Since 2010, I have been involved with the use of Design Thinking to solve problems and develop new products and services. I have heard much about the famed consultancy that started it all: IDEO. As head of IDEO, Tim Brown is certainly in a good place to describe what Design Thinking is all about and how its promise to help change the world for the better could be realized.

Change By Design is his 2009 ‘guide’ to Design Thinking, yet any novices looking for a step-by-step instruction book will be disappointed by Change by Design. However, for those open to the complexity and promise of Design Thinking, Brown makes the case for its broad application.

Brown approaches the organization of the book with the same mental process that he might handle a design project. Neither is very linear and so, he does not feel the need for a table of contents to organize the information. Instead, the inside cover contains his own hand drawn mind map. Topics stream out in all directions from the box labeled ‘Design Thinking’ in the center of the page. I found this ‘map’ challenging at first and chose to ignore it and get right into the text.

I suppose that this behavior reveals some of my own bias at the outset of the book. A certain part of me was looking for clear, utilitarian instructions on making my design process more effective. I have been challenged recently to apply the set of methods to a new topic—social entrepreneurship—and this drove me to search for answers in Brown’s book.

I quickly discovered—or was reminded really—that for Brown and the experts at IDEO, there is no fixed process. Each assignment, it seemed, brought a new challenge and a seemingly new way to approach the problem. I had been working with a five step process out of Stanford’s I had taught this in a mostly linear fashion with an allowance for iterating at some point along the path. However, Brown’s description makes clear that IDEO does not share the same mental model when it comes to process, although there are very similar phases.

‘Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation’ might be the closest Brown comes to identifying a process. He elaborates further by drawing the initial phases as ‘divergent’ and the later phases as ‘convergent,’ explaining that each project team must actively create many options and then decide how to evaluate them and reduce them down to only a handful of the best.

Brown’s stories start with a team going on site and directly observing the people who would be using the service or product that the client has in mind. Observation is key to gaining empathy with them and ‘seeing the ordinary.’ Sharing the stories of the field research becomes a key step in itself. Here Brown finds many stories to share about the ways that IDEO teams discovered some previously overlooked human need or insight.

While the observation and storytelling steps were quite familiar to me, I found a twist here that surprised me. Brown suggested that prototyping, in its many forms, could make an appearance in this early stage of divergent thinking. Cheap and quick prototypes could be used to further understand the problem or the mental space of the users.

Throughout the book, Brown demonstrates his own optimism and humble intelligence. Brown’s style reflects IDEO’s own ‘serious play’ culture. Again and again, Brown’s shares success stories and collaborations from IDEO’s past. No doubt that IDEO is a great consultancy and responsible for inspiring a whole generation of good design work.

While I finished the book feeling very inspired to try more crazy Design Thinking projects, I also felt that the true challenge of leading and managing Design Thinking projects was not addressed. Often design projects yield only emotional messiness and incremental solutions. Brown admits how IDEO has sometimes struggled to teach others their process. Change by Design also struggles to truly enable those aspiring to follow in their footsteps.

In the end, as I returned to the mind map on the inside cover of the book, I found that the non-linear illustration of the topics and their connections to the others started to make sense. I just had to experience it first. The lesson, it appears, holds true for Design Thinking itself.