Sphinx Adventure: An Introduction to Design Thinking.

How an early computer game taught me everything I need to know about the world of organisations and work.

Back in the late 1980s, my dad bought an Acorn Electron computer. It had 32k of memory, an external tape deck and we plugged it into a small black and white TV because he’d heard that these home computers would burn out colour sets. Despite the graphics available on exciting games like Hobgoblin and Crazee Rider, I spent a lot of time playing a text-based game called Sphinx Adventure.

The premise was that, as an explorer, you were searching Egyptian Tombs — I don’t remember what for. The game started with a description to set you out, then gave you choices for your next move. You made your choice and accepted the consequences. Sometimes you would progress to the next room, escaping the attacking monster and sometimes you wouldn’t — doomed to a horrific death by descriptive text.

Sphinx Adventure: Image from bbcmicrogsmes.com.

When you died, you’d start the game again (or give up, press the Break key and load Chuckie Egg), each time knowing a bit more. Building your knowledge and experience through trial and error helped you to go again, so that next time you’d get further. Sometimes you would get lucky and progress just by luckily tapping in the right option and sometimes, even your best judgement proved to be wrong. But there was always an opportunity to try again, with the benefit of what you had just learnt under your belt.

Eventually I realised that by grabbing a pen and paper, I could map the game as I went — working out what worked and didn’t, which moves led to dead ends and which choices helped me progress. This tactic allowed me to go and go again, each time gaining small victories, or learning something new — always finding progress that would help the next attempt.

I forgot about Sphinx Adventure until recently, when I was asked to spend a fantastic day discussing Design Thinking with a group of high potential leaders. As a group of adults realised they could unlock their own work, collaboration, support and progress without the need for huge investment, radical organisational changes or board level approval, I realised that this was nothing more than the approach I’d used to play that basic video game — and many others since.

On the face of it, Design Thinking seems to be a complex concept — a model for thought and approaching challenges in business, reinforced by academic articles and versions. But break it down and really, it represents little more than common sense — a dedicated version of if at first you don’t succeed

At its most basic, Design Thinking is broken down into the following stages:

Fantastic illustration by @SimonHeath1.
  • Understand the problem.
  • Think about the problem.
  • Design a solution.
  • Make the solution.
  • Test the solution.

Although it can be a stage-by-stage progression, working with Design Thinking equally may not be. At any time, you can return to any of the other stages and revisit them. Each stage is like a Waypoint in a modern video game — when you fail, pick up your journey at the last point of success and carry on.

If you test a solution that doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the game — it’s experience to add to your map as you start again or cycle back round for a re-design. If your understanding of the problem proved insufficient, go back there. Equally, if it was your prototype solution that was wrong, reiterate — make a different choice, take a different direction. Map the experience, continue the progress. Even if conventional logic tells you you’re back at the start, you’ve actually taken a great leap forward that makes you more likely to succeed.

Design Thinking is a great approach and as even the most structured corporate organisations come to realise the need for –and benefits of- constant innovation, its value as a method increases. It’s a method that anyone who has ever played a video game has employed time and time again, without consciously knowing. That’s the beauty of Design Thinking — it’s something that’s already hardwired into our subconscious, we just need to access it.

We’re now in a time where Design Thinking is essential to our success at work and being such a common sense idea, we’re all capable of it. In fact, it’s the truest example of workplace gamification there could be.

I used design thinking with great success when I was eight — many of us did. Why did we stop?

Our future success may now hinge on it…