An old colleague of mine used to say “Many leaders think that if you surround a problem with enough data, it will just relent.” It was a provocative statement because it highlights one of the most widely believed untruths in business – the belief that you can solve a problem purely by breaking it down into its parts through analysis.

In his book, Metaskills, Marty Neumeier draws a distinction between “business thinking” and “design thinking”:

“The problem with traditional business thinking is that it has only two steps – knowing and doing. You “know” something, either from past experience or business theory, then you do something. You put your knowledge directly into practice. yet if you limit yourself to what you already know, your maneuver will necessarily be timid or imitative. Traditional business thinking has no way of derisking bold ideas, so it simply avoids them. This is not a recipe for innovation but for sameness.”


Notice the two parts of “business thinking”. Knowing and doing. Let’s better understand the “knowing” part of this since this is the domain of analysis.

Knowledge is an interesting beast as it is something that only emerges through experience. As a marketer, you learn that if you send out too many promotional emails, it’s likely that your unsubscribe rate will go up. As a graphic designer, you learn that if you present the internal team with only one option, it will be nit-picked to death, but if you give the team options, you’ll end up selecting a direction quicker. As an operations manager, you learn that a process that makes sense in your head doesn’t always make sense to those you’re designing the process for. So on and so forth.

As business professionals, I believe we’re intuitively aware of our limited knowledge and always looking for ways to expand it. And that’s the grand allure of analysis. The thought goes “if I can just get more data, then I’ll know what to do”.

But here’s the rub.

Analysis is the practice of breaking down events that have happened in the past. There is no such thing as data about the future. And the future is what we’re here to create. Richard Buchanan from Carnegie Mellon University sums it up nicely:

“We cannot analyze our way one inch into the future, for the simple reason that the future does not exist yet, so it’s not there to analyze.”

When your job is to create the future, analysis is not enough. We’re up to our eyeballs in information and the pace of information creation is accelerating like never before. What we need to do is imagine a future state that is different than today. We need to put seemingly different things together. Connect the dots. In short, we need to leverage the power of synthesis.

If analysis is the “world of what is”, then synthesis is the “world of the possible”. It’s in this world that we’re able to shape the future. This is where we depart from the “know and do” methodology of business thinking and, instead, opt for the “inspiration, ideation, and implementation” methodology of design thinking.

The posture of design thinking is fundamentally different than that of business thinking in several important ways:

  • Business thinking assumes you have adequate knowledge of the problem space. Design thinking assumes you don’t even initially understand the problem you’re trying to solve.
  • Business thinking assumes you know the domain of potential courses of action. Design thinking asks you to explore a wide variety of potential ideas by bringing in perspectives of others different than you.
  • Business thinking convinces you to pick a course of action and then tells you that “if you just execute it properly, it will be a success”. Design thinking assumes every decision is risky and encourages you to prototype and iterate so you can learn your way into the future.

It’s the synthesis of design thinking that allows innovation to more easily come to life. It’s putting seemingly disparate ideas together to create something surprisingly new. This type of thinking, however, is generally foreign to many businesses. Why? Largely because we’re still living in the shadow of the industrial age which placed a premium on analysis and treated imagination as a waste of time. Here’s what my pal, Marty, goes on to say in Metaskills, regarding the two worlds and the perspective of time:

“Imagination takes as long as it takes, and rushing it usually slows it down. This is the central conflict between the world of business and the world of creativity. They need each other, but can’t seem to understand each other. They’re working in too different kinds of time.”

So what’s a leader to do? We can’t just relegate the future to our more innovative competitors. But it’s likely that our internal culture continues to reward analysis at the expense of creativity.

We need to combine analysis with synthesis to make the magic happen. We need to walk away from business thinking and toward design thinking.

The first step in a design methodology is to understand the problem and the problem space. This is where analysis plays a very important role. It’s used to frame the problem, provide context, and to show relationships between entities. But instead of stopping here, as we so often do in “business thinking”, design thinking urges us to turn analysis into insights that describe the way the world is with a hypothesis of why we think it’s that way. You then turn those insights into provocative “how might we” questions that allow you to turn the corner to imagination and synthesis…you’re now shaping a future that looks better than what you have today.

So there you have it folks. Shaping the future is difficult. Our problems won’t just relent if you surround them with data. But if you put that data together with a little imagination, you’ll be amazed at the innovation that springs forth.