Design thinking as an enabler of innovation: Exploring the concept and its relation to building innovation capabilities
Doctoral thesis, 2013
This thesis deals with the concept of Design thinking (DT) and the building of innovation capabilities. DT has emerged as a management concept promising innovation inspired by design. However, the concept is poorly conceptualized and scarcely investigated in organizational settings, especially in relation to its potential role as an enabler of innovation. Building on empirical studies of companies claiming to use DT, the thesis aims at providing a better understanding of the concept, how it is used in innovation work, and its role in building innovation capabilities in large firms.
The studies show large variety in the understanding and use of the concept, and its integration in and adaptation to existing practices. The concept of DT seem to be somewhat stuck in between the fields of innovation and design. On the one hand the concept can be seen as (over)simplifying the complexity of design practice; on the other hand, the results of this thesis show that use of DT is aligned with several practices highlighted by innovation scholars.
The thesis makes two main theoretical contributions. First it argues for a performative perspective on DT that does not focus on what DT is or what value it has, but rather what it becomes and what it can do in various settings; thus putting focus on context. A conceptual model for how to understand DT as a boundary object is proposed, consisting of five core principles associated with a set of principles, practices, and techniques. It takes account of the fact that DT takes different shapes in different contexts, and accommodates to a variety of ways of applying and using DT.
Second it argues that DT can play a role in building innovation capability in large firms. The studies show how a range of perceived values and effects of using DT are connected to elements presented in innovation capability theory; resources, processes, mindset and a strategic intent to innovate. It is argued also that the current status of the innovation capability of a firm can hinder or enable use of DT and the competences built, thereby influencing potential value resulting from its use. There are few previous examples in the literature of how innovation capabilities are built, and this thesis adds a new approach; building innovation capability through the long-term use of DT, and in interplay with the current capability of the organization.
The thesis shows that the perceived effects of using DT go beyond practical innovation work, and argues that when managers consider using DT, it is critical to not consider the concept in isolation, or demand results too fast, but rather to take a systemic perspective, considering all aspects of resources, process and mindset. The thesis also paves the way for more research, both on the use of DT and on how innovation capability can be built.