Design thinking..

..or: How to teach someone to be creative.

This blog will focus on the Design Thinking course I currently am part of. I have to admit, that I had no clear image in mind when I first saw the course on my schedule — luckily I did not even try to get one, since I would probably have ended up far from reality. 
The course began relaxed, music, some motivating words from our teacher, and the first couple of not particulary pleasant surprises: I might be on facebook, there might be a twitter account registred under my email adress, but I am far from beeing active in social networks. For me, Twitter is a place to get informations, Facebook is a platform I use to log into some other pages, to look for events and, from time to time, to keep in touch with friends that are all over the world — mostly, when I intend on visiting or inviting them.
You can understand that the information that blogging etc would be integral part of the course was not what I loved hearing. On the plus side: There will be at least two guaranteed readers! Yeah, that’s actually bigger than some of the blogs started that I read from time to time. Also, since I signed up for this course, I’ve got to go all in; and since I have to write a blog anyway — why not doing it my way and try to enjoy it while doing. A simple summary of findings from the course and further researches might be the right thing to deliver if the teacher asks for it — I was asked to write a blog about what I take from the course, so here we go!

Since this is the very first blog entry I am posting, and one of only few posts from me (outside of some kind of nerdy boards around the web) in an online community, I’d like to tell you one or two things about me.

Malte is the name, born and raised in Germanyn nearly 30 years ago. After leaving school I spent 8 years working for the german armed forces in Germany and France in Human Resources. After taking off the green clothes for the last time, and dressing myself in something more comfortable, I found myself studying “international business”, focussing at the french-german market in Dortmund (FAQ: No, I’m not into football; yes, I can see the stadium from my university.). The 5th semester of this particular course is designed to be a semester abroad: This is how I ended up at ESC Pau, a french business school at the French-Spanish border.

Back to topic.
Beeing in the army teaches you a lot of useful - and even more (in the real world) useless skills. Project orientated working and thinking, problem solving, beeing able to work together with different kinds of people, punctuality and so on: little did I know when I arrived at my shared student dorm, that my expertise in cleaning would be the most important skill for the first week.

One key skill that you probably won’t expect in the army is creativity. Well, soldiers are creative, actually those guys are the most creative people you’re going to find when it comes to improvising. Problem? Solution. It’s cold, rainy and you’re outside in the middle of nowhere? You can be absolutely sure that they’re going to find something to burn to get warm (I think the army never found out why the training village lacked a couple of shacks and doors: I don’t know either, of course.). If the equipment is not suited for the circumstances, they will find a way: Should it move, but doesn’t? WD 40, shouldn’t it move but does? Duct Tape. Doesn’t work? More Duct tape. If the food is bad..well, if organized properly you can get Pizza at any time and anywhere; seeing a couple of armed vehicles entering a training ground surely rises the mood of every local food delivery owner.

The “problem” with the “army” kind of creativity is: it is used to solve symptoms, it does not care for the problems that are the reason for the actual circumstances. Design thinking is the counterpart: it does at the problem in the foreground, but instead of trying to fix this problem, it uses techniques to dig deeper, to find a solution that works differently than just coping with the circumstances.
The soldiers perspective:
Problem: It’s cold. Why? Because I’m in the woods for at least 76 hours. Solution: We need something that burns for at least…70 hours and someone needs to dig a hole. 
A different view:
Design thinking would approach this problem differently..probably because the person analyzing the situation does not freeze and has probably access to a source of coffee. Of course, the guy is freezing. Why? He is in the woods. What’s the reason for him beeing there? He was told to go. Why that? (at this step I’m kind of reminded at my 4 year old niece..we’ve had that kind of discussion) ..in the end, the main problem might to be found in the geopolitical situation or the general nature of humans. The details are not relevant for this example, it’s only important that they’re problems, that can not easily be solved, and the knowledge about them does not help the person in question.

This short-term solution thinking is useful also in the “real” world: Problems, that immediately demand to be answered, require improvising skills. This is an important part of working on a project, but will not help to solve the project itself. 
To use a simple example: You work for a company that produces tires. Sale numbers dropped over the last 6 months and the company desperately needs money. 
The first problem you “feel” is: the company needs cash. The simple answer : “burn the resources”, ie “sell the machinery”, “fire employees”, will allow the company to survive for a couple of month longer, but not solve the drop in sales. An approach that uses design thinking would now try to dig deeper and deeper into this problem, to find the main reason that lies behind the drop in sales.

This leads me to my first personal finding:
Design thinking is a tool. Not every tool is useful in every situation.

To make us understand how to use this particular tool, we were asked to use it on our current situation; working in an international team to develop a project, that can be implemented by the business school itself. We quickly came up with what we thought to be our main problem to succeed: 
“The Team has a language barrier”. 6 people, 4 nationalities and an uneven distribution of language skills make this problem easy to find. A “language barrier” is a problem, that does not have an easy solution on the first glance: we can’t just perfect our skills within a couple of days.
The task was now to dig deeper into that problem, using 5 levels of asking “why?”, and giving 3 answers each time. We might not have succeeded to fill in all 246 slots in the last level, but when we were asked to chose three of those Level-5 problems we’d want to target, we easily agreed on the points “misunderstandings” “few synergie” and “few cooperation”. I already considered this to be kind of a success: we now had three key problems that actually allowed us a deeper understanding of the problem itself. Instead of fullfillying my desire to “go and solve these problems”, the next step took me by surprise: Approach the problem creatively. Instead of looking for a solution, we thought about how to make the situation even worse; in the most drastical ways possible (I think some of the ideas we’ve had might tell way too much about the persons coming up with them and will from now on be classified, and never talked about again).
Next step — the second to last one for now; then I’m off to bed. We were asked to take 5 of those absurd ideas, and find a solution for them — no surprise that “go to a therapist” was one of them, after the previous step; with “take a shower” as beeing my second favorite. The most interesting part now came in the end: Trying to translate the solutions for, on the first glance, totally not-releated problems into creative solutions for our actual problem, by firstly interpreting them in a more general sense, and then transfering it to our problem. Interestingly enough, all solutions we came up with actually have the potential to help us with the main problem, the language barrier. The Shower in this case was seen as “a process, that refreshes and relaxes you, as well as deleating things that affect you negatively”, and, together with other kind-of-weird-solutions translated into our “solution”: Whenever we feel stuck in our group project, we’re going to leave aside the current problem we’re working on, do something different (cooperative games, for example) together to re-establish some kind of team spirit. Also, we deceided on ending group-working sessions whenever possible with some kind of activity that is not work releated, like having dinner together.

This is not an answer that fits the formulation of our main problem, but it is an answer, that has the potential to help us work in our group, despite language barriers and cultural differences. The language barrier is a problem that we can’t solve — but we can cooperate better, we can have more synergie, and we can communicate better if we’re able to function as a team.

Steven Asei Dantoni #malte_in_france

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