Why should you consider organizational context?

Several times since I began my MSLOC journey a year ago, I’ve been asked to step in and “do that ‘design thinking’ thing.” While I appreciated the opportunity to use what I’d learned, it quickly became clear that what they really wanted was a quick fix, a one-size-fits-all solution to everything that ailed them.

To be fair, when it’s done right, design thinking can be an effective way to approach ill-defined problems. But not in the sense that people (especially, I’ve found, executive leaders) think it will. They’re expecting a turnkey approach that will work every time. They’ve heard all of the hype about design thinking, maybe read a few articles in Harvard Business Review, and they’re convinced it’s the path to more creative, customer-centric, and innovative business strategy. They’re not completely wrong… but what happens in reality is more complicated, more messy, and more difficult to deploy than the latest management trend.

Just as theory can’t be applied in a vacuum, design thinking can’t possibly begin to address ill-defined organizational problems without taking into account context. The tools in my toolkit are approaches, processes, and models… not solutions in and of themselves. The solutions are going to manifest themselves only by fully understanding both the participants (via empathy) and the organizational context within which the problems live.

Here’s an example: Creating a RACI framework was absolutely the right solution for the dysfunctional, scattered, and overworked team that didn’t know how to move their project forward without clear decision-making structures. But I only came to that conclusion after listening to the stakeholders, defining the problem, and using their specific context to create a viable solution. The same solution may not work for another team—even another team facing similar challenges. Nuances in relationships, organizational culture, skill sets, resource allocation… they all helped frame the problem.

While it certainly would be easier if “doing the design thinking thing” was plug-and-play, that would no longer be design thinking. The process itself may be replicable, but the outcomes are going to be different every time, reliant on the inherent, messy reality of organizational context.

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