’re working on “Innovation” even though, in our heart of hearts, we know it’s an improvement.

Where do we go from here?

Cher from Clueless packing boxes for emergency relief

Captain of the “Incremental is Innovation, Too!” campaign

We have 3 options:

  1. Keep calling incremental changes “innovation
  2. Stop calling incremental changes “innovation” and start calling them “improvements”
  3. Start using more specific language to describe innovation instead of just using “innovation” as a one-size-fits-whatever-I-want-it-to term

Personally, I’m in favor of #3 because it recognizes that doing something new or different is innovation and therefore difficult and forces organizations to be more disciplined in how they make decisions, especially ones related to resources allocation.

For those wanting to pursue option #3, there are lots of ways to go about it and I’ll cover many of them in an upcoming post. But the easiest way to start is by asking three simple questions:

  1. Does what we’re doing improve something that already exists (e.g. make it easier to use, cheaper, more accessible)?
  2. Does what we’re doing change the way we go to market (e.g. from selling through a retailer to going DTC) or make money (e.g. selling subscriptions instead of having the consumer pay for an item when they buy it) or who we’re targeting (e.g. from targeting women to targeting children)?
  3. Does what we’re doing change how we go to market and how we make money and who we target/compete against?

If you answered Yes to #1, you’re doing Incremental Innovation. Yes to #2 is Adjacent. Yes to #3 is Breakthrough.

All 3 are essential components of a health Innovation Portfolio. Each requires different people and processes to make them work. Each deserves recognition and respect from peers, leaders, press, stockholders, and the general public.

Let’s be honest, I’m not sure that I’ll ever be as excited for Incremental Innovation as I am for Breakthrough innovation. I can’t imagine ooohhh-ing and ahhhh-ing over it the way that I do with breakthroughs. But I need to respect, value, and celebrate it, and the people who do it, as much as I respect, value and celebrate other types of innovations and the teams that work on them.

My name is Robyn and I am a RECOVERING innovation snob.