The Knowledge Funnel: A Conversation with Roger Martin on the Importance of Design Thinking

Roger Martin is without a doubt someone who understands the fundamental problems that corporations of the 21st century are facing. His understanding lends itself to a rare discourse that often goes unheard in classrooms, by educators and within a free market enterprise. In his conversation as part of the “Unfinished Lectures” series and in his book “The Business of Design Thinking,” the notion of risk is a prevalent one to Martin, developed by much rigour and is by no means derivative in nature. Martin explains that a common thinking amongst individuals is the idea that if a system is inherently reliable in nature, then subversion need not be necessary. The counter to this thought process is simple and pointed: reliable systems tend to crash.  The framework of most business organizations rest on the idea that it’s possible to create a revenue driven future that will be profitable in the long term, based on past results and historical data.  According to Martin, this thinking is flawed in its outlook, as it’s an innovative approach, within a forward looking lens that will create change and bring about a real push outside the constraints of a normative business structure.  Corporations and organizations must think about the mark they hope to leave on the world and as such they must empower and build a culture of innovation to promote relevancy in today’s marketplace.

With all this emphasis on the shift in the way we fundamentally approach business challenges, it’s interesting to note the focus Martin places on thinking about ideas and concepts that do not currently exist, as being the pendulum of scientific management. It’s in this vain that one might argue that the pendulum has surely swung. Martin explains that the 20th century, in its essence was all about “things that functioned,” whereas the 21st century will be more design focused and interested in making “elegant stuff more elegant,” which is ultimately how new ideas will be born. Martin can’t emphasize strongly enough the absolute need to employ design thinking within the transactions we each make as entrepreneurs, consumers and corporations, every day. So then the question begs: where does this design thinking take us? First off, organic growth and innovation on any level is not possible without the combination of analytical and intuitive thinking. Because analytical thinking is typically (over) valued in our society, Martin explains that adductive logic is what produces forward thinking ideas that eventually help tackle the most complex of business problems that often go unanswered, which are what Martin coins as “mysteries.”

Strategy in business is about where to play and how to win. Design thinking empowers this notion to a new level in that it shifts the concept of rivalry. Design thinking relates to figuring out better ways to play, rather than engaging in head to head competition and goes deeper in understanding the user, customer and client. Martin’s commitment to the pros of design thinking is supported inherently by the idea that customers aren’t as generic as strategy books would make them out to seem. The substantiation of the lack of design thinking within the marketplace is evidenced by the similarities seen within corporations at a bird’s eye view and with no rush to tackle the next great mysteries of our time.

It’s clear through this thinking that Roger Martin is a believer in the power of conversation as a means of technology in and of itself and encourages social shifts within companies in order to create collaboration models that will facilitate venues for multi-disciplinary cross segment spaces.

As Martin closes his thoughts, his goal is to impart this simple piece of wisdom: Be different in the world and embrace the notion that creativity, design thinking and an appreciation for what innovation can build are anything but tangible and relevant. As a society we often overplay the importance of efficiency, and it is for this that Martin encourages “logical leaps of the mind.” It’s this knowing without reasoning that Martin believes large corporations must value in an effort to make the 21st century a time of great progress, meaning and insight. Not surprisingly, and quite likely unbeknownst to him, Martin is already leading us in the most fascinating and enlightening of directions. A rare, but important journey for design thinkers everywhere.