Linda Quarles discusses design thinking and ways to incorporate it into your work life.
While I’m not an expert in design thinking, I am a student and have been teaching others in our organization about is methods and tenets. Popularized by firms like IDEO, companies like Apple, and universities like Stanford, design thinking may seem elusive and elitist. But if you are trying to do an old thing in a new way, or a new thing in a new way, the simple and practical principles of design thinking can impact your view of innovation, problem solving, business, parenting, relationships, and most spheres of life.
Don’t think you are a designer? Herb Simon, Nobel Laureate of Carnegie Mellon observed that “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” Open your mind to the possibility that what great organizations, leaders, artists, scientists, and children around the world have been practicing for generations, might change how you see the world. You may even be designing without even realizing it.
Here’s what its simple principles have taught me.
Over-arching principles of design thinking:
- OUR IDEA will ALWAYS be better than my idea. Repeat after me: “Our idea will always be better than my idea.” When two or more people are together, they form a new entity that has its own personality, inseparable from the individuals. When you fully embrace this principle, you realize that what the group comes up with, by definition would be impossible for you to create because it was borne from the collective. It’s a beautiful thing and over time can become magical and addictive.
- Bring your strong ideas, held lightly. Our first point does not mean to imply that we don’t all have amazing ideas that we should not bring and strongly advocate for. Bring your genius and passion, however hold it with an open hand, be willing to let it morph, grow, or be replaced by something even more remarkable.
I often remind myself of these two mantras when entering any conversation, meeting, project, or presentation. This powerful combination accomplishes two things. First, it takes the pressure off! I no longer have to be the smartest person in the room, wondering if I am going to be the brilliant hero who saves the day. Second, it puts me in a very open posture. I am looking for that nugget to build on, that spark to ignite, that thought in infancy that could be cultivated into something amazing. And it doesn’t have to be mine to be worthwhile and dazzling.
Along with the first two principles, there are key behaviors that guide the way we work in design. See if you can catch yourself and others in these behaviors, and how they can change the course of history.
The Characteristics of a Designer:
- Empathetic: Sees things from others’ points of view. Walks in their shoes, both figuratively and literally. I was recently in a coffee shop where the large coffee was a beautiful, tall, steaming cup of hot aromatic deliciousness. When I went to put in cream, I picked up a stirrer that was half the height of the cup. I wondered, had they ever considered what it was like to try to stir coffee with a stirrer that only reached halfway to the bottom of the cup? I certainly did not feel cared for as a customer.
- Collaborative: Involves others, particularly people from other disciplines and teams. Promotes shared ownership of ideas. We routinely try to involve individuals from outside the project team at work. It feels forced and artificial, until they ask the most elementary question that brings the entire room to a screeching halt. This allows us to question assumptions and challenge orthodoxies in a way that a person that is a part of the team could never do.
- Curious: Asks questions from a point of genuine curiosity. Because we are taught from an early age that being smart means having all the answers, we are hesitant to reveal what we don’t know. Peter Drucker observed that “There is nothing so dangerous as the right answer to the wrong problem.” Curious individuals will seek to understand and question not only the problem but also the question. People often ask me how to develop their curiosity muscle. One place to start is to be a student of yourself. You will find that you are a fascinating subject. Why do I do what I do? Why did that bother me so much? How did I know that was where I wanted to go next? Start by studying yourself, and then gradually broaden your aperture of studying others and their choices, from a position of authentic curiosity.
- Iterative: Builds to learn (vs. learns to build). Is not afraid to fail early and often. This is an opportunity to flip the classic 80/20 approach that most of us use. Most of us bring our ideas, projects, work products forward for feedback when they are 80% complete. By then, any criticism or hole-poking feels personal and difficult to stomach. Instead, bring your ideas forward when they are only 20% developed. Not only does it feel helpful to get feedback, we are less wed to our concepts. We don’t fail for the sake of failing, we fail to learn and many small failures prevent large failure. My eight-year old daughter recently and wisely commented, “We make mistakes so we can learn from them.” THIS is one of the most important and valuable things that we can learn from design thinking and having a growth mindset.
- Imaginative: Promotes quantity over quality in idea generation, which opens up possibilities. We embrace the concept of “late averaging” which allows wild ideas to percolate and form instead of being immediately shut down. We even introduce concepts of “alternative worlds” which ask questions like… “How has this been solved in nature?” “What might music teach us about this?” “How would Steve Jobs approach this problem?” When I was living in Philadelphia in 1994 and first visited Seattle, I thought that the idea of an establishment that sold only coffee was idiotic. I’m grateful that those that had that idea, didn’t listen to the likes of me when they opened the first few SBC and Starbucks.
- Visual: Shows instead of tells. Uses drawing, images, and metaphors to persuade. You are familiar with the expression, “a picture is worth a thousand words” and this holds true from art to data visualization. How many times have you been in a meeting where the conversation is going around and around in circles, and then suddenly someone jumps up to the whiteboard and draws a couple of circles, lines, and arrows which brings immediate clarity and alignment?
I hope you feel encouraged and challenged by this primer. Look for the designer in yourself and see how it may change how you see the world, its problems, and its possibilities.
Photo credit: Flickr/gnosis / john r