Design Thinking vs Systems Thinking

The rise of methodologies based on Design Thinking principles in recent years makes a lot of sense since they allow us to build innovative solutions effectively.

However, are Design Thinking methodologies enough to solve complex social and environmental problems? Why isn’t Systems Thinking very popular among social innovators and entrepreneurs?

Design Thinking

Design Thinking processes are based on the systematic separation of divergent and convergent thinking, allowing teams and individuals to stay focused at each stage.

If we are consciously brainstorming, we don’t want to be distracted by the challenges related to the potential implementation of each idea.

Similarly, if we’ve decided to move on with an idea, we want to stay focused during the implementation challenges rather than being continuously distracted by an infinite number of potential other ideas.

In this regards, one of my favorite quotes from Steves Jobs says,

“I’m as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. Innovation is saying no to a thousand things.”

So, innovation is not only knowing how to ideate, but also how to say NO to the many alternative ideas you can think of every time you’re struggling with the implementation.

This very popular thinking process has been adopted by entrepreneurs and innovators around the world.

Matched with the principles of the Lean Startup and methodologies like Agile Development, Customer Discovery and so forth, Design Thinking has proven to be highly effective in finding markets and developing businesses.

Social Innovation

Social Businesses are created to solve social problems instead of to make money. Making money is just an element required to solve the problem in a sustainable and scalable way, but not the main purpose.

Design Thinking principles and the mentioned methodologies have been soon adopted also by Social Entrepreneurs and Innovators.

Why not? After all, they define a design challenge, and those methods work regardless of the purpose. Just include the word “beneficiary” and “impact” in your business model canvas and voilà!

Complex Systemic Problems

I believe, however, that the application of such methodologies to the solution of complex systemic problems don’t apply just as straightforward.

Yes, you may find a business model, a market and the solution may scale at a “silicon valley” speed. However, because you are a “social” innovator or entrepreneur, you have deep values and your purpose is not only to grow.

You want to really end the problem. To ideally put yourself “out of business” because the problem has been solved. You don’t care so much about who takes credit for what. Just want the problem solved.

Design thinking based methodologies don’t offer the peripheral view needed to realize that you are creating other problems while solving your design challenge.

That you are helping some while hurting others.

That you are wasting resources competing with organizations that do exactly the same thing as you are doing.

That by providing your service and growing your organization you are perpetuating the problem.

Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking has been around for a few decades but has never become very popular. In recent years the third sector has started using the concept without fully understand what it means.

It just sounds cool to say that a problem is systemic and that your solution is changing the system, but more often than not, these organizations haven’t really gone through a Systems Thinking process.

Systems Thinking is not nearly as difficult to understand as most people imagine, yet is probably harder to put into practice than most people suppose.

It’s easy to understand. Systems Thinking consists in mapping the system where our challenge lives, understanding the different stakeholders and their different agendas, mental models and relationships.

systems thinking vs design thinking
Systems Thinking – Feedback loops diagram.

It’s taught to do something with it. Because it starts with the realization that we are part of the system and therefore recognizing that we are the first who have to change.

It’s really thought because it requires leaders to let their egos go. To let their power go.

I believe that’s why very few people are trying. Not because it’s difficult, but because it is hard to let go.

Because in the social sector, contrary to what many people could think, the leaders are not only selflessly motivated.

Their superficial selfless motivations are mixed with underlying selfish motivations, consciously or unconsciously craving for power or recognition.

But when people do manage to get together, find common ground, map the system, uncover the archetypes that are perpetuating the problem, and define a shared vision, then true solutions can arise.

Through such radical and open collaborative processes, groups can find the leverage points that can shift a system.

And those leverage points are the real opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators to use their Design Thinking methodologies and skills to make real social and/or environmental change happen!

Are you ready to let go?

Don’t hesitate to comment! Are you involved in innovation? How do you decide what problems are worth working on? How do you collaborate with other stakeholders?

If you've enjoyed the reading, don't hesitate to comment or share!

4 Comments

  1. Mike January 6, 2019 at 4:03 pm

    Found you on Twitter and followed to your website.

    Good article on design thinking / systems thinking, as well as your larger body of work!

    Encourage you to keep up the great efforts!

    Mike S
    @C_Smart_Climate

    1. Borja BM January 7, 2019 at 9:43 pm

      Hi Mike,

      Thank you so much for your nice words!

      I started following you on Twitter as well. Always nice to connect with like-minded people and organisations 🙂

      Borja BM

  2. Virginija January 7, 2019 at 9:32 am

    Hi Borja!
    I loved your design on “Introduction to design thinking”!
    I’m contacting you, because I’m also working with Systems Thinking and having seen your work, I believe we could cooperate on a similar design 🙂
    If you would be interested please send me more information and/or examples of your work!

    1. Borja BM January 7, 2019 at 9:50 pm

      Hi Virginija,

      Thank you so much for your nice comment.

      I’ll be quite busy working full time in different projects until (at least) October 2019. However, is always great to connect with interesting people who are doing similar work.

      Feel free to send me an email (hi [at] borjabm.com) or find me on LinkedIn and we can chat 🙂

      Best wishes,

      Borja BM

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