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Design Thinking Doesn’t Guarantee Innovation

Jonathan Courtney
By Jonathan Courtney on 25th May, 2017 Updated on 10th July, 2019

I’ll be the first to admit it: most of us don’t really know exactly what design thinking is.

I thought it was a process. I thought it was about creativity. Now, I believe design thinking is better understood as a mindset and philosophy.

And that’s where the magic begins.

At my design agency AJ&Smart, we use design thinking to solve problems and produce solutions rather than treating it as just a “creative” process. A creative process makes it seem like you need full-time creative people to do it. But you don’t.

Let’s explore why design thinking is a mindset, and not a process, and what practical design thinking looks like.

Innovation practices are desperately needed

Over the years, my co-founder Michael and I visited and gave many design thinking workshops. It’s what our clients wanted. And it’s how we could easily make a buck. Or two. Because they paid us a lot.

In the end, everyone is looking for the Holy Grail of Innovation. Large companies and even startups that are getting a little “too big”, feel that their company needs to be somehow innovative.

Trying out the Holo Lens in a design thinking workshop

So to get professional design thinking trainings, companies can choose from two options: hire another training company or get mentors to come in.

The problem with these approaches is that often “meh” theorists teach textbook knowledge without actual experience of product design and innovation attempts.

They teach design thinking as a process — without a deep understanding what it really is. You end up doing funny and energetic exercises. You design the best wallet on earth. But the next day (with a little headache of too many beer after the workshop), you won’t apply anything practicable to your daily work.

So, it looks good for your boss: “Finally, we did something creative and innovative.

But deep down, these companies and their employees aren’t learning anything of lasting value from these trainings. You can’t just buy your way into innovation. You need to learn to be a practitioner yourself.

Design thinking is not a process — it’s a mindset.

Most people take the different exercises that are taught in design thinking and try to repeat them — literally — in the design process. The problem with that is that we are taught examples. It’s not like the straightforward Business Model Canvas.

Do this, and then do that.

Design thinking is more like “here you can do this exercise and it will give you this or that”. And people respond with: “Great, then we should do this” — without understanding that it’s just an example that describes the mindset of design thinking.

Remember: design thinking is NOT a process. So, don’t take it literally.

Design thinking is excellent for getting people into the idea of thinking from the customer’s perspective and prototyping their hypotheses. But it’s been taken too literally.

Let me explain.

So, you have two types of people:

  • Employees who don’t buy into it and just think: “I can’t believe we’re wasting money on this.
  • Employees who buy into it and copy and paste the bits and pieces that they think are needed to innovate — but stray out of context. Unfortunately, they can end up with heavy documents that are just as long and complex as the ones that they used to create before. Nothing really changed.

As a result, the lean and agile spirit of design thinking is completely lost. The only thing that a team and company wins is a new “wording” to describe the same, old ways of working.

Don’t use ‘design thinking’ as a new wording to explain your old workflows.

Just to be clarify: I’m not saying that design thinking is a scam. In my eyes, it really makes sense for a company to understand the design thinking mindset and application.

But one question remains though. How can we teach design thinking differently so that it survives real world product development?

How to better teach design thinking

We should treat design thinking as a toolset for problem solving and making decisions. We should not consider it merely as a toolset for being creative. Too many teachers incorrectly stress just the creativity.

Another worrying assumption is when people equate innovation with ideas. Innovation means the entire package, the idea and the execution. As Ken Norton stresses, innovation means making things 10x better and 10x more convenient than what’s already out there.

Teachers should focus on the practicable applications of the design thinking philosophy. One of these practicable applications is the Sprint method.

An example of practical design thinking

Just to be clear, it doesn’t have to be the Sprint method. It’s just an example of how the design thinking mindset has been made practical.

In early 2016, I came across Jake Knapp’s posts on the Sprint method for generating predictable and tangible outcomes.

Sprints are the fastest way to find out if a product is worth developing, if a feature is worth the effort, or if your value proposition is really valid. For example, a Sprint Week at our agency AJ&Smart is a 4-day process

A design sprint is essentially a 4-day intense hackathon.

On Day 1 we work in person with our clients to define the challenges and scope of the week. Day 2 is about deciding what challenges to prototype. Day 3 is about rapidly building the high fidelity prototype, which is then tested with real users on Day 4.

The following principles drive the process:

  • Don’t rely on creativity
  • Getting started > being right
  • 10x not 10%
  • Together alone
  • Timebox everything
  • Tangible > discussion

The outcome of every Sprint Week is an interactive prototype, tested by real users, and with clear insights on where to go next. The goal is to have a tangible representation of the challenges we want to solve, not empty discussion or a “vision document”.

Once you have a tangible representation of your product in your hand, and real user insights to guide your next steps, making decisions becomes a lot easier.

You could use a second sprint to iterate and polish the idea, bringing it very close to production-ready, or you could use the prototype to sell the idea further and develop the concept.


At AJS, we’ve made a lot of money teaching design thinking. And it was fun, but it was also very dissatisfying to see that our customers couldn’t apply what we taught to real life.

That’s why we now tell our customers that we don’t do design thinking workshops anymore. We aggressively push against them and only ‘sell’ Sprints because we believe Sprints are a practicable application of design thinking.

That’s true value to our clients.

We hope more educators and design thinkers will try the Sprint method as the program that runs on the operating system known as design thinking.

If you’re an educator, make sure to teach companies the design thinking mindset based on their problems, not on “designing the perfect wallet”. Also, please read “Creative Confidence”.

Don’t be afraid to teach design thinking in a “colder” and less sexy way to ensure it actually contributes to making more money, not just fun for a few days.

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