L. Gregory Jones: Innovation and design thinking are necessary but insufficient

Hand writing the word "WHY?" on a blackboard

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Both innovation and design thinking must be set within a broader context, one that focuses on our purpose and ends, writes the theologian.

In the midst of tumultuous times, it is unsurprising that people are turning to innovation and design thinking as strategies for renewal. Innovation has become a buzzword suggesting that whatever is new is likely to be better than whatever currently exists. Design thinking offers hope for starting with end users and then working backward to develop what will be genuinely useful, whether in engineering or in classrooms. Together, innovation and design thinking have spawned an industry of books, workshops, videos and experts.

They offer promising approaches that look toward the future rather than returning to the past or remaining stuck in the present. They have become central mindsets that encourage the development of important skills across sectors such as business, education, the church and other social institutions.

Innovation and design thinking offer important correctives to corrosive mindsets and practices that have helped create the messes we are in. On their own, however, they can be genuinely dangerous -- especially when they are perceived as panaceas, cure-alls for whatever ails people and leadership, our organizations, and our societies. They become the intellectual equivalent of 5-Hour Energy shots, creating bursts of energy that are ultimately illusory and can actually make us sick.

Both innovation and design thinking must be set within a broader context, one that addresses the “why” question -- our purpose and ends. When we are focused on the purpose and ends -- and especially “the end” -- toward which we are moving, we discover that innovation must be linked to a healthy sense of tradition, and design thinking to a broader vision of holistic formation.

Naming the key forces that are shaping our contemporary world will be helpful in understanding why innovation and design thinking are necessary (especially in these tumultuous times) yet insufficient (needing the broader context).

Colm Kelly and Blair Sheppard of PwC have recently written that since the end of World War II, three forces have driven change in our world: globalization, technological advances and financialization (assigning value based on financial measures alone). For many years, these three forces had significant positive effects in raising people out of poverty, creating efficient and effective organizations, connecting people across the world, and raising the quality of life in many societies.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, negative effects of these forces have become apparent. These have included a weakening of local institutions and communities, an increasing preoccupation with techniques and technologies, an accelerated pace of change, and a devaluing of people and organizations that do not “measure up” financially.

These forces are connected to other characteristics of the modern era that became increasingly apparent and troubling as we ended the 20th century and began the 21st: large-scale organizations, education for the masses designed on industrial-era models, and an optimism about the future. These characteristics of modernity produced positive effects over the 20th century but now seem to present increasingly urgent and massive challenges that the three forces are intensifying: mechanistic/bureaucratic mindsets and structures, rationalist assumptions about education linked to industrial-era classrooms, and fear and cynicism about the future (the mirror image of optimism).

The turn to innovation and design thinking is in part, then, a response to these larger forces and characteristics. For example, the pace of technological progress has emphasized the need for ongoing innovation; similarly, design thinking is a key to ensuring that advances in technology focus on the needs of end users.

A focus on innovation offers a challenge to mechanistic and bureaucratic models of organizations; design thinking offers a challenge to industrial-era pedagogies, by focusing more on what learners need to learn rather than what teachers want to teach. Further, both innovation and design thinking emphasize iterative processes of experimentation, processes that help cultivate generative solutions to wicked problems that have emerged or intensified during modernity.

Yet apart from broader frameworks, strategies that focus on innovation or design thinking per se are at best short-term fixes to long-term challenges. More likely, they delude us into thinking that we are cultivating health when we may be masking the deeper questions and issues that need to be addressed.

Our institutions need us to engage the “why” beyond just the “what” and the “how.” These deeper questions invite a broader narrative framework, an overarching “story” that helps us understand the telos, the end, toward which the world and human life is moving. It is crucial to emphasize the centrality of tradition in relation to innovation, and formation in addition to design thinking. Tradition and formation imply and expect that the “why” questions will be addressed, whereas innovation and design thinking focus on the “what” and the “how.”

This broader framework suggests the centrality of religious perspectives on the world and human life, and the need for them to be continually renewed, deepened and extended -- for secular as well as religious institutions. In the Christian tradition, this orients us and our organizations to bear witness to the “already/not yet” reign of God.

More specifically, by focusing attention on traditioned innovation and “formative” education, religious perspectives can and should offer significant wisdom about the conditions that enable people to become virtuous, communities to thrive and societies to flourish. Religious institutions play a central role, and they also can help other institutions learn how to flourish.

One of the symptoms of our current situation is that religious perspectives and institutions have become weaker and often offer only truncated accounts of our own best wisdom. In modernity, religious people and religious institutions have gotten caught up in “what” and “how” issues and have failed to situate even our own mindsets, activities and understandings in a broader framework of “why.” Charles Taylor suggests in his magisterial “A Secular Age” that at the beginning of modernity, even the “unbelievers” tended to presume and act as though there was a God, while at the end of modernity, even the “believers” tend to presume and act as though there were not.

In these turbulent times, we need both innovation and design thinking, and we need them set within contexts that focus on the broader end and ends toward which we can and should be moving. This is an invitation, and a responsibility, for Christian institutions and their leaders to pursue, both for their own purposes and as a broader witness in the world. The challenges are urgent, the opportunities enormous.