One of the most notable and intriguing recent innovations in businesses and business schools is the design thinking movement. A couple weeks ago, the New York Times had a big story how MBA education is being reinvented in many places because -- as former MBA and d.school star student Laura Jones explained it -- “At business school, there was a lot of focus on, ‘You’ve got a great idea; here’s how you build a business out of it.’ The d.school said, ‘Here’s how you get to that great idea.’ As the article explains, design thinking is now part of the curriculum in many business schools -- Stanford, Berkeley, Virginia, and although I am not entirely sure what is going on at Harvard Business School, I did see that Diego Rodriguez of IDEO (and Metacool fame) led a workshop at IDEO for Harvard MBAs the other day.
I think that is wonderful that design thinking -- with its emphasis on observing and identifying human needs (and not just relying on what they say, but by watching what they do as well), on developing a point of view about what problems need to be addressed, generating ideas, prototyping like crazy, and testing ideas (and doing it all very quickly and not being overly attached to ideas) -- is being applied now to so many different kinds of problems: designing better experiences for hospital patients, building a better bicycle for "the rest of us" rather than the tiny percentage of people who are obsessed with bikes, designing and implementing better customer experiences, changing organizational structures, and on and on and on -- read IDEO CEO Tim Brown's delightful Change By Design if you want to see the astounding range of problems that are being tackled with design thinking these days.
There is, however, a part of the story that seems to be slipping away (especially in the business press and in business schools) that I think is important to tell, and that executives, students, and journalists often don't seem to realize: Engineers and engineering schools are one of the main driving forces behind this movement. You can see the impact of engineers clearly in the development of two iconic design thinking organizations that I know well and have been involved in for many years: IDEO, the magnificent innovation firm, and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, which everyone calls the Stanford d.school. I did an 18 month ethnography of IDEO in 1990s (with Andy Hargadon, who is now a management professor but already had two degrees in engineering product design from Stanford at the time). I still am involved in the company a bit as an IDEO Fellow. And I have been teaching at the d.school since it founding. I guess you could say I was among the founding faculty -- but to be honest, one person deserves a lot more credit for starting the d.school than any of us, David Kelley. He was the driving force -- in terms of ideas, building emotional involvement, and raising funds. And, although IDEO was formed through a merger between David Kelley Design and two industrial design firms, one owned by Mike Nuttall and the other by Bill Moggridge, they will tell you that engineer David Kelley was the strongest driving force -- which was why he became CEO when the firm was founded and is currently the Chairman.
I don't want to leave you with the impression that Industrial Design played a minor role in the rise of the design thinking movement (indeed, Bill Moggridge and current IDEO CEO Tim Brown are industrial designers), but I want to focus on the role David Kelley and other engineers have played in this post. David is an engineer by training (first at in electrical engineering at Carnegie-Mellon and then at Stanford in product design) and is a mechanical engineering professor at Stanford. David was a central figure in teaching product design classes at the Stanford Engineering School for decades before the d.school was born (and built IDEO at the same time). David has used his creativity and charm to entice and educate many of us business types to embrace design thinking and there are now lots of MBAs and other business types working at IDEO and teaching at the Stanford d.school. Yet most of the acknowledged masters of design thinking at the d.school and IDEO have engineering backgrounds (with the main exceptions being industrial designers like Tim and Bill) -- in particular, they have degrees in engineering product design. The essence of what happens at both IDEO and the d.school can be seen in the product design process that has been taught for decades at Stanford -- which has been tweaked, refined, and expanded to address a much wider range of problems (and continues to be an ever-evolving prototype at both IDEO and the d.school).
Consider two of the most revered design thinkers and teachers I know: Diego Rodriguez at IDEO and Perry Klebahn at the d.school. When I first met Diego, a good 15 years ago, he had just graduated from Stanford (where he earned an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering) and was working at IDEO. Diego did get increasingly interested in business, got a Harvard MBA, and now -- back at IDEO as a partner and head of the flagship Palo Alto office-- has become one of the most imaginative business thinkers I know (If you don't read Metacool, you are really missing something). Yet, when I talk to Diego, listen to his ideas, and watch his masterful teaching and coaching, I can always see how the magnificent engineering designer inside him remains the strongest guiding force. His relentless advice to do things like get out and talk to and watch some real human beings, to develop a sharp point of view, to brainstorm, to "prototype until your puke," and to view ideas as easy to get, important to throw away, and ultimately best judged by users and the market (rather than experts) all go back to his product design roots. This really struck me when, a few years back, Diego was designing a new organizational structure for client that, many years before, he had designed a product for when working as a young IDEO designer. He remarked to me "The end product is a lot different, but the process I am using is remarkably similar."
