Roger Martin is the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. In 2007 BusinessWeek named him one of the ten most influential business professors in the world. I have used several of his articles in classes I teach on creativity and innovation. One of my favorites is his 2004 article entitled “The Design of Business.” His new book, carrying the same name, is based on it.
Roger was kind enough to send an advance copy of his book to me, and here are the questions I had for him.
Question: What is your definition of design-thinking?
Answer: Let me start with what it isn’t. Most companies today rely on analytical thinking, which centers on the exploitation of current knowledge, simply refining current knowledge, and producing small improvements to the status quo. In analytical thinking, you look to the past for proof of concept before moving forward. Maybe it’s a rule, or a set of historical observations based on what’s already happened.
To innovate, companies need to employ more of the characteristics of great design: a deep understanding of the customer or user, creative resolution of opposing goals and tensions, rapid and collaborative prototyping, and continuous modification of ideas and solutions. That’s design-thinking! It’s about seeing possibility, about exploring problems where solutions cannot be found in past experience or proven by data.
Question: Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of what a design-thinking organization looks like?
Answer: A design-thinking company is one that employs a fluid, project-based activity system to tackle big initiatives. And that project-based work style emphasizes collaboration. There’s flexibility, because although the projects are typically assigned to teams rather than individuals, each team may have its own unique internal and often temporary structure. The solution to whatever challenge is being addressed comes from the team, not a “captain” or “leader.” Finally, autonomy is key, because the design-thinking organization picks the style of work that best fits the task.
Question: What’s the key to becoming a design thinker?
Answer: I think everyone can hone their design-thinking skills and work to produce more innovative outcomes. You do that by leveraging and developing what I call your personal knowledge system. There are three elements: stance, tools, and experiences. They all influence one another.
By stance, I mean answering the question, “Who am I in the world and what am I trying to accomplish?” Your stance guides the acquisition of tools.
Tools help you answer the question: “With what tools and aids and models do I organize my thinking and understand the world?” Acquiring the right tools guides the accumulation of experiences.
Experiences help us answer the question, “What experiences can I build my repertoire of sensitivities and skills?” Experiences in turn inform the acquisition of more tools. With these new tools, we add depth and clarity to our stance.
Question: Can you give me an example?
Answer: Sure. A. G. Lafley developed advanced skills and sensitivities for more than twenty-five years at Proctor & Gamble before he took over the top job. Beginning as a brand assistant, he acquired a set of tools over his career: supply-chain management in the Navy, general management theory from Harvard Business School, and brand-building techniques from the masters at Proctor & Gamble. This multitude of experiences developed Lafley’s skills and sensitivities as he moved up the corporate ladder.
Question: What’s the one thing you want your readers to take away from The Design of Business?
Answer: It’s that today’s businesspeople don’t need to understand designers better; they need to become designers.