“Those Post It Notes Cost $12mn”
-Why Design Thinking Is Doomed

Greg Larkin /

My first design thinking bootcamp 7 years ago felt like sun breaking through dark clouds. Years of slow, politically-fraught product launches in big finance had beaten me down. 70% of my job was consumed by politics rather than what I loved doing: solving an entrenched problem in an empathetic and differentiated way. I embraced design thinking with the zeal of the newly converted. Soon after I quit that job and it changed my life.

Since then a lot has changed. Billions of dollars in agency invoices now list “design thinking” as a line item. But the practice has not adopted adequately. For design thinking to stay relevant it must do a better job of recognizing the real-world technical and stakeholder constraints that prevent great ideas from becoming great products.

There are some problems with design thinking that need to be called out:

Design thinking treats banks like beer commercials – Empathy for a user is mission critical for a brand fighting for recognition during a halftime commercial. But the same techniques that tap into the hearts and minds of consumers cannot be transplanted into a B2B business like investment banking with comparable outcomes. For one thing, in these industries user needs have to be reconciled with the priorities of economic buyers and stakeholders. And for another thing these stakeholders must show investors the money – every quarter, every day.  User empathy only matters when it catalyzes an investor outcome. Otherwise it can become a liability.

Design thinking treats code like crayons – Design thinking often trivializes how hard it is to actually build something. A stunning digital prototype with incredible user validation may be technically impossible, economically stupid, or both. There is a tendency in design thinking to punt on technical and stakeholder risk. This creates a balloon payment, technical mushroom cloud that destroys the whole project. This is more pronounced in enterprise software than it is in B2C software.

Design thinking is an input not an outcome – Design thinking helps align a broad team around user and market needs. To start a project without developing personas or value prop canvases or a storyboard is suicidal. But too often this powerful tool is treated as a business outcome rather than a business input. And too often business outcomes – like functioning software, customer acquisition, and efficient, accelerated growth remain unchanged.

Stakeholders – the 300 lb. gorillas in the design studio – I’ve launched about 20 enterprise products in my life and my batting average is about 65%. The reasons that 35% failed were primarily because I’m flawed and make mistakes. And secondarily because stakeholders will kill any product that isn’t ‘theirs.’ I honestly can’t point to single product failure that stemmed from user invalidation.

Design thinking must extend beyond design – Design thinking must evaluate the real-life constraints that a product must navigate to change lives and make lots of money. To stay relevant it must incorporate stakeholder and technical validation into the process.