• February 6, 2018
  • 4 minutes
  • 1

Thomas Prehn’s innovation diary: Design thinking or design sinking?

The head of the legendary MindLab on how design thinking has gone awry

MindLab is the world’s oldest government innovation lab and has spawned imitations all over the globe. It stands at the forefront, both in theory and practice, of efforts to make government cleverer, faster and more inventive. Here, its director Thomas Prehn shares his experiences and ideas in a regular update.

Apolitical has previously interviewed Thomas here. He can be contacted on the Apolitical network here. The views expressed here are Thomas’s own and not representative of any public body. This piece appears in our feed on government innovation

Design sinking (06.Feb.2018)

Try doing a Google search for images of ‘design thinking’. What you’ll get are various diagrams of process models, not of a huge variety of improved products and services. Problem!

Design thinking was developed, adapted and implemented as a fixed model. The unfortunate consequence is that working with this approach has itself become the goal of innovation, rather than any social outcome.

Yet design thinking fits the domain of management perfectly: a model so easy to understand that only an idiot would dare question how to work with it; a visual artifact of the progressive, contemporary organization, led by visionaries that understand the need for thinking differently; an entrenched procedure that promises output (not necessarily impact).

Even for the most conservative organizations, design thinking was a plug’n’play to stick in next to the KPIs, balanced scorecard and other management tools. For these reasons design thinking successfully and with lightning speed became the funky pocket square of C-suites in corporate hierarchies worldwide.

“Innovation means embracing that learning comes from experiments, from curiosity and courage”

Now that design thinking has been well and truly implemented — often in units with unusual office spaces — the managerial task of modernizing the organization’s products is considered a job well done; the implementation of the newest fad is completed, no questions asked about impact, and the senior execs can return to their accustomed routines: MBA-certified management.

With innovation soundly stashed in the basement, a lab-ish logo above the door, wrinkled posters of a well-defined model decorating the walls of power, and the staff being rebuked when they don’t follow this new protocol, the preaching of that process has become superior to any impact it might have.

But innovation should never revolve around process and methodology. Innovation is a mental capacity, a mindset of relevance, meaning, and value creation. It means embracing that learning comes from experiments, from curiosity and courage, from being responsive and fragile. These are all individual, human traits that must be made to flow in the organisation’s bloodstream as unconsidered behaviour: as habits.

(Picture credit: MindLab)

Thomas Prehn

Read other instalments of this series:
Thomas Prehn’s innovation diary
How to scale up public policy
A backlog of curiosity
Innovation is not a room
Innovation labs measure success to justify themselves—but it can’t be done

Bring me problems, not solutions
How to build a team of innovators


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