General Principles of Design Thinking

In response to my previous post there were a few requests to list down the general principles of Design Thinking as applicable for organizations and individuals.

I shall attempt to do so and then illustrate the application of these principles through later posts. The order of writing down the principles one after the other has a logic, which I have found convenient to apply when solving problems. It is always possible to have minor variations in the order but this is the general and natural progression of the principles, when applied to solving live cases (any real case for that matter — organizational, product, processes, services, knowledge, quality, marketing, self development…..).

0th (Zeroth) Principle: Similar symptoms: Different Problems

All problems are contextual and therefore unique.

It means that even if the symptoms of two similar looking problems might appear to be the same the underlying reasons might be completely different thereby leading to different solutions. For example, we might have a headache for various reasons like — fever, exhaustion, digestion problems or from cold. While the symptoms appear similar the underlying reasons might be different in each case and therefore the treatment of the problem would differ according to the context and so would be the solutions. Therefore, all problems are to be looked at within a given context. As soon as the context changes so does the problem.

1st Principle: Challenge the assumptions: Start with a Zen mind

Quite often we think that we know the solution to a problem and go ahead in implementing the solution without having a second thought. In most cases it turns out that the solution was wrong and the nagging problem persists or repeats itself. This is a social waste of human capital and the society at large suffers. Why does this happen too often? This is because our individual perceptions are stored in our mind as experience, which we think of as very real and true. Why does this happen? When faced with a problem the mind plays the trick by bringing out the stored perceptions which we wrongly describe as experience or knowledge. It is nothing but a perception stored in the mind at some other point of time. It is at times useful like running away from fire or a tiger but not very useful to solve nagging problems. Hence the necessary step is to challenge such perceptions (or assumptions) and start looking at a problem with a Zen mind (or a beginner's mind). It does not matter how much experience one has — new links are to be formed to understand a problem deeply. And this can only happen if we start looking at things with a Zen mind.

2nd Principle:Work within Constraints: Go out of the box

It is bit paradoxical: Greater the constraints: better are the solutions. It means the beauty or elegance of a 'solution set' increases non-linearly with the amount of constraints. This is a mental discipline any Design Thinker must have. If necessary it might be a good idea to self impose as many constraints as possible. I think that the best innovations happen under an atmosphere of constraints. It necessarily means that with more constraints a problem solver is forced to think harder but 'out of the box'. It is sort of funny, that the outlines of this box are made up of all the 'knowledge' the problem solver had gained through solving previous problems. S(he) has to break out of this box to find new (that is dissolve his/her previous knowledge) to find elegant solutions to the problem, which would further enrich him/her with new knowledge and concepts. Hence a problem is not only defined by its operating context but also by the constraints imposed on the problem solver.

3rd Principle: Create the Paradox tree: Plant the Mystery

Coming through from the Zeroth Principle to the 2nd Principle we are now in a position to create a Paradox Tree — that is creating a set of interrelated paradoxes (you can find an example in my blog: ( Once done we now completely define the mystery of the problem to be solved.

4th Principle: Observe the Whole: Think about the whole (Thinking by observing & Zooming Out).

I feel this is the most difficult and critical part of the whole thing (Thinking by observing & zooming out) that might put to shame even the best Design Thinkers in the world. It is in this part that a problem solver gets the real idea of the inherent imperfections in the system that are preventing the system from performing at a desired level and in the desired manner. Not surprisingly therefore, this part is called the heuristic part. Because no one exactly knows how the Design Thinker gets the idea of the inherent 'system imperfections'. But we need not unnecessarily lose hope once we understand that any system is a web of interrelationship between the different parts of the system and one has to carefully understand the essential relationships operating at various levels and at different strengths and probabilities. Soon we get to see the imperfections — 'weaknesses' of the system where it needs to be corrected. System Thinking (from whole to the parts not parts to the whole) and a foundation of Chaos help one to successfully negotiate this vital step in the entire process. There are also some shortcut heuristic methods that help at times. But the best can be only achieved through System Thinking; its principles, relationships and the laws of how these relationships would change or transform over time. However, the validity of the imperfections are to be tested. The test is very simple enough. If the set of imperfections when connected properly helps us to answer the set of paradoxes or the paradox tree that we built through the application of 3rd Principle then the discovered set of system imperfections is correct and we may proceed further.

5th Principle: Create & Choose responses that eliminate, avoid, or inhibit the set of imperfections.

The idea is to generate multiple responses to the discovered 'imperfections' and then choose the most appropriate ones that eliminate the imperfections or avoid them or inhibit them from playing in the system. This is 'hand-on Design Thinking. A variety of methods can be used here — Visual thinking, Verbal thinking, Thinking by drawing & painting, Thinking by doing, Thinking by playing around, Intuitive thinking, Brain storming (various), Body storming, Dialogues, Slow Thinking, Imagining, Inversions, Bio-mimicry, Thinking through Story telling, Prototyping, Videos etc.. .. Once the ideas are in place, it then becomes a matter of choice as to what we choose for the final application. The set of solutions must pass the test of being appropriate, cost effective, viability (can be done with the least possible effort, time and resources to turn the ideas into reality). This is solely done through Analytical Thinking. As in the 4th principle here too it is a combination of both right and left brain thinking. 

6th Principle: Do and Check

Here the emphasis is on implementation of the selected ideas either as prototypes (if too risky) or direct implementation (trails). The basic idea is to monitor the performance of the design thinking. If it turns out to be OK then the ideas are accepted firmly. If not, then one has to go back and either revise the solutions or find new ones.

7th Principle; Convert into Algorithms & Binary Codes

That is: make it simple for everyone and keep it simple for everyone so that the newly designed or re-designed systems work smoothly as desired without the functionality being impaired in any way and people find it easier to operate. Saying differently it translates to the mantra: MISS (Make it Super Simple) KISS (Keep it Super Simple). Then only it has a chance of being accepted by the general public for its use and benefit.

The beauty however is, as I have seen, that once done correctly, it gives organizations benefit for years to come. It needs no frequent 'tweaking around'.

These are the 8 basic principles that are always applicable and are necessary for individuals and organizations to either learn or implement so as to survive and be successful in turbulent chaotic times.

But that is only a small part of the bigger story that unfolds. It improves the society in more ways than one. And to my mind that is the true purpose of Design Thinking and its applications that might be applied to any field of human endeavor. Isn't that wonderful. But to achieve that we must have new thinking within existing organizations and people armed with new thinking skills to help that transformation happen as and when needed.



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