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Monday, January 12, 2015

Design Thinking and Product Management

As a strong proponent of Lean, I'm a bit embarrassed that, as a blogger, I maintain a bit of "inventory", i.e., posts in various states of completion that I intend to publish at some unspecified point in the future. One of the draft posts that's lingered the longest addresses the topic of Design Thinking (DT) as it relates to product management. I spent some time developing a course/workshop on this topic that I intend to complete and offer some day (mental inventory). I was therefore relieved when I saw that Mr. Roger Cauvin had beat me to the proverbial punch by publishing a thoroughly informative and entertaining post on his topic on this blog.

Roger's post does a great job of outlining DT basics and also provides a bit of compare/contrast with Agile and Lean Startup thinking. Since Roger has done such a good job laying the groundwork, I thought I'd change gears and chime in with a couple of more general musings of my own. My observations are based on the idea that organizations can benefit from some number of DT specialists (internal or otherwise) that act in a consulting role in product development companies.

I first came across DT when I signed up for a pilot course on the topic at SAP in 2008 or so. SAP founder Hasso Platner is a big proponent of DT and has championed significant investment across the company. I enjoyed the course but, quite honestly, didn't give it much though afterward. Design Thinking made it back on my radar when I met a friend of mine, Mr. Oliver Kempkens, an expert in this field in 2013. At the beginning of 2014, we toyed with the idea of developing a course or workshop on how DT can enhance product management activities and vice-versa.

My first insight into the similarities between these two fields came when I realized that both PMs and design thinkers are, above all else, problem solvers. In my mind, DT is a mindset that can be beneficial to PMs in general. However, a DT professional can be of particular value in the problem-solving phase of any of our activities. For example, I can imagine a dedicated DT professional could add massive value in the early stages of release planning, particularly for a release that intends to push the innovation bar. Helping to identify new, interesting problems, proposing solutions and validating them with customers and finally creating prototypes is something DT professionals typically do very well.

I must admit that the idea of a PM as primarily a problem solver was bit of an epiphany for me. I knew I'd solved problems most of my career, but hadn't characterized my work in this way. Product management is a complex discipline that can be characterized many ways based on many disparate dimensions of the job, e.g., business, customers, requirements etc. For some audiences, particularly novice ones, characterizing product managers as people who solve market problems can be highly intuitive.

The second key insight I had was how product management and DT compliment each other. While DT professionals are great at understanding problems and proposing customer-centric solutions, they are not, in my experience, experts at shipping mature products, a core competency of PMs. Although oversimplified, it's interesting to think in terms of DT professionals helping PMs solve problems in an innovative and customer-centric manner and PMs as helping make sure great solution ideas are developed and shipped to customers. In this respect, product development teams may not need a full-time DT professional, so a shared function that is engaged as needed can be an effective solution for many organizations.

What is your experience with DT? Does your organization make dedicated DT professionals available to product development teams? Do you use the DT approach in your work?


  1. Some really thought-provoking ideas and questions here. Should organizations have a formal role or job title for design thinkers, or should they identify and leverage the design thinkers that already have other formal roles? Should organizations make sure they hire some design thinkers? Should design thinkers "float" in the organization as project needs merit, or should each product team have dedicated, full-time design thinkers?

  2. I think any philosophy that helps companies understand that we all in problem solving business is beneficial.

    Specially mature companies, who often stuck in their "we always done things this way" thinking need to finally wake up and smell the cappuccino.

    As far as Product Managers are concerned, DT surely only further cement what we're saying anyway: focus on customer, iterate and ask for feedback.