Design Thinking – a help for Business Process Management?

BPM is a globally-themed concept that has remarkable similarities from country to country.  In line with that, the following is a guest blog by Janne Eriksson of Sweden, a business process management professional who works in the Nordic Countries:

I recently read an article by Swedish researcher Anna Rylander (University of Gothenburg) about Design Thinking.  There has been quite the hype around Design Thinking in recent years, pushing for giving more focus to a “think outside the box” way of finding solutions and creating diverging choices for solving problems rather than making choices from converging ideas (the basic concept of consensus).  A favorite example given frequently of the output of Design Thinking is the iPad.  We’re in business process management, however, so it needs to come back to what a BPM professional can learn from Design Thinking.

Rational way of solving problems

First, let’s take a moment to define what kind of questions a BPM professional  is trying to solve and the approach used in the traditional way to solve business problems.  The knowledge worker in a typical business environment is bringing four basic ideas into the conversation:

  • The knowledge is intellectual and theory driven, meaning it is in the hands of trained experts
  • The problems are “tame”, even though complex, are science driven and with well defined with borders.  Another word used for this is ‘incremental’.
  • The problems are very rational
  • They create value by using verbal interaction (between people), drawing out knowledge from questions and then the knowledge worker applying their own experience and technical prowess to develop the answer

They traditionally solve problems and define processes in a linear way using knowledge-driven theory to solve complex problems.  In a hierarchical business environment, this fits well.  They are the proper tool for the job and are utilized by management to create an outcome.

Design way to solve problems

It is quite bit different when you compare the four concepts and process above to a Design Thinking pattern and process.  The following are the traits of a Design Thinking-inspired environment:

  • The knowledge applied is practical (embodied or internal to the idea), and with reflection-in-action, or learn-as-you-go
  • Problems are open ended and can at the same time have a specific monetary or time-measured goal.  The goals can be very human-centered, in fact.  Enabling collaboration is a reasonable goal (participation in a process versus consumption of a process).
  • The identity is creative, meaning that instead of thinking about what to build, build as a way of deciding what to think
  • They create value by interaction with physical objects and with people

Solving the problem hinges on developing creative new ideas, not on the amount of linear thought or previous experience applied.  There aren’t right or wrong answers, only better or worse ideas.  Linear methods aren’t suitable for these kinds of problems and would only create incremental benefits instead of real change.  Design Thinking is about improvement through experimentation and a cycle of moving from problem definition to problem solution and maybe back to problem definition.  The beauty is in the iteration and creativity, which break through incremental change and create quantum change instead.

The following is an excellent TED presentation on Design Thinking by Tim Brown.

End User perspective

A design way of thinking also means that you take the end user way of looking at things as a starting point. This is the point where consultants and business process professionals have something to learn (or at least the ones I’ve met…). In a Design Thinking pattern, one starts with a group of users, their interactions with designed artifacts and the meaning that these interactions have in specific environments.  This is very much the opposite of a data-driven way of finding solutions, where one reaches conclusion when everything is prepared for the moment that re-involves the end user with training and other instruction for how to use the solution you’ve created.  This is also the set up for the later complaints that end users just don’t have the capacity to grasp the fantastic things that have been created for them.

Examples of doing things incorrectly can be found in most software or in early mobile phones, where it was obvious that the end user was never the starting point.  The popularity of the iPhone and other Apple products arise from the obvious end user focus that was applied from the very beginning of design.

Unfortunately, the same is true for BPM software as most involve complex methods of capture, complex notation (like BPMN), and lack redeployment and ownership by the true process experts.  They are essentially the polar opposite of Design Thinking.  It is fair to note that the results that are being achieved by old-school software are both incremental and underwhelming.  In times of great change like we’re currently in, likely the greatest since the industrial revolution of the 19th Century, we need new alternatives and new ideas.

Create a successful business process environment by choosing a system that supports the end user.  Involve the end user in design and then deploy the solution back to those same end users.


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Categories: Future of work, Process Management, Social / Collaboration, Strategy

Author:Chris Taylor

Reimagining the way work is done through big data, analytics, and event processing. There's no end to what we can change and improve. I wear myself out...

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19 Comments on “Design Thinking – a help for Business Process Management?”

