Strategic Thinking versus Design Thinking

DR. PAVAN SONI
3 min readJul 27, 2020

Design Thinking, a human centric, systematic approach of problem solving, has come to stand for the preferred approach for innovation and creative endeavors. From designing products to packaging new technologies and even nudging human behavior, design thinking has been applied, albeit to varying degrees of success.

The popularity of design thinking is only matched by its misconceptions. Many still associate design thinking with product design, and that too narrowly around the realm of hi-tech. Yet others construe design thinking as a panacea for a wide range of problems. Neither view is appropriate, for there certainly are limits of design thinking.

For instance — can design thinking be adopted to build a strategy? While I have tried applying a few tenets of design thinking to discussions around business and product strategies, but truth be told — design thinking is not a suitable approach for forming strategy. It’s a great tool to execute strategy, but not so much in answering the ‘why’, or even ‘what’.

The most fundamental distinction between strategic thinking and design thinking is that strategy is all about OR, whereas design thinking is mostly about AND. Strategy involves making tough decisions, drawing trade-offs, and as Michael Porter notes, ‘you can’t be stuck in the middle’. Design thinking, on the other hand, pushes you to combine the opposite, which Roger Martin calls as integrative thinking.

Strategic thinking builds on convergence, eliminating options and narrowing down the spread, while design thinking promotes divergence, what Tim Brown calls ‘creating choices’ before making choices.

Strategy advocates, or even encourages certainty and that you must choose a course of action, while design thinking calls for being comfortable with uncertainty, and deferring judgement for as long as possible.

So, what should come first, strategic thinking or design thinking?

Strategic thinking should precede design thinking.

Strategy helps answer the most important problems to be solved, and design thinking can help solve those problem in a human centric manner.

In summary, design thinking has an important utility in the corporate realm, but let’s not label it as a go-to approach for decision making. The good old analytical rigor coupled with instinctive choice making that the Office of Strategic Management offers is still useful, and alas widely adopted. I don’t see any reason why you must eschew such an approach in favor of a more modern one.

Here is an appropriate image to summarize the key difference between Strategic Thinking and Design Thinking.

Read more about creativity and design thinking in my book, Design Your Thinking.

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DR. PAVAN SONI

Innovation Evangelist and author of the book, Design Your Thinking.