The goal of a startup is no longer just user engagement or viability. A “preference for disruption” is celebrated, without reservation, whether a small or big business. (Only recently were reservations even fussed over – Jill Lepore’s critique of Disruption culture was published the week after this conference talk, June 23.) She states (without critical analysis of causation):
“Ever since “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars. This fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: “The degree is in disruption,” the university announced. “Disrupt or be disrupted,” the venture capitalist Josh Linkner warns in a new book.”
As an ethnographer of innovation practices, I have always appreciated Christensen and his contribution to theories of change. I also observe the trend signified by Lepore, the increasing meta-narrative of “disruption is good.” Disruptive innovation is not always beneficial to a society or even markets. In Design for Care I fret over the preference for disruption in current business thinking and its unjustified hubris in the healthcare field. With the mantra of disruption, we can gain attention by claiming the long process of disruptive innovation is occurring, for whatever it is we supposedly want to change. Much of this talk is (technically) bullshit, technology-centric wishful thinking promulgated as a rhetoric of winning, that ignores the realities of institutional practice and the complex forces and demands in healthcare that function differently.
Lepore starts to critique the social effects of disruption rhetoric, but she doesn’t go far enough in critique of cultural effects. However, she’s wrong to blame Clay Christensen for the wave of current disruption talk, as disruption has become a theme of startup and business culture only loosely based on Christensen at this point. She unfairly critiques The Innovator’s Dilemma, the 1997 work based on Christensen’s earlier research on the disk drive industry. But Christensen describes a very real systemic effect within business cycles, that new markets grow around inexpensive but viable alternative products and services, and that these markets can grow under the new cost structure and shift market share to the new provider. I observed the struggles and barriers to effective innovation practices in my own research of within-organizational innovation, discovering causes resulting from shifts in a company’s values (which of course are influenced by success and a growing customer base, also consistent with Christensen’s Resources-Process-Values theory). When successful products prevent strategic innovation. Design Management Journal, 2002, 13 (2).
Disruption has become in itself desirable, presumably preferred because of the theory of displacing entrenched regimes. It is the ultimate asymmetric power play, as the algorithmic efficiency of the startup is believed the inevitable winner in a technocentric future. We have culturally created a preference for technological innovation as a “disruptive” force, even in social domains such as education and healthcare. We now expect technology to save us, to provide ready-made “solutions” for supposedly entrenched problems, problems which are often framed as stupidly as “healthcare is broken. Obviously we must fix it.”
Evgeny Morozov eviscerates the Silicon Valley business of solutionism in his recent work, aiming to shift discourses from technological fixes of everything to shore up our collective ability to think and speak well about concerns. In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review his book To Save Everything Click Here is framed as an attempt
“to integrate the debates about technology into the broader debates about politics, economics, history, and culture—areas of study with much richer traditions and far greater intellectual resources for tackling the many challenges that technology presents. Such a shift in discourse, he feels, would limit the influence of those advocating narrow technological solutions to what are essentially non-technological problems—like spreading democracy—and would rob a word like “disruption” of the positive connotation it has acquired as a force for progress, allowing it to be seen instead as a painful example of neoliberal economics.”
The medium has become the message again, as disruption is not the fix itself but signifies the capacity for innovation, which has become celebrated as a cultural value, not the content of specifically valued developments. Any startup can be disruptive if we merely pivot it enough; any innovation is inherently and perhaps equally desirable to another. The embedded values that accompany technological disruption are rarely questioned, as the headline value of disruption and its promised effects sweeps away the questions that might be asked with a lesser fate. Our own values and social responses are increasingly mediated by technological culture, by apps, by “context”. As a result, citizens become increasingly unable to imagine effective collective responses to actual shared concerns. Issues deemed too complex for political agreement and deliberation are deferred to the technological solutions of “innovation.”
Critics of Lepore (there were many) come down on her “incompetent” analysis of the Dilemma or her weakly-supported claims of an emerging “faith in disruption.” As she’s a business academic and not a cultural observer, she may have missed the larger system in which disruption fever is happening. We now live in a technogenic culture, a much larger cultural system that has disrupted several generations in society by replacing these “broader debates” with the promises of a frictionless future enabled by an ever-smaller number of ruling figures in Silicon Valley.
How Innovation Regimes Reproduce Culture
Media Ecology Association, Toronto, June 20, 2014
“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” John Culkin, SJ (Usually attributed to his friend, Marshall McLuhan)
We live in a technogenic culture – a society that generates ever more technology, whether necessary or not. Mainstream culture celebrates the economic value of technological ingenuity, and worships innovation.
