This morning I enjoyed my third plunge into something called Design Thinking. Championed by the leaders of IDEO, the behemoth design and consulting firm, and the folks at the Stanford d.school, this creative methodology helps people adapt a new attitude toward innovation and gives them a proven method that works with any number of challenges, be it designing new software, building educational curriculum, or finding new ways to deliver medicine in third world countries. There are five basic steps to Design Thinking:
Here in Nashville I found a Design Thinking Meet Up that runs exercises in the methodology. So far, it’s been a blast. To begin with, the space where the Meet Up is held is magical. It is a big sunny room surrounded by whiteboards and Post-It notes. Such environments make non-linear thinkers like me salivate. We get to work in teams, develop different solutions to the challenge of the day, and share our insights and prototypes. We get to play with toys and draw with chalk and giggle a good bit. It’s the kind of place where lines between work and play get gloriously fuzzy.
But the elegance and appeal of the methodology goes deeper than playing in this big kid playground. Design Thinking helps teams and individuals expand their creative capacities and burst bubbles of convention. I see this working for three main reasons:
1. It re-introduces a human element to design. Design thinking prides itself on incorporating empathy as a critical component of the methodology. Practically speaking this means that Design Thinkers strive to share actual experiences with the target market or audience. From these shared experiences designers can draw insights they would have otherwise missed. Ideo’s CEO Tim Brown shares in his book, Change by Design, about a teammate who feigned an injury and went undercover in an emergency room to see how hospitals could run more efficiently. Curiously, he found that efficiency wasn’t the problem; the problem was that hospital staff communicated so poorly with patients that the sick and injured were left wallowing in fear and uncertainty. Had this undercover mission not taken place, the team might have completely misidentified the problem and developed a “solution” doomed to fail.
2. It helps people bypass their inhibitions. In so many hierarchical work environments, brainstorming as a group rarely works. People worry what the boss will think or what their colleagues will do if they say something stupid. Any negativity can kill the innovative spirit. Furthermore, people become prematurely encumbered by budget questions and feasibility before they even discuss what problem(s) they need to solve. Design Thinking encourages a “Yes, and..” or a “Yes…if…” attitude. All ideas are welcome in the “ideation” stage, and the group works together to build on the ideas that best solve the problem. The atmosphere is positive and collaborative and works best when the group is diverse and can represent a variety of experiences and insights.
3. It embraces experimentation and failure. Design Thinking relies heavily on fast prototyping. Let’s say your challenge was to design a better shopping cart. In no time you might be making carts out of popsicle sticks and wire. The principle is simple: experimenting sooner rather than later gets the ‘failed’ attempts out of the way. Failure, in this case, doesn’t loom over the project as something to be avoided but rather is embraced as a critical part of the process. Sometimes the best insights are formed when early attempts fail.
I still have a lot to learn about Design Thinking, but I hope you find these principles liberating as I have. Creative work often degrades into competition; we are seduced by the romance of the lone artist, so we pit ourselves against others to be the “best” lone artist. But creative work can be so much more. It can pull in people, who otherwise don’t think of themselves as creative, and liberate them to contribute. When this happens, it’s a beautiful thing.