Many articles on Steve Job’s tenure at Apple have focused on the mystery of Job’s approach to his work. The articles are representative of the ongoing desire to uncover the recipe or secret sauce that made Apple’s products so dominant in the market place. The focus on design is often mentioned as Apple’s essential core competence during the Job era.
Job’s character is often critiqued, but mostly the center of attention is on trying to discern his—i.e. Apple’s—design approach, processes and methods during his time at the helm. As a popularized guess, ‘design thinking’ has become the normative category to use when referring to these or anyone’s methods or approaches to successful designing. That was not Job’s approach but ‘design thinking’ has taken on a life of its own.
‘Design thinking’ in fact has become a highly touted approach for businesses and governments to take whether focused on products or services. ‘Design thinking’ is being pushed in text and video as the strategy for solving complex dynamic problems faced by business and governmental agencies in today’s admittedly complex and rapidly changing world.
However, ‘design thinking’ is not the same thing as design inquiry, or design action—i.e. designing—and this confusion has serious consequences. ‘Design thinking’ is defined as a set of steps that, when followed, guarantee good outcomes by revealing the right solutions for clear problem statements—an ideal bureaucracy. However, designing is not primarily about solving problems. It is about something quite different.
By taking a problem focused approach to design, leaders, decision makers and stakeholders constantly skirt taking responsibility and accepting accountability for their decisions and actions by focusing on externalized methods, thus avoiding the courageous by grasping for the certain. Rollo May’s classic The Courage to Create and Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces are examples of an alternative perspective of what it means to be courageous and willing to take risks and why.
Courage is not the same as the aggressiveness acted out in office politics and political governance. A deeper look into what courage can be provides an alternative perspective to the solitary, command and control individual. It is dramatically different from the kind of ‘take charge’ hero of popular culture that is the anathema of those championing the dominance of the group over the individual—in the process, diminishing both. Both May and Campbell provide a view of the systemic interdependency of courageous individuals and their essential connection to the well being of collective lives.
Few business or governmental leaders are representative of this type of interdependent heroic figure and it seems their constituency like it that way. Most everyone colludes in demanding a risk-free environment—no risky decisions, and no accountabilities or responsibilities. People in charge are happy to collect their rewards for following prescribed rules, routines and approved procedures; arriving at the right answers, just like we were shown how to do in grammar school.
As Russ Ackoff points out, panaceas are ever in demand in business, governmental agencies and other social organizations. One look at a typical Harvard Business Review’s table of contents reveals that the dominant focus is on numbering—numbered steps, numbered categories, numbered certainty. We all like the safe feeling of limits set by solid numbered sequencing. A methodological certainty that saves us from having to take responsibility for our making sense of the chaos we face daily and making difficult judgments about what actions we ought to take in any situation—all without having guarantors in place to protect us from failures and unintended consequences.
Design is about courage and not about guaranteed outcomes. It is about competency, skill, ability, and character, brought into the service of others—clients, stakeholders, society and the greater good. It is a ‘conspiracy’—a breathing together—of people who understand the true nature of the challenge and the necessity of taking it head on without a bag full of ‘tricks’. There are plenty of people with bags of ‘tricks for treats’ that feed the need in organizations and institutions for easy, accessible and certain approaches to overwhelmingly complex challenges. One of my favorite political cartoons by Danziger published in the Christian Science Monitor several years ago, caught the spirit of our political and business leaders’ habit of always looking for ‘the trick’ rather than looking to themselves for the courage and competence to become designers of the real world.