Chat with us, powered by LiveChat What is design thinking and how is it different from grand design? When is grand desgin more effective in innovation than design thinking??2. What is WeChat's approach to innovation??3. Wha | WriteDen

What is design thinking and how is it different from grand design? When is grand desgin more effective in innovation than design thinking??2. What is WeChat’s approach to innovation??3. Wha

What is design thinking and how is it different from grand design? When is grand desgin more effective in innovation than design thinking? 2. What is WeChat's approach to innovation? 3. What are some key components to grand design?4. What should innovators take away from WeChat’s experience?

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The Kind of Creative Thinking That Fueled WeChat’s Success by Julian Birkinshaw, Dickie Liang-Hong Ke, and Enrique de Diego

October 29, 2019


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WeChat, the messaging app, dominates daily life in China. With more than a billion

daily active users, it is the default option for social networking and chat. WeChat

users send more than 45 billion messages a day. It is the leader in mobile

payments, with more than 800 million users of WeChat Pay. And it provides

integrated services for upwardly-mobile Chinese users, by offering taxi, restaurant,

movie-booking and retail apps all within its platform.

Many westerners are skeptical about successful Chinese software companies like

WeChat: there is a perception that they have succeeded through copycat strategies,

and have benefited from Facebook and Google being blocked from operating in the

country. But WeChat didn’t get an easy ride: it had to fend off dozens of domestic

competitors when it was launched, and it had to keep innovating to stay ahead.

Many observers rate WeChat as offering a superior user experience than its

western counterparts today, and its innovative features are now being copied by


We recently conducted an in-depth study of WeChat, through exclusive interviews

with 15 executives, including founder Allen Zhang. What we’ve found that is

WeChat isn’t just a Chinese success story – it offers insights to innovators


Design thinking versus grand design Our research suggests that WeChat’s success wasn’t achieved through

technological superiority. It was built on the vision – or grand design – of Allen

Zhang, a senior executive at Chinese tech company Tencent, who saw an

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opportunity in 2010 to create an entirely new product for the mobile era. He

personally led the entire development effort of WeChat, taking responsibility for

the overall look and feel of the product, as well as overseeing the coding teams.

The grand design logic is markedly different from the now-standard design

thinking approach to innovation that was popularized by design firm IDEO in the

1990s. Design thinking has been defined as a non-linear, iterative process which

seeks to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create

innovative solutions to prototype and test. This user-centric perspective has made

design thinking hugely popular, but some consultants and academics have argued

that it is too structured, too prescriptive, and results in incremental or conservative


We argue that the grand design approach to innovation – where a new product or

service emerges fully-formed in the mind’s eye of the innovator before it is

developed and commercialized – can be more effective than design thinking under

certain circumstances, most notably when a market is in its early formative stage of

development. Think, for example, of Steve Jobs’ classic inventions, such as the iPod

and the iPhone, Masaru Ibuka’s Sony Walkman, or Elon Musk’s Hyperloop.

Our study of WeChat revealed four key components of the grand design approach

to innovation that other innovators might consider when developing ideas.

1. Creating a work of art, not a commercial product. Design thinking seeks to

create practical, user-oriented solutions: it is about pulling together what’s

desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and

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economically viable. In contrast, the grand design starts with a concept, a vision in

the mind’s eye of the creator, and it holds onto that concept for as long as possible.

Here is how Allen Zhang described WeChat to us:

Before perceiving WeChat as a commercial product, I’d rather picture it first

as an impressive work of art. When I started designing user interactions for

Foxmail, I complicated everything. It felt wrong because it no longer looked

neat. For WeChat, I now see the necessity of subtraction – making things

simpler –and focusing on the product’s aesthetic quality.

As one example, the feature bar at the bottom of the WeChat screen is four icons:

Chat, Contacts, Discover, Me. Over the years many people suggested adding to this

list, like many other apps, to support users’ behavior. Zhang said no: “I told the

team to establish a rule that WeChat shall always have a four-icon bar, and never

add anything to it.” Another example is the almost complete absence of

advertising. Unlike Facebook or LinkedIn, WeChat users see a maximum of two

ads per day through the Moments feature.

