Clarifying Design in Business Sciences: a Design Thinking Taxonomy

This article is an extended book review of The Quest for Professionalism of George Romme, a 2016-published book by Oxford University Press. The book is a one-of-a-kind taking a much needed reflective approach to leadership and a critical note towards the level of professionalism that many of us are approaching the science of management and entrepreneurship with. His work is exceptional, because it integrates major scientific perspectives on management from a holistic point-of-view without getting too descriptive. The book chooses a slightly philosophical approach without getting too abstract. The book takes a slightly life-work approach without giving too much self-credit.

So what’s it about? It’s about the way we think of design – in its broadest sense: organization design, strategic design, theory design, business model design, and product design – in business sciences. So why is it good? It shapes clarity in the field of design thinking, because many of us seem to think nowadays that design thinking equals a hipster approach by emphatizing with customers in order to innovate more rapidly. But that is, as this book describes perfectly, not the case at all: design thinking simply equals business science. I’ll explain why.

Design Thinking in Business Sciences

Over the last couple of years, there has been a significant increase in the use of the term ‘Design Thinking’ in the context of management and entrepreneurship. However, the impact of design thinking in business sciences originates from Herbert Simon’s work ‘the Sciences of the Artificial’ for which he has won the Nobel Prize in 1978 – the only Nobel Prize ever awarded to a social scientist. His work focused on the dual approach of management problems: a more fundamental approach, drafting from scientific insights and solving problems ‘top-down’ and more practical approach, reflecting on real creations and validating learnings from them in science, a more design-oriented approach. Romme argues in his work that amongst others also Schon, Krippendorff and Rousseau were bridging the gap between design thinking and management. More recently, many authors have linked ‘organizational learning’ – and thus innovation – with the concept of ‘bounded rationality’- a result of Simon’s dual approach. In other words: design thinking is a necessary approach in order to come to innovation. Or better even: there is no other science in which design thinking is more appropriate than in innovation, for as in innovation sciences the explication of knowledge will always be bounded by human intentionality, environmental continency and therefore asks for a dual approach of discovering and validating. This mechanism happens at all levels, for every type of (research) question one could think of.

Design Thinking Taxonomy

This so-called science-based design approach can be visualized – showing that it can be argued that solving any particular (innovation) problem in business sciences could follow a deliberate approach (roughly the red arrow) and/or an emergent approach (roughly the blue arrow).

Actually, Romme has provided the reader with a long list of research methods/activities that could be followed when dealing with a particular innovation problem. Specific problems ask for (a combination of) specific methods, all within the science-based design method (Romme & Endenburg, 2006).

Romme, in his work, explains that by plotting the research methods on the design thinking ontology, would create a 3D-version of his model. Romme, however, doesn’t plot this 3D-model because it would become visually complex. I saw that as a challenge and have a created a 3D-model, which I coin the Design Thinking Taxonomy.

For whom?

This book is, IMHO, a must-read for everyone involved in business sciences: lecturers, curriculum designers, professors, trainers. I’m quite sure that business science will evolve from its current, usually very conservative, scientific approach, into design-centered programs that are in turn increasing the level of professionalism in management and entrepreneurship.

2 thoughts on “Clarifying Design in Business Sciences: a Design Thinking Taxonomy

  • 21 November 2017 at 22:58

    Dear Jan

    Thank you for your fantastic work, as always.
    I am just blown away how Design Thinking (for industrial design) got so popular within organization while Systems Thinking is unknown outside engineering disciplines.
    Any ideas why?

    IMHO, Systems Thinking (or Engineering) is more appropriate for complex business environments, but have to admit that building and analyzing systems models is a lot of work.


    • 27 November 2017 at 18:13

      Hi Louis,

      Thank you for your note. I think that Design Thinking started to have a few very hands-on tools become available over the last few years. Moreover, it is also more oriented towards creating something new – it’s more linear, project-oriented as opposed to systems thinking which is more ambigious and process-oriented. As a result Design Thinking can be adopted quickly and quite successfully by professionals on the operational or mid-level dealing with product management, marketing or R&D, whereas systems thinking is something that finds its way only into strategy-level board rooms and policy makers dealing with long-term plans. Don’t you think?


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