  1. June 20, 2011 at 1:44 am #

    I have been involved in Business Process Re-engineering for 25 years, including use of TQM; BPR; Benchmarking; Six-Sigma and Kaizen approaches… The results of taking apart a process and rebuilding it more efficiently have always given dramatic improvements in terms of cost and time, reduction in resources, etc. The people working in the process have always know where there were inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement (though their managers often had no idea about these). They always seemed to feel liberated when someone listened and acted on problems they had been critical about for years.

    But about 5 years ago I began to realise that what people find much more difficult is to imagine, without constraint, and invent something completely fresh. I found that outside inspirations were missing. Too often the perspective was focused on close competitors within their own industry. That people very often looked but didn’t see, and seldom cared to look over a wall just to see what might be there. That 2+2 can equal 5 if approached from a different perspective… Using Design Thinking as an approach has been beneficial for these people. It has provided a methodology for doing something that inventors and talented designers do naturally. It has empowered people to re-think, re-design and re-build. It has encouraged organisations to search for fresh ideas from other sectors, to embrace new technologies, to “mash-up” these and emerge not only with fresh answers, but also with new questions.

    Business leaders across the world now recognise that in a post-economic-crisis world we need to adopt more of this thinking – see my blog post “Business Leadership for the 21st Century”:

    I guess the exam question for people reading this post is “Shall I be a leader or laggard in this trend?”

    James Rock
    Chief Business and Service Designer – Cultivar Consulting

    • June 20, 2011 at 6:40 am #

      Great question. Since many companies struggle to have a BPM strategy that involves end users, it will be hard for many to lead in this area.

    • Putcha V. Narasimham
      June 21, 2011 at 5:43 am #

      Dear Cultiver:

      Glad to see there are professionals who “have been involved in Business Process Re-engineering for 25 years, including use of TQM; BPR; Benchmarking; Six-Sigma and Kaizen approaches…”

      I have seen the article on “Design Thinking” but could not find anything which is radically different from the essense of the above. It appears to be a part of QI Method with increased emphasis on customer orientation.

      • June 21, 2011 at 7:00 am #

        I think where the difference comes in is the the customer orientation, as you say, but also in the “look at the outcome” approach rather than looking just at an initial problem statement. An example would be if you were to know there was a broken handoff between two groups, and you focused on that handoff and how to fix it. Instead, look at the outcome of the handoff, look from the view of those internal to the process, and design based on that, rather than assuming the handoff is even the issue. Have many iterations on the solution while even considering continually whether you’re looking at the right problem. The beauty is in the iteration and creativity, as Janne says. By doing so, you look past incremental change, never assume the problem is really the problem, and go for a real game-changing answer. I think of the progresssion in my lifetime from the Sony Walkman, the Sony Walkman cassette player, to the Sony Discman. Each was just an incremental ‘update’ on the previous, until Apple came along with the iPod and completely changed the game. By the Fall, they’ll give us music in the cloud, available on any device, anywhere. When the device gets to its limit, throw the device away and make it about the ubiquity of our data for any device. Now that’s interesting and Design Thinking…

  2. June 21, 2011 at 7:46 am #

    thanks Putcha,

    the main difference as you say, comes in the “Discovery” phase of a project. This is where user orientation and asking the right question comes in as Chris says. It is about taking a divergent approach rather than a convergent approach to a problem, and as well as user experience it is where creativity and inspiration from other sources should be applied. The Design Council “Double Diamond” approach is best used to describe this – it uses four phases: Discovery; Define; Develop; and Deliver – see here:

    hope this helps


    • Putcha V. Narasimham
      June 21, 2011 at 8:13 am #

      Thanks. I will take a look at the site you cited.

      The need for divergent thinking and techniques to do so have been there in all the methods since “value Engineering”. I want to know how what is claimed to be new is new and effective. Since you have evolved through all those methods and processes I hope to learn from you the distinctions.

      If what you cited provides the inputs, that would be great.