There is of course a tension between artistic ideals and commercial realities.

Comparing WeChat with Facebook, the New York Times says Mark Zuckerberg

wants Facebook to emulate WeChat by reducing the number of ads, but he hasn’t

done so, presumably for fear of reducing Facebook’s profitability. Allen Zhang, in

contrast, faces requests to increase the amount of advertising on WeChat because

its owner, Tencent, is a publicly-traded company and faces pressure to increase its

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profitability. Zhang has held his ground up to now, arguing that continued growth

is more important than current profitability. As the HR head for WeChat told us,

this decision “is a testament to Allen’s ideology sinking into the heart of the team.”

2. Responding selectively to users. At the heart of design thinking is the notion

of empathy – the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes, to see what

they see, and experience things as they do.

While the grand design approach to innovation doesn’t deny the importance of

empathy, it takes a selective approach to how much user views should be heeded,

because if one does everything they ask, the result is increased complexity and a

loss of coherence.

How does WeChat address the needs of its users? Allen Zhang explained to us that

he asks developers to put themselves in the shoes of their least sophisticated users

– people who might be technologically illiterate, or trying WeChat for the first

time. From his early days in the company, he pushed his team to develop this

‘dumb user’ perspective through what he called the 10/100/1000 principle:

product managers were expected to do ten end-user interviews, read 100 user

blogs, and collect feedback from 1,000 user experiences every month.

While these insights are important, specific user requests are sometimes

deliberately ignored. For example, unlike most social apps in the west, WeChat

does not have a “read” notification to tell the sender their message has been

opened. Many people requested that function, but Zhang said no. Harvey Zhou,

one of the founding team members of WeChat, explained the logic to us: “Allen

thinks social interaction should not be forced: if you send me a message, I may not

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want to respond immediately, and if I know you have received a notification, that

pressures me to respond. We are determined not to add this, to respect the

individual and to preserve their independence.”

In a similar way to Steve Jobs, Allen Zhang has also shown an uncanny knack for

understanding what users want or need even without them being able to articulate

their view. For example, two key features that have helped secure WeChat’s

dominant position in off-line payments are Mini Programs and QR code scanners.

While they are ubiquitous today, WeChat had to be proactive in getting users to try

them out initially.

How does one know which user requests to listen to and which to ignore? There

are no easy answers, but two rules of thumb are helpful: think about coherence (is

it consistent with the existing design?) and simplicity (can I still do the basics well

if I add this feature?).

3. Managing the process through top-down stewardship. Another key feature

of design thinking is its emphasis on collaboration – the notion that good ideas

emerge through a social process where people build on each other’s suggestions.

There is no room for big egos in design thinking.

The grand design approach, in contrast, gives less freedom to the collective and

puts more faith in the views of a small number of people (sometimes just one) at

the top. It operates through top-down stewardship. It is paternalistic in style: we

want you to share your ideas, but we won’t act on many of them, because we know


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As Allen Zhang told us: “We encourage people who present their own way of

thinking – I encourage them to speak out.” But at the same time, it is clear that he

makes all the key decisions himself. As his colleagues explained, they submit new

features to him for approval, and he decides on the icon, the nickname, and other

key aspects of the user experience. Developers are keenly aware that the biggest

challenge is how to ‘get past Allen’, and that many seemingly good features are

vetoed by him.

WeChat executives explain this process in a couple of ways. First, Zhang is striving

for a meritocracy, where the best thinking, in his view, wins out. Second, WeChat

has benefitted enormously from having a singular, coherent identity, and this in

turn is made possible when there is a single architect with decision-making

authority. When a product feature is vetoed by Zhang, it isn’t because it’s a bad

idea in its own right; it is because that feature doesn’t fit with his vision for


Of course, this top-down approach brings challenges – its harder for new leaders

to rise up through the ranks, and it risks stifling fresh thinking. The leader has to

work hard to explain why specific ideas are being rejected and to reassure them

that their input is still important. And as we discuss below, the leader has to know

when to shift to a more inclusive model.

