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Exploring the intersection between entrepreneurship and design

As Chris Pullman (2008) affirms, “Design is not a narrow application of formal skills, it is a way of thinking”. Moving beyond the traditionally two-dimensional perspectives of design (that was primarily concerned with aesthetics and economism), the need for creating new value in the modern context of exponentially increasing complexity and uncertainty has pushed design— with its approaches and methods— much closer to the centre of the enterprise (Kolko, 2015). In this view, contemporary design practice can be better understood as having evolved to meet the rapidly changing needs of business, as an interdisciplinary approach that is concerned with the aggressive solving of complex problems; a coalescence of approaches that creatively couples technical possibilities, business realities, human needs and market demand. 

The evolution and recognition of design as an engine of innovation in products, services and business processes has catalysed design’s transcendence of traditional boundaries, beyond design as a role, towards becoming embedded at the core of business culture: “Because design has historically been equated with aesthetics and craft, designers have been celebrated as artistic savants. But a design-centric culture transcends design as a role, imparting a set of principles to all people who help bring ideas to life” (Kolko, 2015). This pertains to a fundamental shift that has moved designers from an operational / tactical role, towards the strategic level; leading to the mainstreaming of design-led strategies that enable the creation of dramatically new forms of value (Brown, 2008). 

“As design has moved further from the world of products, its tools have been adapted and extended into a distinct new discipline: design thinking” (Brown and Martin, 2015, p.58). Held in upmost reverence by some, or perceived as merely a buzzword and Silicon Valley-driven management fad by others, ‘design thinking’ can be equated to providing the principles that form the foundations of a design-centric culture. In a post-thing-centred world, design thinking embodies a broadening of the role of design towards the provision of a protocol that enables creative confidence, leadership and action, within open and complex problem situations. 

The recognition of design thinking as a distinct discipline is not new, emerging as a generalised concept in the 1980s (Lawson, 1980; Rowe, 1987). However, Tom and David Kelley— founders of the design consultancy IDEO— can be viewed as the fathers of the concept’s broad adoption; adapting the processes and philosophy of design thinking to better meet the needs of business and heavily influencing the spirit of the design field today: “In the design-oriented approach popularized by IDEO, the work to understand users was deeper and more ethnographic than quantitative and statistical” (Brown and Martin, 2015, p.60). “By formalizing the tacit values and behaviors of design, Design Thinking was able to move designers and the power of design from a focus on artifact and aesthetics within a narrow consumerist marketplace to the much wider social space of systems and society” (Nussbaum, 2011, para. 6), at a key moment in time. The design thinking movement strengthened the interface of design with new disciplines, business functions and industries (Brenner and Uebernickel, 2016), becoming a “respected partner with true power in the business/design alliance” (Esslinger, 2011, p.401).

Design thinking itself can be understood as “a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centred design ethos” (Brown, 2008, p.86); most pertinently characterised by empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentalism and collaboration (Brown, 2008).  It is a user-centred innovation approach, that is based on problem solving and a process of repeated iterations between three creative phases of inspiration, ideation and implementation, while also centralising problem reframing, knowledge brokering and co-creation (Brown and Katz, 2011). Design consultancies— such as IDEO and those of a similar ilk— effectively packaged these characteristics into “a whole new process that promised to deliver creativity” (Nussbaum, 2011, para. 2), in industries that are chiefly defined by a culture of efficiency (Nussbaum, 2011).

As a paradigm for radical, strategic change and value creation, design thinking and design-led innovation approaches use “the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity” (Brown, 2008, p.86). It is a methodology for the creation of sustainable competitive advantage and bringing radical change to the customer value proposition (Bucolo and Matthews, 2011). However, as Kees Dorst (2011) states, “Often, in popular literature, many disparate, vaguely creative activities are combined under the label of ‘Design Thinking’”, resulting in “[…] general confusion about both the nature and the merit of ‘Design Thinking’” (p.531) as a whole. Therefore, perhaps due to its constant evolution, the term itself remains abstract and riddled with conceptual ambiguity. Resultantly, contention surrounds its understanding, with widespread presumptions about its standardised use and categorisation of the concept largely dependent upon the context and frame through which creative practices are being applied. 

