Putting personal mastery back into Design Thinking

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In my previous article, How do we bridge the chasm between Design Thinking and Design Doing?, I looked at where and how design thinking skills and expertise should be located inside an organisation for maximum impact. In this article I would like to go beyond the how and into the why of design thinking. Without senior executives genuinely understanding the why, then no matter where the expertise is located, design and innovation initatives are far less likely to gain traction and ultimately succeed.

An image of an astronaught, castle, snooker ball and mushroom inside a clam shell
Credit: Igor Postiga, Guilherme Gerais and Rafael Fontoura

While there are various different definitions of design thinking, I would like to share my own conception, which like some others have done, contains three different levels, all of which are connected:

i) An innovation mindset that understands the value of design;
ii) A design approach that is democratic and involves people who are not themselves designers;
iii) A collection of methodologies and tools used in both in the design of products and services and in the search for solutions to complex problems in all types of organizations;

Where I see design thinking projects failing to reach their fullest potential is in those situations where the highest level of understanding of design is not appreciated, and this is the level of personal mastery.

My personal definition of design is as follows:

Design is intentional creation through artistic and technical skills.

While those who are not designers are quite able to appreciate technical skills, and also able to appreciate artistic skills on some level, it is still rare to find an appreciation of artistic consciosuness in organisations. When we develop artistic consciousness as designers, we develop an ability not only to design using qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, but we are also able to use what I have termed philosophical creativity:

Philosophical creativity is the ability to explore multiple scientific paradigms at the same time in order to most fully explore the problem space.

My own business consultancy, Holonomics, works with multiple paradigms when developing interventions to facilitate digital and cultural transformation in organisations. We take inspiration from phenomenology, hermeneutics and process philosophy, and combine these more artistic practices with more technical methodologies such as Balanced Scorecard, Future Search and those we have developed ourselves such as our Customer Experiences with Soul framework and our Holonomic Circle design tool, seen in the illustration below:

Credit: Paulo Fabre

This is what it means to be working at an ontological level. Our practices have a solid theoretical foundation, locating them firmly within a formally structured conception of reality. When you work at an ontological level, you are working at the level of being, of what things are, and this is where personal mastery within design lies.

A designer achieves personal mastery when that which is designed reveals new worlds and new ways of being to people.

Let’s think about one of the most commonly used business tools to have been created in the last twenty years, Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas. This was not suddenly created in eureka moment of inspiration. It came about after Osterwalder’s master's degree research which explored the ontology of business models.

Nortel’s Java smartphone concept design, 1995

In the 1990s, during the first wave of the internet and internet startups, we never used the term business model. We created business cases in Powerpoint, Word and Excel. And these then had to be socialised across our organisations to get as many departments to buy into the innovation projects as possible. The genius of Osterwalder was to examine business models in such depth that he was then able to understand how to represent them on a visual canvas. He did not start with the canvas and work backward to the design of its structure.

When we understand this level of design, the artistic consciousness of the designer, we then understand how to explain and sell the value of design to senior executives, meaning that organisations are then better able to really work with design at a much higher level. Design thinking is then not relegated to a practice which simply ‘designs’ through the empathic understanding and participation of those who are not designers.

This level of design is able to evaluate a whole organisation’s strategy, extract the fundamental essence, understand the contributing paradigms and perspectives underlying its development, and then utilise philosophical creativity insight to rethink, transform and create entirely new evolutionary pathways which previously had not been included, contemplated or even conceived.

Credit: Igor Postiga, Guilherme Gerais and Rafael Fontoura

This is design operating at the highest levels of artistry, strategy and personal mastery. An example comes from here in Brazil, with our Deep Tech Network exploring the role of art within the evolution of technology through the work of designers such as Igor Postiga, Guilherme Gerais and Rafael Fontoura and photographer Paulo Fabre. And our most recent Deep Tech podcast investigated how we can prevent monotechnological cultures from interferring in the expansion of our horizons and the coming-into-being of new worlds.

It is incredible to realise that Heidegger’s warning on the dangers of an obsession with technology was published back in 1954. His essay, The Question Concerning Technology, ends with the final reflection:

Thus questioning, we bear witness to the crisis that in our sheer preoccupation with technology we do not yet experience the coming to presence of technology, that in our sheer aesthetic-mindedness we no longer guard and preserve the coming to presence of art. Yet the more questioningly we ponder the essence of technology, the more mysterious the essence of art becomes.

The closer we come to the danger, the more brightly do the ways into the saving power begin to shine and the more questioning we become. For questioning is the piety of thought.

Through our Deep Tech ecosystem, Holonomics and 1STi are developing new forms of partnership with organisations who wish to become better at designing deep tech solutions which are able to produce a meaningful impact in the world. We will only be able to achieve this by developing our own levels of personal mastery in design thinking. Our network is not simply developing technical skills, we are also creating new ways of being, new ways of working together and asking which new leadership skills will make sense in the context of Deep Tech.

Our approach therefore is to discover new forms of creativity in order to help open up new horizons for people and organisations, and we are doing this by allowing our philosophical creativity to inform our practice and develop new ways of exploring the world and asking qualitatively new questions.

In this way, we are discovering that the new generation of leaders in organisations can be thought of as guardians of collective mastery. The power of any network comes through the quality of the relationships; it is not about the quality of single nodes in the network, or single individuals who may be highly talented but who do not have the ability to act within a network.

The next generation of leaders will require an ability to develop not just higher levels of design mastery in individuals, but also to have an ability to develop collective mastery within their organisation. And this means developing new rituals, a higher quality of culture and understanding the organisation as a living system, as a dynamic whole.

By being guardians of collective mastery, new leaders who understand and work with design will have the ability to open up new worlds to those who are a part of the organisation and in doing so, through the collective efforts of all of those in the organisation, use their creativity to create, design and offer us something extraordinary, opening up new horizons to those they are ultimately serving.

The UX Collective donates US$1 for each article published in our platform. This story contributed to Bay Area Black Designers: a professional development community for Black people who are digital designers and researchers in the San Francisco Bay Area. By joining together in community, members share inspiration, connection, peer mentorship, professional development, resources, feedback, support, and resilience. Silence against systemic racism is not an option. Build the design community you believe in.

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