Finally Getting Around to It — An Introduction to Design Thinking

Pantanal Bird

Pantanal Cacique Bird (a Weaver Bird variety)

Well, it’s taken a while, but we’re finally getting around to one of the big themes of this whole blog — Design Thinking, and a larger, systemic understanding of both design and the design process.

What is Design Thinking?  That’s a very good question.  The most broadly accepted definition is a mode of thinking that lends itself to innovating new solutions, instead of just solving old problems.  This spins out into all sorts of angles from all sorts of experts — from solving ‘wicked problems’ — problems resistant to resolution for a variety of reasons, both technical and social, to epiphanies.  We’ve covered some of these phenomena earlier and shown how they are intrinsically part of social structure — but there’s more to unpack.

There’s some leads toward how to do Design Thinking in these definitions — tools, methods, processes and such are the typical way of approaching the topic.  What we’d like to do is understand Design Thinking on a deeper level, so that as managers or constructors of design teams, we can understand whom, and what processes we have to assemble, and what sidebars and culture needs to be generated so that we can do Design Thinking consistently, at the right level, for consistent innovation.

As I’ve explained in earlier posts, we arrived at this point of wanting to understand Design Thinking with the diversity of various group thought processes (and their outputs) by way of Conway’s Law — the idea that a manifested design will resemble in structure the communication network (and therefore the social/relational structure — that design team thing!) that created it.

We then introduced the Big Idea of the Intermediate Corollary, illustrated below:


and that led us to the idea of how people socially organize (and their empathetic levels) will dictate what they CAN know or design, or are CAPABLE of routinely processing.  This is then summed up in the following slide:


which, then again extends off the right side of the slide to the design itself.  Synergistic designs, for example, require empathetic teams who can readily exchange information with high levels of coherence — meaning, basically, they can pretty much understand what the other side is talking about, and know when to trust them.  Synergy is often a good thing.  But for anyone trying to debug a synergistic system, they know it can be a bad thing as well.  Trying to find a root cause of failure for a synergistic system is far more difficult than for one that has been well-compartmentalized — because everything is hooked together, and changing one thing ends up having unpredictable consequences with the other parts.

In the past couple of posts, we’ve also explored the idea of metacognition — knowing what you don’t know — and then showed how various social structures either promote or impede its existence.   Different levels of innovation are going to require different levels of exploration, as well as people who are comfortable with those different levels.  There is no ‘one size fits all’ — just an awareness of ‘what size fits you’!

If we’ve accepted the idea that Conway’s Law is true (and there’s been a fair amount of study that indicates that it is), then we also have to recognize that there is going to be, if we want to be sticklers about all of it, a different level of Design Thinking for every social structure — each one processing a different level of existent (or non-existent) synergy.

But instead of listing out every one, associated with every major v-Meme, let’s go at this from a different tack.  Let’s look at the fundamental dichotomy of human relationships — belief-based, externally defined relationships vs. independently generated, trust-based relationships — and go from there.

Externally-defined relationships tend to maximize reliability.  Reliability, in the case of relationships, goes along with predictability.  If you talk to a doctor, the odds are that person knows something about medicine and healing.  If you talk to a mechanic, that person likely knows something about fixing your car. And so on.  If it’s a broadly recognized title, that person likely has a document or diploma behind their name.  (Mathematicians will recognize such a diploma as an integral representation of information inside that person’s head — it’s functionally a single point, scalar representation of years of training!)

It then follows that if people in networks or hierarchies dominated by externally defined relationships do design, they’re also very likely to be familiar with, and able to refine prior art.  (For math junkies — since the interaction is simplex, and information is only aggregated in an additive fashion at a level above the nodes where it’s generated, odds are the process is also meta-linear in nature.)

Therefore, in a hierarchy, design mostly consists of refinement.  Old stuff made better, but likely no new stuff.  This is still design, of course, but is typically not what is generally understood to be Design Thinking by the majority of design practitioners.

Things are considerably different for organizations that allow more independently generated, data driven, trust-based relationships.  There, the social structure is more flexible, and determined not just by managers, but to some extent by the individuals inside the organization.  Also very important are relationships they have with customers outside the organization.  Because of the nature of those relationships — more unpredictable information exchange, more interface with the customer by more people inside the organization — these kinds of networks are more likely to have Design Thinking that maximizes validity —  will the design make the customer happy?  With the customer actively in the mix, with multiple employees, this dramatically increases.