This being the case, it is opportune to state that alongside the ubiquitous and enthusiastic adoption of the design thinking concept, largely by enterprises that work at great speed and scale, many of its limitations have become exposed. As Arthur Viente (2016)— of IBM, a key proponent of design thinking— notes, “Design Thinking can help people perform better, more efficiently, and more productively…but, it is focused on the user, not the business, […] and that can create some serious problems in the design of a practical and functional business solution” (para. 2). In this regard, Arthur Viente (2016) highlights that the prominence of an intimate and deep user focus— that design thinking extols— can also lead to myopia in application, without due regard for business realities, organisational competencies, or contemplation of the systemic change that it can engender. 

As Wattanasupachoke (2012) concludes, design thinking does not have a direct relationship with organisational performance; as the focus is primarily on improving the operating processes, as well as developing creativity in product/service concepts. This is perhaps one root of Bruce Nussbaum’s contention with the concept, with— in his view— design thinking’s many successes overshadowing a many greater number of failures: “Companies absorbed the process of Design Thinking all to well, turning it into a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation” (Nussbaum, 2011, para. 3). Norman and Verganti (2012) share this view, stating that “human-centered design, with its emphasis on iterated observation, ideation, and testing is ideally suited for incremental innovation and unlikely to lead to radical innovation” (p.2).

Through orientation with “linear, gated, by-the-book” (Nussbaum, 2011, para. 3) managerial methodologies towards innovation, design thinking as a concept can be reasonably viewed as an ‘efficiency tool’, well defined in mindset, process and toolbox, for managing chaos in the fuzzy front end of innovation processes— arguably limited in its capacity for producing truly radical change. However, “although the role of design is constantly evolving, the fundamental underpinnings of design as an activity have remained largely unchanged” (Bucolo and Matthews, 2011, p.2). As design is a young, progressive and dynamic field, as a mindset— “a combination of divergent and convergent thinking, a strong orientation to both obvious and hidden needs of customers and users, and prototyping” (Brenner and Uebernickel, 2016, p.3)— design thinking continues to be utilised as a a key catalyst in linking strategy to action and a valuable agent for business model innovation. As Cooper et al (2009) state, the use of design thinking— along with design management— at the organisational level, transforms business strategies and the way organisations do business, by contributing a human-centered perspective to the ongoing conceptualisation of business model innovation. 

Catalysed by a shift from a product centric to business model approach, evolution of the design field— and progressivism in the current generation of design thinking— has resulted in designers being well suited and placed to implement and promote modern, constantly evolving, and sustainability-driven business models that adapt to these pressures (Esslinger, 2011). Rapid and constant change within the global economic environment has driven companies to revisit and challenge traditionally held assumptions about how business can create and capture value (Teece, 2010). Not only are organisations expected to deliver innovations that are technologically cutting edge, but also contemporary and meaningful in their outcome (Cruz Megchun, 2012). Through adopting the dynamic, iterative and user-driven perspective embodied within design thinking, radically new value propositions can be created. It is through the creation of new value propositions, as well as the related value creation, delivery and capture systems, that radical business model innovation can occur (Baldassarre et al, 2017).

As Calabretta and Gemser (2015) state, central activities of design thinking— such as problem reframing, knowledge brokering and co-creation of solutions— are relevant to the generation of sustainable business models. Moreover, the application of design thinking towards business model innovation transcends the limitations of incremental innovation that are so closely associated with it (Nussbaum, 2011; Norman and Verganti, 2012). Through repositioning design from an operational level, to embedding design as a strategic driver for growth within the business, design-led approaches go beyond a technology only competitive advantage, to an advantage that focuses on the business model surrounding the technology offering (Bucolo and Wrigley, 2011).  On account of the fact that modifying the business model can potentially have implications for all organisational value creation, delivery, capture and exchange activities, it offers substantially greater radical and long-term change (over incremental changes related to product, operational, or technological efficiency).

