Design Thinking

My Approach

As part of my master’s degree program at Northwestern, I’ve also been pursuing the Designing for Organizational Effectiveness Certificate (DOEC). Over the last year, I’ve learned extensively about the process of design thinking and undergone and intensive case study to apply the learnings.

Based on this experience, I’ve articulated my approach and point of view to design thinking as it relates to organizational problems and opportunities.

Developing Empathy

One of the critical first steps in design thinking is the exercise of collecting user stories in order to develop empathy for the needs of those users. This is a technique we use to get to the heart of the problem we’re trying to solve. When collecting stories, the role of the interviewer is to gather as many perspectives as you can in order to be able to make a judgment about where best to intervene with a solution.

When an interviewer takes the time to put herself in the user’s shoes, she understands the need at a more emotional level. That’s where the magic happens. From these stories, opportunities emerge that are found through understanding people’s lived experiences.

Collecting stories is more nuanced than traditional interviewing or qualitative data collection techniques where the interview is seeking to uncover facts. When you collect stories, you probe for detail in a quest to uncover thoughts and feelings. It’s an art form where one of the most important tools in the toolkit is the simple phrase, “tell me more.”

This can be difficult for practitioners who are accustomed to a question/response cadence. The conversations can often be meandering, which is why it’s key for the interviewer to jot down key words, phrases or simple pictures to help make sense of the conversation. Rather than taking copious verbatim notes, the interview is best served to listen actively and intently, translating the narrative once the conversation is over.

Drawing Your Way to Clarity

When dealing with ill-defined problems, we often walk into situations that are messy and chaotic. Visually synthesizing what you’re seeing and hearing in an organization can be a powerful way to identify gaps and opportunities. By drawing simple pictures from your interview notes, you can translate the stories in a way that can help you frame problems in a way that you can’t always do with interview notes alone.

Drawing and mapping are techniques that help us make sense and simplify steps. A place to start is to capture the current state of a situation. It can help you distill complex situations into more manageable and digestible pieces. It can also make the gaps and pain points more clear and obvious by using simple tools such as current state maps, experience maps and journey maps

Your drawings don’t need to be perfect or be a work of art. As a practitioner, they are mostly for your eyes only. Your maps can be in any format you like – do whatever works for you. I’m personally partial to post-is and sharpies exported to Mural via the Post-It mobile app. Once imported to Mural, you can play around with them, share with others and collaborate in real time.

It will be messy, and it will change, evolve and morph. And that’s OK. Drawing is a great way to start organizing the messiness.

Staying in the Problem Space

Arguably the most difficult part of design thinking, refraining from jumping to solutions can be painful for the seasoned practitioner who is accustomed to relying on gut intuition or past experiences to quickly apply solutions to problems that are similar to what they may have seen before.

By taking the time to collect stories, develop empathy and map current state, you’re allowed to see the problem in a different way, re-framing as you collect more nuanced information which, in turn, leads to more effective solutions.

I find this to be the hardest part of working with clients or stakeholders who want answers quickly. There is an art form to managing a stakeholder through the painful ambiguity that comes with sitting in the problem space. A key way to do this is to avoid saying overtly: “you’re jumping to solutions too quickly, let’s just hang out here in the problem a little longer.”

The art comes from listening more about where the stakeholder wants to go, probing for more detail and, again, asking why. Design thinking is iterative and the interviewing never stops – when a stakeholder is quick to jump to solutions, use that as an opportunity to find out more. And move quickly on to solutioning and prototyping and back to the problem space again if the solutions are effective.

Design thinking can actually happen quickly, but the problem space can be agonizing no matter how long we simmer there. It can feel like a messy process that isn’t going anywhere, but there is indeed structure that will become clear. Let the process guide you and when you’re anxious, go ahead and start writing ideas down but never allow yourself to stop listening to the research and the stories.

Using Theory as Inspiration

Theory can serve as inspiration in the work we do as organizational development and design scholar-practitioners. When we’re anxious to jump out of the problem space, I’m reminded of John Dewey’s quote, “To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry – these are the essentials of thinking.”