I see the same thing in how Perry approaches problems. Perry has always been a product guy, as he invented the modern show shoe as a Stanford product design student and then went on to grow a company that sold and spread the product called Atlas, then was COO of Patagonia, and most recently was CEO of Timbuk2. Perry has also taught numerous product design classes at Stanford over the past 20 years, and in the last five years, taught over a dozen classes for students and executives at the Stanford d.school. In the process, I have watched Perry move beyond and expand his engineering design skills to an ever broader set of problems, things like helping software executives gain empathy for what Gen Y workers want, rethinking the strategy of a Fortune 500 company, and lately we have been talking about how to apply design thinking to reinvent HR. Yet Perry's engineering roots are always evident. I was just watching the other day in class as Perry used his product engineering background to guide a class exercise aimed at improving employee selection, recruitment, and socialization practices for our d.school fellows program. He pressed the students to look for unmet needs, to identify the problem they were trying to solve, to brainstorm ideas for prototypes quickly, and then to test the emerging ideas with users --- even though those ideas were unfinished and crude approximations of organizational practices. This process, although modified by Perry and many others to fit problems of all kinds, is simply a variation of the design process that Perry used as a Stanford Engineering School student years ago to invent the modern snowshoe -- and then to grow the company and customer based required to make the product succeed. One of his primary mentors throughout the process was David Kelley, of course. It is no accident that the Stanford d.school is a unit of the Stanford School of Engineering. It is also no accident that many of us who teach design thinking to students (many of whom are MBAs working on business problems) have been mentored by engineers who are masters of design thinking -- people like David, Perry, and Diego.
In this vein, the sole Stanford Graduate School of Business professor who teaches regularly at the d.school is Jim Patell. He teaches magnificent classes on Extreme Affordability, where students design products like water pumps and lights for the poorest people on the planet. Jim was introduced to design thinking by David Kelley and then mentored by him for years. Now Jim teaches with Dave Beach, an engineering professor who (among any other things) runs the "Product Realization Lab," (the machine shop) at the Stanford Engineering School.
Certainly, depending on the problem at hand, other talents and disciplines play key roles in d.school classes and the design process. As an organizational psychologist, I believe the behavioral sciences have a lot to add to design thinking, and certainly believe my expertise is useful classes were we coach students in ways to spread infectious action (like this project) or when veteran executive Debra Dunn and I taught a class that helped Perry and his team at Timbuk2 build a better company meeting.
Yes, I am tenured professor in the Stanford Engineering School, but I am not an engineer. The core of what we do at the Stanford d.school and of much of what they do so well at IDEO is rooted most strongly in product design engineering, especially the flavor taught in the Stanford Engineering School. That is why, frankly, I always feel compelled to involve "real" product designers like Diego and Perry in the d.school classes I teach -- even though I am starting to believe that I know this design thinking stuff pretty well after teaching it for four or five years. Indeed, the masters of this craft aren't just established veterans like David Kelley and his students from long ago like Perry and Diego. Debra Dunn and I -- and our students -- have benefited a great deal by involving Kris Woyzbun (now at IDEO) in our class on treating organizational practices as prototypes. We like the fact that Kris took numerous classes on applying design thinking to business problems from us at the d.school and she was a star student -- but I would argue that one of the main reasons she was a star in those classes and now at IDEO is that she also has a masters in engineering product design from Stanford.
Like many other people at the d.school, I get in arguments about what design thinking is, how it ought to be applied, and the times when it isn't right to use it. But there is little disagreement at Stanford that the brand of design thinking that we teach largely reflects a mindset and set of methods that was developed and refined at the Stanford Engineering School for decades before design thinking was ever a hot business topic.
P.S. I want to emphasize that this post reflects my biased experience at Stanford and with IDEO. No doubt, engineers in other organizations and universities have had a huge impact as well. And I said, other disciplines have been crucial as well -- at IDEO Industrial Design has been especially critical.