Professor Mattia Bianchi on Design Thinking - What's the real deal?

8 July 2019

Guest Columnist Professor Mattia Bianchi

Mattia Bianchi, Professor at the Stockholm School of Economics on innovation performance in organisations.

These days Design Thinking is on everyone’s lips. As with almost any new management concept, there is an element of fashion in its popularity. However, my belief is that, once we remove the ‘mumbo-jumbo’ around it that helps selling consulting projects, there are novel, solid principles in Design Thinking that can significantly enhance the innovative performance of organisations.

Let’s be clear: Design Thinking is not about deciding about the shape or style of a product, its look and feel. It’s about using the mindset and the toolkit that is typical of designers, to solve business problems in a creative, yet efficient way. According to Tim Brown, former CEO of the global design firm Ideo, we all need to think like designers if we are to deal with the massive changes that are characteristic of our time. What’s so special about the thinking and doing of designers? What can managers learn from them?

Designers empathise with the users putting themselves in the shoes of the people they are trying to innovate for. IKEA and Electrolux, for example, regularly send their R&D staff to observe how customers use their products and to unearth needs, pains and aspirations that customers might not be aware of and that can be addressed by their next generation products. Designers visualise, prototype and test ideas as soon as possible, searching for intelligent failures, situations when tests go against expectations and because of that, create valuable knowledge to steer the development project in new directions.

But their most important trait, in my opinion, is that they try to ‘innovate the problem’, rather than (or before) its solution. They follow Einstein’s advice (If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem, and only 5 minutes finding the solution), unlike the rest of us who take the problem as given, rush into creating new stuff and might produce however brilliant answers but to the wrong question.

Designers instead challenge the initial, often superficial problem formulation and spend extensive time and energy to understand the true essence of the issue. They use methods like analogical thinking and job-to-be-done analysis, to frame and reframe the problem, seeing it from different angles and achieving a deep, unconventional problem understanding that leads to equally unconventional and unexpected solution possibilities. The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer was working on innovating its smoking cessation offering. They started the project with a medical framing of the problem: ”how might we help smokers overcome their chemical addiction to nicotine?”

After studying smokers’ behaviours and motivations, they realised that young smokers do not think of their habit as a medical issue, but they see it as a temporary lifestyle choice. This insight suggested a new, social-oriented framing of the problem (“how might we help them choose an alternative lifestyle?”) that in turn led to solutions like coaching and personal support programmes. These solutions, which had nothing to do with enhancing the chemical composition of Chantix, Pfizer’s prescription medication to quit smoking, created a new growth platform for the pharmaceutical company (1).

Indeed, finding an innovative problem worth solving can unlock enormous value. Think about Uber: its innovativeness is not so much in the solution (moving people from A to B, as traditional taxis do) but in the problem being addressed (the underutilisation of cars by private citizens). According to our ”Design Thinking for Business” research, based on the insights from almost 300 Design Thinkers around the world, companies are starting to practice problem reframing extensively (the 2019 report can be freely downloaded at However, how to successfully do it remains an interesting area of research which I am currently investigating. Stay tuned!

Mattia Bianchi is a Professor of Business Administration at the Stockholm School of Economics, which he joined in 2010 from Italy. He is also formerly programme director of the SSE Master of Science in Business & Management. He has a Ph.D. in Management Engineering from Politecnico di Milano. His main research interests are in the field of innovation management, new product development, entrepreneurship and operations management.

SCC member Stockholm School of Economics is one of Europe’s leading business schools, with a unique business-community network. For more than a century, SSE has educated talented women and men for leading positions within the business community and the public sector. SSE offers BSc, MSc and MBA programs, along with highly regarded PhD- and Executive Education programmes.

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