I pause on the word “protracted,” because that can mean different things in different situations. Just how long do we stay in the space of doubt? How many solutions should we entertain? When is enough enough?

This is a critical juncture where theory meets practice through design thinking. Scholars like Dewey help us understand the double movement of reflection and Argryis reminds us that double loop learning helps us travel back and forth from induction (theory of the whole) to deduction (where we test specifics). Said differently, as we test our ideas through prototyping, we learn. That learning informs iterations of our solutions.

I’m reminded of the dance floor/balcony metaphor in terms of adjusting our ways of thinking as we look at organizational problems. Imagine you’re in a ballroom for a special celebration. You spend much of your time on the dance floor, dancing with your date, having a great time. When someone asks you about the experience, you may say, “it was wonderful, the band was superb and then dance floor was swirling with people.” However, if you had gone up to the balcony, you may have experienced a different scene unfolding in front of you. Perhaps the dance floor was not really full, people were congregating in specific area or hovering over the food. Re-framing the way we are looking at this can give us different insights into how we perceive a situation.

This double movement of reflection can be a key to helping us give structure to the ill-defined problems we often encounter in organizations.

Surfacing Assumptions

When it’s time to shift to designing solutions and evaluating options for organizational problems, prototyping is a critical step. When solving organizational issues, we’re likely not making a physical object so prototyping takes a different shape. It may be a pilot program or a focus group to test how it might work. By finding ways to design small experiments to test our new solution, we can evaluate its true efficacy before we roll it out broadly within the organization.

Senge reminds us to “beware of excitement and unbridled action.” Often our organizational solutions are created in an “ivory tower,” without testing them with the people most affected. Often, we have a “brilliant” idea and our mental models can cause us to jump into grand action immediately. We often do this with blinders on.

It’s the proverbial iceberg situation, where we must think about what’s lying beneath the surface that may derail our well-intentioned solutions.

When we’re testing our solutions in an organization setting, we can use the same assumption categories often used in product development to help us identify what we’re not thinking about. By using these as a checklist, we can start to shift our mental models to evaluate how the solution may really be received.

  • Desirability: Do they want this solution? Are they willing to do the things we’re proposing?
  • Usability: Can they do what we need them do to? Can they understand it? Do they know what it means? Are they able to do it, even if they want to do it?
  • Feasibility: Is it possible? Can we even do it? Are there regulations that will prohibit us from dong this?
  • Viability: Is it worth it? Is the reward worth the effort? Why is this good for the business?
  • Ethical: Are people uncomfortable doing this? Is there any harm in doing this? How do we help to mitigate any risk?

This is hard, especially when you’re really excited about an idea. This part of the process can often feel like the “bubble-bursting” phase. But it’s a critical to designing solid, unbiased solutions that will have true organizational effectiveness.

Creating Solutions for Unique Contexts

When we collect stories and approach organizational problems with empathy, we get a deep understanding of the current landscape of an organization, getting to know the people who are a part of it. Every organization is comprised of a unique, one-of-a-kind collection of individuals. Like a snowflake, no two are exactly alike.

These collections of individuals form networks that often interact in unexpected ways. Change in one part of the network can have a ripple effect in other areas. By using design thinking, we seek to understand the unique traits and needs of an organization’s people, and how they’re connected, so that we can understand how they think, behave, learn and change in the organizational setting.

This can make solutioning complicated, especially in an age where constant change has become the norm. The “future of work” is challenging our assumptions around where work gets done, who does the work and what work can be automated. Mergers, leadership changes, and technology are also driving forces that can contribute to an employee’s level of engagement with their organization. With all this instability, consistent levels of engagement become very hard to sustain and solutions that work in one part of the organization may not work somewhere else.

Enter, once again, the beauty and utility of design-thinking. But being nimble, prototyping and iterating quickly, creating solutions for unique contexts becomes much more attainable.