120: Four Levels of Design Thinking




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Today’s topic is Design Thinking which has been used for years in the creative world, particularly product design. But has in the last decade become what might be called a social technology considered important in everything from software behind the hardware, and even system for communication, and in fact how people work together.

The Regenerative Business discusses the design of work system or how people are organized to produce work. It is in some circles seen as the hottest thing going and available in every consulting company from the Big Three or Four to small technology practices.


Business Second Opinion- Interpretation of Work Design

There are some common threads in how most people design it in publications.

  1. First is the idea of adding empathy for the user into the early stages. Getting in the shoes so to speak of the person who should benefit from the design.
  2. Second it the idea of prototyping many different options and testing them in the ‘market’ and then iterating to get closely to what the customer needs.
  3. Third, often mentioned is the idea of seeking to simplify down to basics rather than the ‘kitchen sink’ mode. Picked up a lot from watching Apple’s success in the field of product and packaging design. And sometimes, but not always, the ‘I’ word, innovation is through out

There are several questions that get raised when looking at the publications and practice of ideas called Design thinking and practice.

  1. First, you will not be surprised to hear from me, is that there are different paradigms behind the practice of design thinking. They need to be unpacked and differentiated. There is some mixing and matching
  2. Second, the methods used in each paradigm are not compatible if you are conscious of the goal to be achieved by the team at work being integrated in how they work. t
  3. Third, they start with a different ground which leads in a particular direction from there forward, sometimes based on Class One Errors.
  4. Forth and finally, at least for the podcast today, they have a different relationship to the pattern you are trying to achieve, which is what Design is about.


Perspective of Essence Compared to Existence

  • Most thinking we do, starts with what already exists, what we can pick up with the senses, and tries to improve on it or to change it at least. To design our problems, get more return, make customers happier by better matching their understood needs.
  • When we start with a problem or issue, we are starting from Existence.  It is what is manifest now, not in the future The downfall of this starting perspective is that is has to draw on the options that are available in existence. That is, we draw on existence to understand and change it. It is ‘objective’ reality. That is, we would all agree on it since we all see the same thing when we look.
  • Essence is not replicated in any two entities and has not preceding sources. It is unique and specific to a living entity.
    • Each child  as a non-physical level is one of one and not derived from something else. The personality is acquired through conditioning and accommodation to the context, but there is an aspect at the level of ‘nature’ that is only them.
    • Aristotle defined essence. (‘Essence’ is the standard English translation of Aristotle’s curious phrase to ti ên einai, literally meaning “the what it was to be” for a thing).
      • It is that which can only be understood “in respect of itself.” It comes from itself, with no predecessor, no prototype, no antecedent.  If it belongs to a thing in respect of itself, then it belongs to its essence. Every entity in living systems has this way of being. It has an essence.
  • Essence is where potential resides. Like a ball held in hand from the edge of a building on the roof, ready to be dropped, it is all potential energy. It can be thrown in many directions. Up, sideways, toward a roof next door, or released to fall in it owns trajectory.  Once it falls to the ground, all options are exhausted. It is now realized.
  • Most design thinking is done from after the ball has hit the ground and potential alternative options of closed. Those left are based on what to do with the ball on the ground now. A group comes together to consider what they see. A ball on its side, an impact from the fall. And there are many efforts to come to objective reality. Consensus forming often done as problem definition, or issue articulation or failure to be learned from.
  • Starting from Essence required looking at the Essence of an entity, a child, employee, market, etc. conceiving of what is not yet manifest but as Aristotle told us, it is in its forming nature to ‘the What it is to be.” Not the existence that must be changed or improved.

The Regenerative Business on Essence and Evolution

One of my students, a woman named Nancy, had come to me for assistance with her twelve-year-old daughter, Jane. She was worried because  Jane was beginning to misbehave in ways that reminded Nancy of her own troubled childhood. I asked her to tell me about the problems she was encountering and what she was doing to address them. She reported that Jane talked back, refused to do what she was asked, and was impolite in social settings.

  • She critiqued Jane and instituted punishments: “You won’t be able to go out with your friends if you don’t complete your homework.” she saw her daughter’s behavior as a problem and she was in full problem-solving mode.
  • I wanted to shift her perspective away from being a problem parent with a problem child, so I asked her if there were things she had discovered that were working. She reported that when she could find activities to share with her daughter, the relationship improved. Jane liked mysteries, so Nancy brought her novels from the library and they read and talked about them together. They liked baking and enjoyed inventing new cookie recipes. These shared activities built Jane’s confidence and engaged her in a positive relationship with her mother.


Carol’s question moved Nancy to think about what’s involved in Do good parenting… She was able to introduce a line of questioning that evoked potential for both mother and daughter. I began with the question, “When does Jane get really excited and fully engaged in what she’s doing?” This was an easy question for Nancy to answer.


“When she gets to be theatrical. She writes little plays and puts them on with her friends. She stages them and invites people to come see them. It’s as though she’s working through the big questions in her life through theater.” The effect of this shift to Jane’s deepest interest was immediate.

“Well, it’s the seed of a storyteller!”

“Any particular kind of story?”

“Yes, she writes stories about her own life. I can see her understanding of life unfolding as she works on them. It even has that effect on her friends.”