  3. Putcha V. Narasimham
    June 21, 2011 at 7:51 am #

    All the points you have brought up had been appearing in different forms (and with different emphasis) since the days of “Value Engineering” from mid 60s (when I first heard of them). TQM methods, Voice of Customer, QFD, Business Process Reengineering, Brainstorming, Problem Reframing, Discovery of TRUE / REAL / PURE Needs, Iterative incremental Methods, Agile and Extreme Methods, Disruptive Knowledge Management / Creativity / Innovations, Knowledge Management etc have highlighted the very problems and examples (though iPhone and iPod are not mentioned).

    The problems of handing off, service level agreements, negotiations, win-win agreements, cooperative-competition, have been analyzed and discussed conceptually in the engineering and administrative literature. The virtues and problems of segregation (silos) of departments and blurring of boundaries (General System Theory) have also been discussed repeatedly.

    The TED talk you cited and related talks are informative and inspiring but the question is “Are there Methods and Processes which are sufficiently defined to apply / launch that yield reliable repeatable benefits without much experimentation and adaptation?” I am on the lookout for anything that has sound principles and works reliably. Perhaps “Design Thinking” is the thing. I am trying to understand.

    • June 22, 2011 at 2:12 pm #


      I think you are trying to be too logical and rational, and seeking a silver bullet methodology that is going to deliver in every situation. This is endemic in the left-brain style of problem solving. The following advice is meant in the best possible spirit: –

      Take off your tie, roll up your sleeves and put on some shorts, take a long barefoot walk along the beach, and splash around a little… then lie down, close your eyes and start to imagine!

      The results might surprise you!


      • Putcha V. Narasimham
        June 23, 2011 at 12:12 am #

        Hai Cultiver Thanks.

        Quite to the contrary of the impression I may have given, I am opposed to highly rigorous / elaborate single method and I am at ease to brain storm and try quick-and-dirty trials / prototypes when ever feasible.

        I am using some of your suggestions and I will do more of the same…to get some results. I just want to improve the chances of getting desirable results for myself and my students / clients. That is the key.

    • June 23, 2011 at 3:38 am #


      I think my e-book “The Art of Business Design” might help you! 2,500 people have viewed/downloaded this so it must have something to it… you can view/download it here:


  4. June 22, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    interesting. my 2 cents from the video games industry: good design process requires the seeding and input of many brains, and not just those of expert game designers. If only experts are involved in the early concept development, your game is likely to be a rehash of existing designs, since designers expertise often lies on the deep knowledge of these earlier designs.

    • June 22, 2011 at 11:32 am #

      Great point!

    • Putcha V. Narasimham
      June 23, 2011 at 12:17 am #

      Yes, that trend is strong with experts but as a facilitator and enabler I have not seen intelligent non-experts doing any better. That is why I am examining the suggested methods.

  5. June 22, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    I can give you the DT firehose (constantly updated):

    Or you can opt for the synthesis of what ‘were’ the top recent books on the subject:

    That said, I’m looking forward to the most recent book release (this month): Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers (Columbia Business School Publishing)

    If you want to roll around it the topic and are in Seattle or Vancouver, BC, join us in August:

    • June 22, 2011 at 1:30 pm #

      Paula, thank you for your comments and links. What are your thoughts on how this fits in the business process world?

  6. June 24, 2011 at 7:08 am #

    Interesting thread that has generated a number of comments and thought here as well as several trackback threads in other blogs. I ended up at this HBR article by Tim Brown of Ideo on Design Thinking –

    This lead me to think that there are a group of professionals that are specifically educated in design and that they may have more insight into design thinking than business or information or business process professionals. Architectural designers have long sought simplicity of design and stakeholder involvement. Researching a little more I came across the term “charrette” which is an intensive planning session where stakeholders, designers, and others collaborate on a vision for development. WOW! Isn’t that what should happen in the discovery phase of a BPM initiative? There is even a National Charrette Institute with prescribed methods to facilitate these sessions. Can the BPM industry learn something from these professionals regarding structured facilitation?
    Is a virtual charrette
    the same as social BPM ?

    • June 24, 2011 at 8:44 am #

      I believe there is a systems convergence going on where Big Data is allowing us to design and manage things that we didn’t think possible just a few years ago. EA is no longer distinct from BPM, and BPM is no longer distinct from compliance, etc. The systems exist to do this through collaborative (social) means without creating chaos. I’m very interested to see how this all works out.


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