Why is Australia Not Embracing Design Thinking?

By Bizclik Editor

Written by Dr Lars Groeger and Leanne Sobel


Internationally, design thinking is top of the agenda for leading organisations, such as, GE, P&G, Oxfam and Unilever. Design thinking offers an approach better suited for dealing with the accelerating pressures for growth and innovation faced by so many firms and their managers today than business’ traditional analytic methods.


A recent exploratory MGSM study suggests that Australian businesses fail to adopt truly innovative practices, but heavily rely on older, traditional methods to solve business problems.

So what exactly is design thinking?

Designers, by the very nature of their professional practice solve complex or inherently ‘wicked’ problems that span across areas of specialisation, industry and innovation. This process involves an in depth analysis of many factors in order to consider the various options in which to resolve it. Design thinking is the attempt of capturing this very process and presenting it as an approach to creative problem solving that can be applied more broadly, by people who are not necessarily designers. Design thinking brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable; it is both a method and a mindset while solution focused and action orientated.

Read Related Articles On Business Review Australia

What is design thinking in action? – A case study

Kaiser Permanente is a healthcare provider that set out to improve the overall quality of the healthcare experience from the point of view of both patients and medical practitioners. Following a design thinking process, based on observation, deep empathy and prototyping, the team identified key problems that occur when nurses shifts change. The procedures were unsystematic, knowledge that patients cared about was often lost, and the majority of nurses did not leave the hospital on time. The first prototype was developed within a week and resulted in a change in approach: nurses were exchanging information in front of the patient instead of back at the nurses’ station, making patients part of the process, adding important information as well. This is a well-documented case study by Brown (2009) and Ideo and is a good example of how this approach can assist in creating breakthrough systems, processes and services – beyond just innovation discussed in the context of product design.

What are the barriers?

The study unveiled that businesses in Australia are behind in seeking to adopt design thinking for greater business outcomes. This, more generally, comes down to a lack of understanding, knowledge and experience of design thinking within business in the Australian market. While Australia has some well-established consultancy firms who apply design thinking with business at various levels, this barrier is compounded by the absence of documentation and ‘proof points’ of how it has been successfully applied. Such evidence will help to provide business management with a case to point out its validity and viability as an innovation tool for business.

Furthermore design thinking is often rejected as a plausible approach to complex problem solving and perceived as a “high risk activity” or “artistic pursuit” – which is linked to creating a tangible product or output, whereas the strategic elements of design thinking are less understood. One respondent felt this attitude stems from a: “fear of risk, short-term thinking, conservatism and traditional ways of working” more generally in the Australian business environment. “The barriers are not physical ones, they are simply a mindset – that people often feel more comfortable in hierarchies, or in departments and silos and they can stay there for years on end and it may not achieve very much.” Further, it was raised that Australian businesses lack concern towards innovation and global competitiveness: “There is this lack of need or competition I think, which is schizophrenic, because in other areas we are super competitive in Australia”.

What should we do?

The exchange of knowledge by companies and interested parties can be facilitated through workshops, information sessions, and talks. In addition, it is important to establish networks across industries that involve people “from various backgrounds – unexpected mash-ups of people”, to generate a hybrid space that explores the synergies between design and business in leveraging design thinking. Such collaborative exercises will build awareness, general knowledge and discourse about the benefits of, and the way in which design thinking can work in Australia.

When applied by business it was also noted that management and staff need the time, support and space to practice design thinking in action, and that business must give “people enough opportunity to actually get runs on the board and gain experience.” Additionally it was found that greater inclusion of design thinking within business education and additional support from the government would also be helpful in creating broader awareness and knowledge for business.

The understanding and perceptions of design and design thinking in the mind of Australian business needs to evolve in order for the benefits of design thinking to be realised. This is something both the design industry and businesses that are already applying it can assist with – it’s time to share, exchange ideas, understand a common hybrid language and ways to meet on the path to finding a creative approach to old and new problems faced by corporations in Australia today and in the future. Greater understanding and awareness of design thinking by Australian businesses will allow companies a broader perspective in the way in which they approach and tackle the challenges experienced in the Australian business environment today.

MGSM is launching a new open enrolment course this year in Design Thinking. Click here for details of the course


Further Readings

Sobel, L. and Groeger, L. (2012), Design Thinking: Exploring Opportunities for the Design Industry and Business in Australia: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2194672

Brown, T. (2008). Design thinking. Harvard Business Review, 86(6), 84.

Brown, T. (2009). Change by design, HarperCollins.

Kaiser Permanente case study: http://www.ideo.com/work/nurse-knowledge-exchange/


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