The Science and Art of Design Thinking
Recently I participated in Control the Room, the 1st Annual Austin Facilitator Summit, hosted by Voltage Control. Prior to the summit, I took part in a Facilitation Master Class, which proved to be one of the most valuable and practical courses I have taken during my career. The facilitators curated a hands-on interactive session full of experienced professionals and provided us with real-world practice, techniques, and models to help shape conversations and, ultimately, successful outcomes. It’s the kind of class that is different every time it’s taught, due to the personalities of the individuals participating as well as the nature of the workshop itself. All of us made meaningful connections that will linger long after the session memory fades.
At the summit, I found myself surrounded by a variety of innovation professionals—from academia, government agencies, software companies, design firms, as well as independent consultants. All of us committed to making human encounters engaging and effective. It was personally inspiring to connect with Priya Parker—activist, author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, and TEDx speaker—as well as Keith McCandless, author and co-founder of “Liberating Structures,” an open source set of facilitation structures rooted in design thinking.
Starstruck encounters aside, the master class provided real-time discovery and practice of methods designed to allow the “many to many” to connect and communicate in a meaningful way, which can result in real solutions to real problems. Lots of techniques used in this type of problem-solving are rooted in design thinking, which has foundations in empathy and a preference for “making” something tangible. In other words, people and their unique perspectives are critically important in designing actionable paths forward.
Traditional methodologies are good for sustaining and even operationalizing processes but do not lend themselves to innovation. Design thinking itself is a mindset, not a prescriptive formula for running meetings, and as such, necessitates that facilitators learn many techniques and frameworks in order to cultivate a personal toolset that can be adapted during the process of finding a solution.
Which brings me back to the importance of events such as Control the Room, dedicated to innovation professionals learning, sharing, and practicing techniques that enhance human connections, interactions, and solutions. These frameworks can be used in traditional and nontraditional senses and lead to meetings and interactions with PURPOSE—on purpose, for a purpose. Design thinking in and of itself doesn’t solve your problems; it creates the space and freedom necessary for your teams to solve them!
I use the REACTS acronym to remember what I think are the most important tenets of design thinking:
Design thinking builds experiences that connect to the greater whole, always tying to the big picture and overall strategy.
By definition, empathy is the act of figuratively putting yourself in another person’s shoes. In design thinking, empathy is taken a step further and involves being aware of the user experience for all stakeholders at every stage of the process. Knowing your user, customer, or stakeholder’s journey leads to solutions that delight all users.
Design thinking evaluates ideas and their execution using an informal scientific method. This approach requires you to be open to failing (quickly), documenting, learning, and moving on to the next iteration. This can be done through tangible prototypes or pilots and should focus on answering one key question at a time.
Additionally, this approach requires flexibility to switch elicitation methods and techniques as needed, based on the direction that the conversation takes. Herein lies the art—knowing when to shift. Again, don’t look to design thinking to solve your problem. Look to those who employ a design thinking mindset to cultivate your toolbox of creative ways to discuss and try and test things.
Design thinking by nature is collaborative and inclusive. All skill sets and roles are valuable to innovation. The best solutions are often sparked by the most unexpected of sources. Diverse groups can create innovative solutions for growth.
Design thinkers are optimists who trust the creative process to bring ideation to action. Problems and constraints are merely opportunities for creating better solutions.
Design thinking gives people in the room the freedom to brainstorm without strings, without judgment, and without closing down discussions. They ask, “What if?” Ideas are allowed to be shared freely so as not to assume what is right but seek to explore what might be possible.
Facilitators should encourage elaboration rather than give in to the knee-jerk instinct to judge the value of a thought or idea. Unusual and even absurd perspectives should be welcomed, as the road to innovation is often not linear…and sometimes not rational on its face. Innovation means doing something new or approaching things in a different way to a new result.
A quick example of how this can be used is seen in observing business models. An example we worked through at the summit was taking the business model of a car insurance company and applying a business model from a completely different industry (e.g., on-demand streaming company). In this example, the company took away customer-driven self-service as something that they could do. This is how we go from on-demand TV shows to on-demand rides home from Lyft and Uber. Or, how we go from online meal prep tutorials to meal-prep boxes delivered straight to your home by companies such as Blue Apron.
Remember, design thinking is a mindset rather than a methodology and can be applied to any complex problem that does not have a known solution. Use the REACTS acronym to remember the core tenets: Real World, Empathetic, Agile, Collaborative, Trusting, and String-less.
I learned a lot at Control the Room—actionable structures to further my consulting skills, new creative ways to organize change management workshops, and about myself as a facilitator and advisor. I look forward to bringing these insights to my daily work, further assisting our customers, and to the 2nd Annual Austin Facilitator’s Summit next year!
For some design thinking in action, catch my workshop at DIA 2019 titled Setting the Stage for Effective Stakeholder Collaboration or stop by Booth 1838.