Design leadership tricks: Zoom out, 1x

photo by Lainmoon

I’ve heard it both ways from teams and executives: “They’re trying to boil the ocean, when we really just want to execute,” or “This feels incremental and we need bolder thinking.” It can feel like a Goldilocks trap—too hot! too cold!—that you’ll never get just right.

A pattern I’ve found to get to the just right level for problem-solving is to ask the team to spend most of their time solving the problem zoomed out to just the next level of context, no wider and no closer.

It’s best explained by Eliel Saarinen’s maxim, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” If a team is designing the room, I find my job is often to help the team leaders to set the problem context as the house, not the city plan, not just the room, and certainly not the chair.

For example, say there’s an opportunity to increase the number of people making it through an application process. To solve the problem a design team doesn’t need to zoom way out to rethink the entire customer journey or redesign the business. However, the team could create a better solution by knowing what led a person to the application process, what expectations were set, and how we might change or act on those expectations to make applying smoother. Without that slightly larger context, they’ll design a perfectly lovely chair, but for the completely wrong room.

The trick is this: set the context for solving the problem by zooming out just 1x to see teams spend more of their time being smart about the right things.