The Design Led Innovation (DLI) framework introduced by Bucolo and Matthews (2011) further defined the values of design to an organisation. DLI builds upon Verganti’s (2008) call for design’s role in finding new meanings and languages that could diffuse in society— beyond being solely driven by user needs or technological developments— to produce radical innovation, further positing practical considerations for the organisation. The DLI framework assists organisations in embedding design in a company’s vision, strategy, culture, leadership and development processes, in order to bridge the gap between the ‘value’ design provides to an organisation and the ‘value’ it provides to both existing and future customers (Bucolo and Matthews, 2011). 

Through transforming the way an organisation looks looks at strategy, the DLI framework goes beyond human/user-centred approaches that focus on the features/experience of a particular product, to instead focusing on co-development of Temporal Experiential Journeys and assessing how these relate to the company’s value proposition and strategic competitive advantage (Bucolo and Matthews, 2011). In DLI approaches, the expert designer adopts a role of facilitator between all internal/external stakeholder groups, from ideation through to commercialisation. 

By generating deep customer insights, then expanding upon them through customer and stakeholder engagements and mapping these against all aspects of the business, DLI enables the organisation’s vision to be much more successfully implemented and achieved (Bucolo and Wrigley, 2011). The result “from this extremely dynamic process is a multidimensional visual scenario of the user / technology / business model interaction over time” (Bucolo and Matthews, 2011, p.3), that builds “a shared language and can begin to move beyond preconceived ideas” (Bucolo and Wrigley, 2011, p.333). Through emphasis on prototyping, the DLI framework helps to alleviate the cultural conflict between the design and business communities, by creating a common ground of experimentation; based on iterative learning and exploration of new business model options (Bucolo and Wrigley, 2011). 

Through this common ground of experimentation, design-led strategies are a potent force for facilitating the entrepreneurial learning process; assisting entrepreneurs to “become aware about their overall condition; to make-decisions in risky and uncertain environments; to deploy tangible and intangible resources at the operational level; to trigger innovative thinking and transform knowledge into tangible outcomes; and to assimilate information and control and manage cycles of innovation” (Cruz Megchun, 2012, p.363). Comparable to the lean startup movement— which is based upon an iterative customer feedback loop of three steps: Build, Measure, Learn (Ries, 2011)— the experimentation-pursuing nature of design thinking (and design-led strategies) assist in achieving a product-market fit. As Baldassarre et al (2017) state, “the common denominator of design thinking and lean startup is the use of creativity and experimentation-pursuing innovation. Solutions are developed iteratively, and with the involvement of potential users, in order to validate their business viability and customer desirability gradually and up front” (p.178).

In this regard, design thinking can help entrepreneurs find business opportunities, then more efficaciously and sustainably turn them into reality. Design thinking may not assist entrepreneurs in managing their enterprises, but if combined with other entrepreneurial competencies, it provides a human-centred approach for “new product or vision development as a technique of developing a thorough understanding of customer needs and combining customer knowledge with employees’ creative ideas” (Hnátek, 2015, p.346). The value for entrepreneurs of adopting a design process earlier in the development of a product or service “has the effect or ability that it can change the understanding of the value proposition, thereby leading to an awareness of either altering the ideas, moving them along or maybe dropping them if no business model can be established around them” (Gudiksen, 2012, p.418).

In a world full of complexity and flux, design has been pushed increasingly closer to the centre of the enterprise. The approaches and methods of designers, which may be broadly conceptualised as ‘design thinking’, allows organisations to more readily and effectively adapt to the pressures of uncertainty and complexity in modern business environments. Through adopting the dynamic, iterative and user-driven perspective embodied within design thinking, organisations can create radically new value propositions, which enable the organisation’s vision to be more readily, successfully and sustainably implemented and achieved. It is by within the common ground of experimentation that I believe entrepreneurship and design most substantially and fundamentally intersect. Design-led strategies are a potent force for facilitating the entrepreneurial learning process, by exploration and rapid testing of radically new value propositions, thus improving product-market fit, as well as providing early validation of business viability.


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