“How the impulse to rename old ideas causes us to miss the point.”
Recently, I attended a business conference about innovation to improve customer experiences. I was fortunate to participate in a small round table discussion with senior executives. These leaders work in a diverse assortment of organizations including a manufacturer that is a household name in consumer electronics, a global leader in commercial real estate services, a major entertainment streaming platform, and a well-known income tax preparation service.
The most memorable comment came from a C-level officer of a global company. “In our organization, the biggest impediment to innovation is the competition for resources over what I call the alphabet soup of experiences,” he said.
Of course, this executive meant UX, CX, EX, OX, MX, and now TX (user experience, customer experience, employee experience, organizational experience, multiexperience, and total experience, respectively). As someone who works at a design and innovation agency, I was intrigued to hear how continually reframing these various disciplines or strategies can create tensions within a company. Designers often see interconnectedness when some enterprise executives see differences or sources of conflict. Recently, my colleague Justin Zalewski wrote a white paper explaining the inherent relationships of improving customer and employee experiences.
The round table discussion focused on the challenges of working in large organizations. Their struggle caused me to reflect on how ideas are accepted and adopted at different rates in different industries, even when solutions are readily available. I am especially attuned to the extent that most organizations have generally failed to adopt any form of design thinking as a transferable skill in business management.
Consider the example of the September 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review. The issue featured a thematic set of articles about change management (Tim Brown and Roger Martin), organizational culture (Jon Kolko), innovation (Samsung), and strategy (Indra Nooyi). The editors stated, “Once confined to product development, design thinking has become central to strategy, innovation, and organizational culture… Executives are using this approach to devise strategy and manage change.”
While this statement was published seven years ago, the claim still feels aspirational today when people in organizations are still sorting out the different, potentially competing priorities in the bowl of alphabet soup. The magazine cover’s headline, “The evolution of design thinking: It’s no longer just for products,” reminds me of the Florida Orange Growers Association’s iconic “It isn’t just for breakfast anymore” campaign. The campaign, which ran from 1976 to 1986, raised consumption of orange juice at times other than breakfast by 50%.1 It confounds me to realize that decades of storytelling about design thinking hasn’t increased the application of design in business enterprises as much as one jingle increased the consumption of orange juice.
The mainstream business press, led predominantly by HBR2, as well as by Bruce Nussbaum during his tenures at BusinessWeek3 4 and Fast Company5, has consistently touted the power of the design-driven innovation mindset for two decades. Despite the HBR claim in 2015 that “design thinking comes of age,” the truer story is how generations of readers discover the value of design and design thinking, then forget it.
Consider this passage and how the central concept that all objects, activities, and experiences must be considered and conceived within whole systems mirrors Gartner’s new new strategy that goes by the fashionable moniker TX:
“Design has many connotations… Designing is a complex and intricate task… The designer must see the periphery as well as the core, the immediate and the ultimate, at least in the biological sense. He must anchor his special job in the complex whole… The idea of design and the profession of the designer has to be transformed from the notion of a specialist function into a generally valid attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness which allows projects to be seen not in isolation but in relationship with the needs of the individual and the community. One cannot simply lift out any subject matter from the complexity of life and try to handle it as an independent unit.
There is design in the organization of emotional experiences, in family life, in labor relations, in city planning, in working together as civilized human beings. Ultimately all problems of design merge into one great problem: ‘design for life.’ In a healthy society this design for life will encourage every profession and vocation to play its part since the degree of relatedness in all their work gives to any civilization its quality. This implies that it is desirable that everyone should solve his special task with the wide scope of a true ‘designer’ with the new urge to integrated relationships.”
Most readers will likely be surprised to learn that these ideas were posthumously published in 1947 by László Moholy-Nagy, founder of the New Bauhaus (1937) and Institute of Design (1944) in Chicago.6 Even earlier in 1912, gestalt psychologists argued that the whole is other than the sum of its parts.7 These are basic concepts designers use to scaffold better experiences.
It seems obvious that businesses should deliver integrated services that are experienced holistically without regard to institutional silos or fragmented delivery systems. Yet, scores of business executives, analysts, and consultants, especially in the tech sectors, greet this as a novel, even controversial idea. Why does it matter when people don’t recognize a new concept from an old one? Better late than never, right?
The problem with reframing fundamental principles as a “top strategic technology trend” is that it puts ideas in silos and makes them disposable within the planned obsolescence of business consulting fads. Labels like UX, CX, EX, MX, OX, and TX are vague. Labels like UX, CX, EX, OX, MX, and TX mean different things to different people. Labels like UX, CX, EX, MX, OX, and TX are distractions. Labels like UX, CX, EX, OX, MX, and TX are too quickly replaced by the next new new.
It would be more productive to help all people who work in organizations develop competence in the enduring design principles of how to conceive and deliver better services to people. Competence stems from knowing the mindset of WHY and WHAT and by skillfully applying the methods and tools for HOW.
Countless resources and well-trodden paths exist to help people learn scalable, transferable design thinking techniques. These techniques allow people to succeed at many endeavors: to find and frame opportunities for innovation, devise better products and services, launch or pivot businesses, align how people work and relate to one another in organizations, to leverage the power of people in communities, and to orchestrate more sustainable systems.
If you’re interested in talking more about any of my thoughts above, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
6 Moholy-Nagy wasn’t an obscure academic on the fringe. His benefactor was Walter Paepcke, founder of Container Corporation of America. CCA manufactured 90% of the U.S. supply for corrugated cardboard containers in the second third of the twentieth century. A visionary philanthropist, Paepcke founded The International Design Conference in Aspen (and ultimately the Aspen Institute).