[Book Review] Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation


The ‘traditional’ ways of running a business do not seem to be working as well as they did in today’s connected always-on digital era. Design thinking is emerging as a more appropriate way for business, management, marketing and development.

Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation is a practical toolkit to apply design concepts for use in everyday work. Presented in the manner of a coffee-table book, with plentiful photographs and large quotes, the material explains how design thinking can bring about creative solutions to solve complex business problems. The author covers the values of design thinking, approaches for eight key challenges that most businesses face, and an application framework via exercises, activities, and resources.

Idris Mootee is the CEO of Idea Couture (www.ideacouture.com), a global innovation firm with offices in San Francisco, Shanghai, Toronto, London, Dubai, and Mexico City. He has worked with clients such as Amex, Burberry, BMW, Boeing, Cisco, De Beers, Kraft, Nike, Samsung, and Pepsi. He is also the author of the book 60-Minute Brand Strategist.

"As technological innovation has accelerated, people, communities, and organisations have become more connected than ever before. We talk more, share more, and expect more. This disruption has changed the way consumers do business,” Mootee begins. Technology exponentially interconnects people, places, events, ideas and objects in increasingly new ways.

20th century management was based on fixed organisational boundaries, predictability, command and control, risk aversion, value capture, and competitive advantage. In contrast, 21st century management is about speed, agility, fluid boundaries, creative empowerment, value creation, entrepreneurship/intrapreneurship, and comparative advantage.

“Design thinking is the search for a magical balance between business and art, structure and chaos, intuition and logic, concept and execution, playfulness and formality, and control and empowerment,” explains Mootee.

Design thinking as a discipline is more human, cultural, social, smart, and agile, and puts innovation at its core. It helps organisations imagine, organise, mobilise and compete in new ways, and creates organisational cultures which are more purposeful, passionate, disruptive, and inspired.

Rapid prototyping, empathy, a mindset for curiosity, deep exploration, and continuous experimentation are hallmarks of such a multi-disciplinary approach. Design thinking “advances knowledge from mystery to heuristic to algorithm,” according to Roger Martin, author of The Design of Business.

Design thinking is even more relevant in an age of ‘data paralysis,’ where the volume, variety and velocity of digital data almost overwhelm us. This calls for better sensemaking and deeper intuition for effective decision making.

Mootee explains the 10 design thinking principles applied to management: action-orientation (‘design doing’), comfort with change, human centricity, foresight, iterative construction (prototyping), empathy with users, risk reduction (through smart failures), creative meaning (via multimedia and stories), enterprise-level creativity, and competitive logic (sustainable innovation).

Hiring design thinkers is not enough – companies should build design thinking into their organisation's DNA and business models, Mootee advises. This can be done by adapting design thinking to eight key challenges faced by businesses. I have summarised these approaches in Table 1; the book also offers worksheets, checklists and charts to illustrate these principles in greater detail.

Table 1: Design thinking approaches to business challenges

Business ChallengeDesign Thinking ApproachDynamics
GrowthStorytellingStories which inspire employees and executives: engaging, performative, tangible, fun, plausible
PredictabilityStrategic foresightCritical inquiry to identify ‘wicked problems’ and weak signals; context mapping, scenarios
ChangeSensingStructuring the unknown through framing, visioning, imagining, communicating, connecting
RelevanceValue redefinitionOvercoming brand mythology: understanding customer perception of problems, solutions, value
Extreme competitionExperience designOvercome commodification: address customer emotions, intensity, triggers and engagement level
StandardisationHumanisationFocus the business narrative not just on efficiency but context and relationships
Creative culturePrototypingA culture of creativity at play and work: testing, iterating, collaborating, multiple feedback loops
Strategy and organisationBusiness model designOpen innovation, customer co-marketing, community validation, cross-media


The most successful practitioners of design thinking love stories and storytellers, according to Mootee; effective stories go beyond numbers and use archetypes and structured narrative to cohesively weave hopes, dreams and aspirations of employees and customers.

Sense-making goes beyond sensing to cultivate sources outside the organisation, harness social media and create integrated mental models. Cross-functional collaboration helps improve the ‘creative confidence’ of an organisation.

Effective business models driven by design thinking will focus on emerging consumer behaviours, identifying unmet needs, market segmentation, new distribution models, changes in triggers and drivers, ecosystem partners, and even payment methods.

One major shortcoming in the book is a lack of examples to illustrate these principles; only a few are briefly mentioned, eg. Amazon, Zappos and Easyjet are companies that have done a good job of identifying and redefining value; Pixar University reinforces a creative culture through a range of courses.

The concluding chapter addresses the bigger picture of design thinking and how it can help create value-centred businesses which focus on social and environmental sustainability in addition to profitability (‘conscious capitalism’). Our educational system unfortunately does not address the ‘creativity deficit’ in society since B-schools and D-schools rarely collaborate with each other.

There is too much focus on planning (driven by analysis) and not enough on holistic strategy (driven by synthesis). In an era of increasing ‘kinship’ thanks to globalisation and digital media, graduates of tomorrow will need not just knowledge but meta-knowledge of multiple disciplines to solve the problems of our planet.

It would be fitting to end this review with some of the useful inspirational quotes in the book; inspiration helps us ‘reach a little higher, dig a little deeper, dream a little bigger,’ says Mootee.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time. – F.Scott Fitzgerald

The problem with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat. – Lily Tomlin

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn. – Alvin Toffler

If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten. – Rudyard Kipling

The best way to predict the future is to create it. – Peter Drucker

Minds are like parachutes; they only function when open. – Thomas Dewar

Behind complexity, there is always simplicity to be revealed. Inside simplicity, there is always complexity to be discovered. – Gang Yu

Data is no substitute for intimacy. – Roger Martin


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