“So, we now know something about Jane’s authentic self. Her Essence.

“So, let’s reflect on our conversation. What’s the difference between

how you were working on being a mother to Jane and what you’re seeing


“I need to remember what brings her alive. Because when I don’t, my actions put me in conflict with her. They don’t start from what’s important to her. And in fact, it is being herself,”

Out of this conversation, Nancy was able to see ways to join with her daughter in support of a deep and ongoing process of self-development. She took Jane to buy stage makeup and found her a small movie camera to record her productions. Her view of what it means to be a good parent underwent a profound transformation.

  • Instead of trying to fix what was broken and provide a good role model, Nancy saw that her daughter was a unique person on a unique path and that she could support her in what she was striving to become.
  • About ten years later, Carol attended a children’s theater production in which the daughter of a friend was performing. The children had written and produced their own short plays about life lessons they had encountered.
    • Something struck her as familiar about this, and she checked her program for the name of the project director. Sure enough, it was Jane, who was now a young adult.

Paradigms and Design Thinking


  • How can we design to produce a better return on a process we use, a product that we sell, a system we depend on.
  • The pattern we are working with here is a design that will get better adherence to standards we have set and need to achieve. Or rules to follow. These usually design how to accommodate the people or materials involved to get closer to the pattern desired for the return expected.
  • This is often the basis of design thinking when they are looking for a portfolio of opens. The brainstorming processes are geared to start with existence and that will pull us into the lowest paradigm, the value -return design thinking process.
  • When as Jeanne Liedtka states in Why Design Thinking Works, the second step is the look at the cause or causes behind the problem.
    • This perspective pulls us into existence thinking and therefore into the value=return paradigm.
      • It is used to structure things so tightly that is, they design thinking manages (accommodates for) the biases and counterproductive tendencies of people.
      • The pattern this mindset invites is pattern adherence. And designing a process so people can’t go wrong.
    • That is a part of the bottom two paradigms. The Value-Return Paradigm and it’s limitations that your just exposed, but also the Problem-Solving paradigm.
  • What the Problem Solving paradigm does seeks to not only ‘design out’ sources of problems, but it seeks to decomplexify to make it simpler for users, employees or children. There can certainly be a reason to design this way to reduced energy use, waste and sustainable earth practices.
    • Here we move from Pattern adherence to Pattern Following. That people can see and replicate. This kind of design thinking still originates with existence, but tries to slow down the decline of living systems. And getting us to understand the patterns we all need to follow.
  • Human potential paradigm shows up in the human centric design field. Ideo and other design firms which use ethnography. Here they are designing for pattern differentiation. What fits different types of people in different circumstances where the bottom two tend to design for the generic, aggregated user or person. This shows up a lot in process and systems design, where product design users are more in the lower two paradigms.
    • All have their use but important to  ask what is our goal. Human Centric Design Thinking is not sufficient for working with Living Systems. And living systems is the context and source for all systems. So we need to get to that level.
    • Customer interface processes seem obvious like market research, customer service and treating like children more than rugrats who all are assumed to need the same discipline, education and attention.
    • Jeanne Liedtka seems to be applying it to employee buy in by getting them involved early as idea or option generation. Empathy it seems only come in here in a big way, although thinking of users in this way comes from doing customer journey maps. This is where they try to look at the steps in the process of the customer experience and designing based on a desired experience they want to create.
    • The design examples that we were given in  these three articles stop with the experience of the user with the product or service of the offering.
      • It is very centric on Humans and humans as a set of universal categories based on use and demographics.
      • You have to go to the Living Systems Paradigm to take in the life experience of a unique customer, system or child being designed for. Designing, from holding the life of the entity, is a big jump. There are no types or universal categories as a model to use for design, which is the pattern they design to at Human Centric. What are the ideal patterns. For Living Systems Design thinking, you add in a few different instruments.
  • If you are going to do universals, you have to being with First Principles, not existence. That is, that which is the master template for being able to understand large complex systems with your mind, or a group of minds using a shared framework on the same complex system, which you can understands what is behind the unfolding we see. You learn to see, what David Bohm called the Implicate Order.
    • That which is not yet in existence, which a trend would be, but is at an intersection of existence ready to be found, conceived of and most importantly, Designed for.
      • Think of Nancy considering Jane. She no longer looked at what we saw, but what was implied as behind a manifestation when Jane was most alive. Most a Living System. Never from a Value Return or  Problem Solving mind. It is hidden then behind the walls of fragmented challenged which we are tried to see and pursue. You have to use a different mind to do Living Systems Design Thinking.

Sponsored by Numi Tea and REBBL. Please support our podcast by supporting our sponsors.

Business Second Opinion Podcast_ This set of Show Notes is an overview of Business Second Opinion Podcast #120. Available where you listen to podcasts including iTunes, Audio Boom, Stitcher. Or the website.

And read more blogs and Show Notes on www.BusinessSecondOpinion.com. Join the newsletter and get a background paper. Follow us on Twitter @businesssecondopinion. Suggest topics and HBR articles on which you want Carol’s Second Opinion. And finally, pick up a copy of The Regenerative Business, by Carol Sanford, with much more about how to build a regenerative work design. At www.carolsanford.com.


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