That’s a start.  There’s much more to say.  And I will — in the next couple of blog posts.

Takeaways:  If you believe Conway, then you have to believe that design thinking will vary based on the social structure that is doing the designing.  The easiest way to split it apart, however, is from the external relationship definition/independent relationship definition dichotomy.  These two types will maximize either reliability or validity. 

This is not what most of the Design Community calls Design (Big D) Thinking, however.  Design Thinking is usually associated with jumps in innovation, or new ways of thinking about problems, as opposed to refinement.

Further reading:  I didn’t want to go into it in the main body of the post, but design thinking has been around for a while — since the ’40s, if you believe Wikipedia.  I certainly didn’t invent it.  

Definitions are all over the map, not surprisingly, because those definitions are made by various experts who occupy various v-Meme levels.  As I said above, breaking things up along the ‘solve the problem vs. innovate the solution’ isn’t too bad a way to approach it.  The ‘proactive vs. reactive’ paradigm (watch this 3 minute video by colleague Roger Martin, Dean at the Rotman School, University of Toronto, and David M. Kelley and Tim Brown of IDEO) maps well to the social/relational structure stuff in this blog — basically, if you’ve got metacognition, and you’re functioning at a Performance v-Meme level, then you’re going to try to innovate to reach a goal, instead of just willy-nilly refining a product.  

My personal opinion is the main discriminator, as it’s understood on the outside, is that Design Thinking drives multiple-solution thinking followed by down-selection, as opposed to single-solution thinking.  We’ll unpack this a little more as we go along.

5 thoughts on “Finally Getting Around to It — An Introduction to Design Thinking

  1. Hi Ryan — watched the video — and have watched a couple of Laloux’s videos. I haven’t read his book. I like most of the video, but some of it is just wrong (universities, for example, are almost uniformly red or amber organizations — not green, as according to the model,) in that it riffs off other’s incorrect interpretations of Spiral Dynamics — even including people who have had a profound influence on my thinking (like Ken Wilber and Don Beck.) By understanding things in terms of evolutionary brain function and empathy, and how people process relationships, one can then determine what the actual emergent dynamics are that create the relational structures, as well as how people in those organizations necessarily process information. So — how about 85% is good, and 15% not? That’s my comment-level view.

    One of the big problems with much of the business literature in this space is that there is some nod given as well to embedded information, but a very poor understanding on how that works. The reality is that with all organizations, there is a downloading after a period of practice of certain behavior into the ‘automatic response’ space. Understanding that is also key in understanding what processes are transferable to other companies, and what processes are not. But it really does all come back to the empathetic development of the actors in the company, and the Principle of Reinforcement. Lack of understanding of this concept is why after we go in and invade countries, we are unable to understand why our efforts to establish governments fail.

    Well, that’s the not-so-short answer. Hope this helps!


    1. Hi Ryan,

      Drop me a line at my e-mail and we can continue this discussion. cpezeshki at

      There are insights, as well as misunderstandings (not saying I know everything — maybe I’m wrong!) that are structural that would directly apply to your goals. Most thinking that has been done is arbitrary, and while not incorrect, are biased by what I call top-level inferences of morality. Unfortunately, that level of misunderstanding can (and has) led folks into the weeds. My work is a deeper interpretation from a communication/information-theoretic perspective (I have a past in nonlinear dynamics, and chaos/fractal unification, as well as signal detection theory). I think a lot of the work that has been done in the past is important, but at some level I am only so willing to discuss what’s wrong with it in a public forum. I am sure you understand.


    2. One more thing to help your understanding. A lot of my work is fundamentally perilous. Telling people HOW they think, when they BELIEVE that they think a different way, can lead to lots of unpleasant circumstances. At some level, for those that are not true Spiral Dynamics Tier II thinkers, they perceive this as a boundary violation. I understand, and sympathize. The goal is to lead others to more profound paths. Not to prove that ‘I’m smarter than you.’ We’ve got a finite amount of time to change course. It can’t just be about being the smartest guy (or girl) in the room.


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