Answering Bruce Nussbaum

I have mixed feelings about Bruce Nussbaum’s “Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What’s Next?”

On one hand, I agree with every word of it. For instance, this statement is dead-on: “Companies were comfortable and welcoming to Design Thinking because it was packaged as a process.”

Design thinking more or less had to bow to the business management mindset and its demand that all practices be limited to techniques arranged in sequential processes. When such practices yield success or failure the outcome is attributed to the efficacy of the techniques and processes.

Nussbaum continues: “There were many successes, but far too many more failures in this endeavor. Why? Companies absorbed the process of Design Thinking all to well, turning it into a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation. Call it N+1 innovation.”

What Nussbaum is pointing out is a bit taboo: even when the design thinking process seems to work, it is not the process that produces the innovations. Something else smuggled in with process does the real work when innovation happens. And if that active ingredient is missing, the process produces only trivial, incremental advances.

Nussbaum then gives a name to this active ingredient: Creative Intelligence or CQ.

Nussbaum presents CQ as a faculty which can be cultivated. “Above all, CQ is about abilities. I can call them literacies or fluencies. If you walk into one of Katie Salen’s Quest to Learn classes or a business strategy class at the Rotman School of Management, you can see people being taught behaviors that raise their CQ. You can see it in the military, corporations, and sports teams. It is about more than thinking, it is about learning by doing and learning how to do the new in an uncertain, ambiguous, complex space–our lives today.”

The faculty is bound up with the ability to see problems from multiple angles, and to discover new practical responses: “At this point, I am defining Creative Intelligence as the ability to frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions. You can have a low or high ability to frame and solve problems, but these two capacities are key and they can be learned.”

I agree with Nussbaum that some of the abilities he associates with CQ are rooted in capabilities of individuals, some of which is based in talent and much of which can be cultivated. Some individuals have a tendency to reflect on problems and look at them from multiple angles, find it natural to experiment with different approaches to solving them. These are the people who get reputations for being “creative thinkers” in an organization.

However, I still think much remains to be done at the level of management to support CQ beyond what has been covered by Marty Neumeier, Tim Brown and especially Roger Martin in their books on design thinking.

Especially neglected is the work around problem reframing, and also the ways organizations accidentally discourage it — and not only for the usual reasons (unpredictability, inefficiency, etc.).


Here I will transition to a post I am considering putting on the LinkedIn Design Thinking group:

A week ago Steve Sato asked an interesting question: “If Systems Thinking optimizes for the whole and part, then what does Design Thinking optimize for?”

What makes the question interesting is that it cannot be answered as asked. Design thinking does not optimize for any particular thing, but for many things at once in response to what the problem requires.

Design thinking re-opens the question: “what are we optimizing for?” and includes all stakeholders in reformulating the question and answering it.

This open-endedness is what makes DT so unnerving to so many professionals. It creates enormous anxiety to suspend one’s own ideals and to pursue a new one that is inconceivable right up to the second it is conceived.

We don’t mind not having the answer to a question. We do mind — intensely — not having a question to work at answering. (For Thomas Kuhn fans, this is the difference between normal and extraordinary science.) Another name for this state is perplexity.

Anxiety and perplexity is the cause of tension in creative teams. Far too often it is misdiagnosed as unhealthy conflict. When the perplexity is foreclosed (usually in the name of time-urgency or team harmony), it destroys a team’s ability to find deeply creative solutions to problems.

Back in April, Bruce Nussbaum wrote a provocative little article publicly declaring the death of design thinking, and isolating the true active ingredient of design thinking: CQ, or creative intelligence, “the ability to frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions.” Exactly.

CQ is bound up with the ability to let go of an older conception of a problem, to immerse in perplexity and, never looking back, to navigate to the other side of it to an unprecedented solution.

I think Nussbaum overstated his case to stimulate conversation, so I won’t take the bait and try to argue that design thinking is still relevant and vital. Instead, I want to try to outdo Nussbaum by unmasking CQ for what it really is. Quoting Wittgenstein: “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.’ “If you want design thinking to produce deep innovations, try putting a philosopher on your team.

Leave a Reply