In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king

In many ways, this well-known saying could be seen as the perfect metaphor for 20th century, industrial age management thinking. Business as mechanism (rather than organism), Six Sigma, Total Quality Management etc. is intentionally blind to human morality and emotion. It’s fundamentally about driving human fallibility (and with it much of our creativity) out of the system – the polar opposite of the humanism of the Renaissance.

In that landscape, the one-eyed man (i.e. exclusively left-brained management consultancy types) is king, based on the assumption that value creation is fundamentally driven by operational excellence – that it is largely extracted by becoming ever more technically efficient at doing what you already do, like squeezing water out of a sponge.

Six Sigma and traditional management thinking may have been useful guides to efficient decision-making and profit maximisation in an era of stability. But that’s not the world we’re living in any more.

And yet…

Much as many (me included) have waxed lyrical about Design Thinking, and the return of the polymath as key navigators in an age of ever-increasing discontinuity, it appears that some of the air has begun to leak out of that balloon. As I tweeted last week, even Bruce Nussbaum, one of Design Thinking’s greatest advocates, has now begun to frame it as a failed experiment.

Whilst there are folks infinitely more qualified than me to comment, I get the impression that the failure lies not so much in the concept as in its incomplete application – i.e. that truly integrative thinking is not only anathema to a great many traditional management consultants, but also to a lot of designers. They’ve interpreted Design Thinking as an exclusive call for business executives to think more like designers and ignored the fact that there’s a flipside to that coin – the onus on them to think a little more like business execs too.

Kirk and Spock. Strawberries and cream. Yin and Yang. Morecambe and Wise. Rugby and Guinness… yada yada yada. The magic happens in the alchemical combination of point and counterpoint. Without binocular vision, there’s no depth perception; without red and green, no 3D. In exactly the same way, without harnessing both left- and right-brain together, you’re not seeing the whole picture of opportunity.

Having righteously called out the limitations of traditional management thinking and its preoccupation with analysing the crap out of what is (declarative reasoning, inductive/deductive logic), rather than imagining what might be (generative reasoning, abductive logic), designers need to look in the mirror and acknowledge their own shortcomings.

Every bit as one-eyed is many design/innovation companies’ failure to grasp commercial realities – fixed asset legacies, the “way we do things round here” etc., that can stand in the way of progress and tangible outcomes.

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2 thoughts on “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king

  1. Deborah Hinton

    Hi Dan. As much as you wax lyrical on design thinking I’m pretty much a fan, as you know, of structural thinking. Check out Robert Fritz’s revised and expanded latest edition of the Path of Least Restistance for Managers for a chapter on the New Lean; pg p.245. Think you’ll love it. Best

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  2. Dan Gray Post author

    Cheers for stopping by, Deb, and for the reading recommendation. I’ll definitely check that out. How goes it in beautiful Montreal?

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