4. Leading with conviction. The style of leadership required for design thinking

and grand design also differs. Design thinking favors a coaching style of leadership,

hand-holding when necessary but drawing back when a team hits its stride. The

grand design logic, in contrast, puts leaders on a pedestal – they embody the

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design they are pursuing, and they project a strong emotional conviction about

why it is right. This leadership may be charismatic and larger-than-life, or more

softly spoken and introverted.

Allen Zhang’s conviction is manifested in a number of ways. He obsesses over the

details. As he explained to us, “I am the only senior executive I know of, inside and

outside our company, who sits in meetings with front line product manager to go

through each and every detail.” He is also a perfectionist. “I don’t allow a single

flaw in the product” he explained to us. “I set aside the way a company normally

does things… otherwise our product cannot be guaranteed to be the best”.

Of course, leaders who adopt design thinking aren’t lacking in conviction – but

their conviction is to a process, a way of working, rather than to any particular


When should you use the grand design approach? WeChat illustrates the potential value of the grand design approach to innovation.

But it’s clear that grand designs can be risky, because they go beyond the proven

needs and wants of users. One well-known cautionary tale is Dean Kamen’s

Segway – a brilliant vision of the future of personal transportation that never really

got off the ground. Kamen thought he would sell half a million units a year, but

actual sales were only 300,000 in total over the first six years.

So when is a grand design appropriate? In simple terms, this approach to

innovation is more likely to be successful when user needs are fluid and malleable.

Allen Zhang’s grand design for WeChat succeeded because he was able to shape the

emerging marketspace.

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WeChat was created at the specific point in time, 2009-2010, when social

networking on smartphones was taking off, thanks to the rollout of 4G

technology. In both North America and China, there was a scramble to colonize

this new marketspace, with many competitors offering different visions for how

users might take advantage of real-time browsing and photo and video sharing.

Harvey Zhou described how WeChat’s approach to innovation in this period

differed from before:

When we did QQ Mail, everyone was a user, we experienced it through our

perspective, and if something wasn’t good enough we just changed it. Every

developer could be part of an optimization process. But when we are trying to

create something radical, a bottom-up process would tear it apart. Users need

to be given an extremely clear concept with precise information – and that

needs a single architect.

Of course, as the smartphone user experience becomes more established and

predictable, the need for a grand design recedes, and the value of the traditional

design thinking approach becomes greater. WeChat’s leaders are starting to

recognize this. Allen Zhang told us that for several of the more incremental

features being developed today, such as Top Stories (personalized article

recommendations), he is giving teams full authority to make their own design


Finding the right approach to innovation

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What should innovators take away from WeChat’s experience? First, you need to

understand the key principles underlying your chosen approach for innovation and

product development. Design thinking is now so well established that many people

don’t question whether it is the right methodology. But it builds on a number of

underlying assumptions – for example, empathy with user needs and collaborative

development – that aren’t right for all circumstances. By laying out the alternative

set of assumptions underlying a grand design logic, you can engage in a more

critical and constructive discussion about why you are using your chosen model.

Second, you should be thoughtful about the specific circumstances in which you

are operating, and choose your innovation approach on that basis. Design thinking

works well in established and mature markets where user needs are properly

understood and innovation tends to be incremental, whereas the grand design

approach has greater scope to succeed under conditions of high uncertainty, and

where user needs are unknown and potentially malleable.

Innovation is the lifeblood of any successful company, but many companies get it

wrong – by falling into the trap of me-too incrementalism, or by betting on risky

new offerings that miss the mark. A clear understanding of the conditions in which

you are operating will help you make better choices about the approach to

innovation that you use.

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Julian Birkinshaw is Deputy Dean and Professor of Strategy and

Entrepreneurship at the London Business School. His most recent book is

Fast/Forward: Make Your Company Fit for the Future.

Dickie Liang-Hong Ke is a Technology Entrepreneur and Sloan Fellow at London Business School

Enrique de Diego is a Visiting Professor at Universidad de Navarra.

Related Topics: Product Development | Leadership

This article is about INNOVATION

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Abdulakeem Sanusi 3 days ago

Perfectly written

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