Our desires become captured and entranced by the tools of tech. In this post-age of ubiquitous smart-things, everyone now “owns technology,” or gadgets – whether a smartphone, stack of computers, soon personal robots. For the first time in history perhaps, there is little differentiation between generational ownership – children, the elderly, very poor people – all have similar gadgets. There may finally be little or no cachet to having the latest hardware or gadget.
The desirable commodity has become the capacity to produce technology. The capacity for mass self-production with 3D printing and “desktop app publishing” represents an entry point toward the ownership of technology as the medium itself. Owning an app or a capacity says more about your technological self than owning any device. It is not enough just to communicate – in fact, we may be communicating ever more poorly. But the desired distinction will be reproduction.
We may have started with a hosted blog, but now wish to own a cloud site or “have” a startup (as a high-end reference point.) The emerging new media in this regime are not merely the ecology of “apps” but the media of technology production, the ability to spin off dozens of apps. Whether this is fruitful, desirable or socially beneficial does not matter, as in media ecology terms reproduction has become the ground. Apps and startups themselves are figures emerging from the ground.
The global Internet has made technogenic culture universally accessible. Globalization has exported and socialized a culture driven by economic values associated with Silicon Valley venture capitalism. We are all startups now, giving pitches, we’re all watching or giving TED talks. But these are the surface behaviors. All modern economies, and their associated societies and cultures, now value technological innovation as a desirable public good.
Developing nations, universities, and research enterprises are encouraged to behave as entrepreneurs, placing the outcomes of research, and increasingly culture, into the realm of global competition and market valuation. As such, it isn’t enough to just win as an entrepreneur – we are taught to look for the Exit Strategy, to cash out on our ideas. We hope to Disrupt something thereby, the grail of Impact and the aim of every startup.
As a self-reinforcing socialized process, our capability to produce technological efficiencies has become a societal norm and even a public good. Only crank critics bother to suggest that economic efficiency may have unwanted consequences. But there seems to be no limit to our demand for efficiency – we may have maximized the ways in which technology production makes life easier or better for people, as robotic labour becomes a reality. So as innovation elites we now seek the super-productive power to “disrupt worlds.”
If it were possible, I’d roll back this penchant toward disruption as we will see this misconstrued notion carried along into all avenues of commerce and design. A startup bent on disrupting its stolid traditional competitor is to be expected. But now we have institutions, hospitals and cities, banks, trying to disrupt themselves. We will see radical disruption in human services and socially-critical industries, such as energy and education. And we will have no right to expect these services to serve society better. The point of disruption is economic values, not human betterment.
We might just ask, would you trust “radical system change” to inexperienced enthusiasts with little patience to understand the systems they are hoping to change?
(Updated from 2010)
We now tend to think of design thinking as embracing all that represents “new design.” Yet there remains more value in some of the original views of design thinking from decades ago than in most of what’s presented today. Design thinking is often treated as a process for moving an idea from ideation through prototyping to a concept test or an early alpha design. Or we mean it to represent the creative process associated with the structural mechanics of a generic design process – identify user needs by empathy and observation, iterate a promising prototype, add visual design and some marketing and voila.
Let’s go back 30 years. The 4 orders of abstraction Buchanan (1992) describes in Wicked Problems in Design Thinking are usually left untapped in design thinking discussions. Buchanan lists:
- Symbolic and visual communications
- Material objects
- Activities and organized services
- Complex systems or environments for living, working, playing and learning
Another 4-phase description of design thinking is GK van Patter’s Design 1.0 – 4.0 as described in numerous NextD articles and presentations. The four phases are more of a process model than the design of things represented by each phase.
The NextD framework of D1, D2, D3 is in essence a complexity scale. It is a post-discipline view that is process, not content focused. As a field of knowledge design is an amorphous time warp that exists across several time zones or paradigms simultaneously.
The NextD view considers the four phases as processes in “designing for” which are generally:
1.0 Artifacts and communications (traditional design)
2.0 Products and services
3.0 Organizational transformation (bounded by business or strategy)
4.0 Social transformation (complex, unbounded)
These are essentially ways of viewing the changes in design practice, as design thinking, from the designerly and not a business perspective. A design approach to organizational transformation is not a business approach, even if both call the process “design thinking.”
As the debates about design thinking continue, I am (still) struck by several developments:
- The re-emergence of design thinking as a frame and trend has emerged from business thinking, and not from the design disciplines. Design had largely ignored Buchanan’s model, and the term was picked up by Weathehead and Rotman business schools. My own observation was that (Case Western’ Weatherhead School) Boland and Collopy’s Managing as Designing had a huge influence on business education.
- Major design firms (IDEO, Continuum) started engaging in business consulting as much as design work. The language distinctions of design thinking as process are now influenced more by business need than design invention.
