Are corporations applying design thinking as a superficial band-aid without addresses the underlying disease of modern management?
The evolution of capitalism thus can be seen as continuing pursuit of higher return on capital through a series of separations: production, management and finance. Each of these separations brought a new form of “leverage” that amplifies the potential return on investment. Yet, at the same time, they brought greater degree of complexity, unforeseen systemic risks, and alienation of labor and consumers alike.
Design thinking, as it is currently popularized with the emphasis on human-centered product and service design, deals only with the problems from the separation of production and consumption, leaving other and possibly far more serious challenges that today’s management is facing. Many of these challenges arose as a result of separations of management and finance from production. For example, design thinking has little to say about the recent financial crisis that raised many fundamental questions about the continuing viability of the current form of capitalism and the role of management schools. The demise of the Big Three is the result of institutionalized “scientific” management and toxic financial products as much as the lack of human-centered design in their products.
My concern is that the current obsession with the design thinking can have unintended harmful consequences on the future of management in the long run. As it is currently being applied, design is seen as a quick fix of profitability problems, new product developments, and consumer satisfactions, rather than dealing with more systemic and serious issues. Indeed, it might lead us to the emergence of new form of capitalism, design capitalism, where creativity is separated from production and consumption. Just as management was for the sake of management during the managerial capitalism, and finance was for the sake of finance during the financial capitalism, we may see the creativity for the sake of creativity in this new form of design capitalism. If that happens, instead of finding its panacea, management might have discovered the most powerful painkiller it has ever found. And, alas, that is design.
As the world gets more complex and corporations continue to bloat in search of economies of scale, there is a growing disconnect between production and consumption. Production of everything is so distant and foreign to consumers that US children have trouble identifying common vegetables. Consumers have almost no idea how the goods we consume are produced, nor where they are from. Nicer packages and brighter colors might look prettier and sell more products but how many more marginally differentiated products do we really need?
Real design is about rebuilding the connections between consumers and producers that has been forgotten in financial and management circles.