Recently, Bruce Nussbaum declared “design thinking is dead.” Tim Ogilvie, CEO of innovation strategy consultancy and co-author of a new book on design thinking, disagrees.

So, is design thinking dead? Yes, it’s dead EASY. And yes, it will be dead soon if it doesn’t lead to design doing.

I know design thinking is dead easy because I have personally seen so many non-design-trained professionals employ the methods successfully on the first try. Dave Jarrett, a CPA and partner at Crowe Horwath, says:

“When you think of design, your mind immediately goes to fashion, and I can’t even pick out two things that should be worn at the same time. But what we’re really trying to do her is make sure we’re building something the way a buyer would like to have it.”

A key part of Dave’s success comes from his courage to put low-fidelity prototypes in front of customers early in the process; that’s where the design doing part comes in. Crowe Horwath convenes a team for a day or two to develop possible new solutions, then converts the best alternatives into story panels and takes them out to their million-dollar accounts to get their feedback. “I don’t want to call it a cartoon,” says Dave, “But that’s what it looks like.” The early involvement of customers has been key to a string of successful service innovations by design thinking teams at Crowe Horwath, teams that usually do not have a single designer available.

Not every firm has a Dave Jarrett willing to share prototypes at an early stage, and this is the greatest risk to design thinking. The longer a concept spends in the conference room getting “perfected,” the lower its chances of success in the market. The latency between thinking and doing must be as short as possible.

Here are my three rules on how to harness design thinking for success on the first try”

Rule 1: Let some of the air out

Design thinking isn’t the cavalry riding in to save business, it is merely a problem-solving tool optimized for challenges with (a) high uncertainty and (b) limited existing data. So don’t set it up for a fall by over-selling the benefits.

Better yet, don’t sell it at all. When Claudia Kotchka introduced design thinking at P&G in the mid-2000s, she told us she didn’t even use the term. She just said, “Let’s try a different approach to this problem.”

Rule 2: Don’t confuse it with “creativity

Design thinking is an end-to-end problem-solving process, whereas creativity helps provide imaginative new elements at key points in that process.

Design thinking is an end-to-end problem-solving process, whereas creativity helps provide imaginative new elements at key points in that process. Design thinking works specifically because it mixes elements of traditional business disciplines with moments of inspired creativity. It can’t be all wide-open chaos, just as it can’t be all buttoned-up structure.

When Lauri Kien Kotcher led a team at Pfizer to creating a smoking cessation service based on Nicorette, there was a single design-trained person on the 5-person core team. The entire development process mixed design and business strategy together seamlessly, from deep user ethnography (which revealed that a majority of smokers view their habit as a “temporary lifestyle choice” and not a chemical addition) to outcome statistics (which revealed that it requires an average of seven quit attempts to successfully quit smoking). It was the combination of creative reframing and analytic grounding that resulted in the launch of Active Stop, a new service that created breakthrough outcomes for smokers trying to “make a new lifestyle choice” and for Nicorette.

Rule 3: Thinking must lead to doing

Contrary to appearances, the single most crucial aspect of design thinking is not design – it is rapid learning in the market. Melody Roberts, the Director of Customer Experience Design at McDonald’s, taught us some great guidelines to keep the focus on action:

  1. Set audacious goals
  2. Share at good enough
  3. Let others validate

When Melody says “share at good enough,” she is cautioning us to avoid perfectionism that wastes resources and increases our attachment to concepts that might not meet the needs of users. When she says, “let others validate,” the “others” she refers to are target users, not members of the project team, or the steering committee. Dave Jarrett at Crowe Horwath intuitively uses these same guidelines when he shares “cartoons” with their best clients after only two days of development. This is the essence of design doing.

I have spent over a decade applying design thinking to solve growth challenges, and helping others learn to do it, in environments ranging from insurance to digital photography to health care. I know it works, and with a few rules in mind it often works on the first try:

Rule 1: Let some of the air out (don’t oversell it, avoid off-putting language)
Rule 2: Don’t confuse it with creativity (balance design with analytics)
Rule 3: Thinking must lead to doing (do rapid learning experiments in the market)

If design thinking stops at conference room eye candy – which is a common pitfall – then Bruce Nussbaum’s early funeral dirge will be playing soon enough.

Tim Ogilvie is the CEO of Peer Insight, an innovation strategy consultancy, and the co-author of Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers (Columbia University Press, June 2011).