Systems Thinking is the New Design Thinking

5 min read

Over the past decade there have been case studies of successful application using design thinking applied in businesses, non-profits and government agencies. Enterprises like IKEA uses design thinking in its product development process and showroom experience. Airbnb, a unicorn startup, started to use design thinking in its early days. The Ministry of Manpower in Singapore uses design thinking to onboard the registration of new foreign employees. These are some successful applications of design thinking.

What is superior about design thinking is its capability to transform designers’ creative problem-solving approach into a structured innovation approach by providing methods and tools to empathize with people, create human-centered solutions, and de-risk failure through prototyping. What has often lacked design thinking is the lack of continuity after prototyping. What comes next after prototyping? Usually business-as-usual happens - where new solutions are being managed using legacy processes in silos by teams who may not have been trained in design approaches, that strip the uniqueness of the solution. This is one of the main issues that surround design thinking - the lack of continuity and integration inside the organization’s system, and not placing the solution with the right system to manage change. Hence, there is a necessity to close the gap between ideas and execution operated within the right system that is healthy for innovation.

Enter systems thinking - the approach beyond design thinking. Systems thinking is an approach to understand, design, systemize the flow of value from various aspects of the organization across the value chain to ensure synchronicity, consistency, integration, and maximization between people, activities, processes, policies, places and resources. Systems thinking is easily understood and expressed through big-picture and detailed visualization.

What is the difference between design thinking and systems thinking? Design thinking is meant to innovate new solutions based on "bottom-up" human-centered approach. Systems thinking is meant to manage change and integration based on “top-down” big picture view. Systems thinking approach complements with design thinking, instead of replacing it altogether. After all, implementing design thinking requires designing the system itself. 

What is inside the system? Partnerships, business activities, resources, cost structure, revenue model, pricing, finance, marketing, branding, sales, operations, metrics, innovation strategy. These are some of the missing components inside an organization system that are not overlooked in design thinking approach. The application of systems thinking applies for both internally within the organization and externally across the value chain. These must be considered when implementing new solutions generated from the outcome of design thinking. Designing systems, after all, is necessary to enable the conditions for a culture of innovation. In fact, systems thinking goes beyond the organization itself, impacting the external stakeholders, environment, regulations and how these all work together to achieve a vision of a better system than the existing.

Consider how IKEA operates using systems thinking. Not only its product development process and showroom experience is thoughtfully created centered around people, but also how its organization system is designed and operated. After visiting the showroom, customers are guided to purchase in a warehouse setting where items are sourced and procured not by IKEA employees, but by themselves. Customers have the option to have their purchased goods delivered. Now they are embarking on digital transformation initiatives to digitize their value proposition. Yes, design thinking is at heart of this experience. However, its systems thinking that allows the implementation of value proposition, connect front-end experience with back-end operations, and orchestrate the value between stakeholders and metrics to run a much better organization.

The role of designers is typically limited only to designing visual aesthetics, utility products, service experiences, but its true potential is to design systems leveraging on multidisciplinary teams and approaches not only to create solutions but to enable the system to manage change required to implement new solutions. This requires new ways of working in its mindset, methods, and set of tools.