- As the Design discipline does not own “design thinking”, there is very little agreement among designers as to, precisely, what Design Thinking is and how it differs from design methodology. I trace design thinking to systems thinking, but there are real differences.
In “Learning the Lessons of Systems Thinking: Exploring the Gap between Thinking and Leadership” (2009, Integral Leadership Quarterly) I traced design thinking directly to creative systems thinking:
“Many systems thinkers explicitly oriented their theories to designing, at least starting with Newell, Simon and Shaw’s (1958) The Processes of Creative Thinking. Ackoff’s basic principles-such as starting from an ideal envisioned outcome and generate scenarios for reaching that vision-fit many of the practices espoused by firms such as IDEO, Jump, and Redesign Research. We may have dressed up the methodologies and supported them with design research, but design thinking is indebted more to systems thinkers than to traditional (industrial) designers. (Which may explain why design thinking is, unfortunately, rarely presented with the “designerly” richness it deserves).”
Most of that article discusses why systems thinking, even though taught to managers for a couple of decades in seminars and articles, largely failed in its mission to enhance management as a practice. A true evolving systems view of commerce would have treated stakeholders and customers as inviolable participants in the network of sustainable and virtuous business.
Innovation consultant Bob Jacobson has expressed that recently “design thinking,” as a business practice, may have reached a point of snake oil marketing. I have noticed design theorists backing off from the conceptualization of design thinking because 1) they didn’t get ahead of the curve of the meme uptake, as GK van Patter indicates, and 2) the framework for design thinking has been degraded by its many opportunistic deployments, making it “all things to all people,” and 3) it generally does not describe what designers do.
While designers will share their views of design thinking, they do not generally approach design projects from a “thinking” perspective. I see the very notion as having been conjured and defended by non-designers for non-designers to more credibly borrow from the universal patterns of designerly action. The attempts of non-designers to appropriate the terminology without the craft diminish the perceived value of design’s contribution.
So if we’re hoping to bring transformation to the enterprise, designing still plays only a supplemental role anyway. Design thinking is viewed by most as primarily methodology (Problem framing, user focus, early field research, iteration, agility, contingency). It is not the substantive work of transformation. But our continued churn and recycling of “what it is” just points to the way our field valorizes itself and indulges its fads, as much as management thinkers do their fads.
Finally, Bruno Latour makes a clear point about the shift toward a humility and care in design in his 2008 speech, A Cautious Prometheus. Latour can be controversial, and this position is as divergent from methodological design thinking as one could imagine.
“As a concept, design implies a humility that seems absent from the word “construction” or “building”. Because of its historical roots as a mere addition to the “real” practicality, sturdy materiality and functions of daily objects, there is always some modesty in claiming to design something anew. In design there is nothing foundational. It seems to me that to say you plan to design something, does not carry the same risk of hubris as saying one is going to build something.”
The problem with design thinking may be the hubris that merely designing something is more than enough. There are no design thinking formulas for transformation. Latour’s suggestion of “care” and “entanglement” foretells we must live in and with the real worlds of our societies and organizations. Transformative work leads us to become insiders committed to the worlds we care about. Design becomes secondary, a skill, that supports larger commitments to the world. And this may be the biggest difference between “Design 1.0 and Design 4.0.”
Roger Martin’s current post on the HBR Blog offers a brief discussion on the profound concept and method of interactive strategy. Help Leaders Be Less Useless at Strategy suggests managers (and those of us aiding them) adopt a early review of framing, strategic challenges, and priorities and options. Consistent with “Decision Design,” Roger shows how an iterative, cyclic, feedback-driven approach to strategy making would help organizational leaders build more focused and resilient strategies that avoid blind alleys, fixation, the garden path of easy approvals.
We will be well-served if the companies (and societal services) we care about take this approach seriously. The recommendations in a nutshell:
Instead, construct a more productive series of interactions on strategy:
- Go early with the framing of the strategy challenge that you want to tackle. Ask your leader whether there is a different way he or she would frame the challenge that you should be working on.
- Go back with the possibilities you generate. Ask your leader whether there might be different possibilities he or she would consider or ones on your list that he/she sees as unacceptable on their face.
- Return a third time when you have reverse-engineered the possibilities to determine what you believe would have to be true and have identified which of those things that you feel are least likely to hold true. Ask the leader whether there are additional conditions that would have to hold true and about which are they most skeptical.
I’d frame his approach as strategic discovery, as it suggests a process aligned with Gary Klein’s Management by Discovery approach to strategic decision making. We can never understand all the possible impacts and consequences of positions and choices. For complex, high-consequence environments, we should frame strategy as an inquiry of discovery, allowing a team of deeply-invested by dissimilar advisors to consider options and their influences and outcomes as a series of interactive dialogic encounters.