Design Thinking Influencing Social Change

Shira Brin-Barak facilitating the Big Ideas exercise

Our team —Design for IBM Cloud Security — has led, planned and facilitated many Design Thinking workshops.

But this one was different. This workshop had been transformative both for the participants and for us, the facilitators.

At the end of this workshop, the participants did not want to leave. They lingered in the room talking to us about the emotional breakthroughs that had happened to them. They spoke of how they felt that this experience had changed them for the better, and they had a new perspective on one of the biggest problems in their lives. They spoke about the new hope they had for themselves.

For us, as facilitators, we learned something amazing. We discovered that in a 3-hour Design Thinking session, we could bring so much good to other people’s lives. As the weeks passed we spoke of it with our managers, co-workers and even friends.

We discovered — Design Thinking can be a tool for emotional and social improvement.

How did this story begin ?

Our team has been using IBM Design Thinking for the past 3 years as one of our major tools — we start working on each new product, service, or even feature using it. We see it as a great tool for bringing teams together — it is one of the best ways to align around one mindset.

As a team, we try to take time out of our schedule to use the tools we’ve learned at IBM in an effort to benefit the world in some small way. Our goal is to do a pro-bono Design Thinking session once a quarter.

We had been approached by Restart, a non-profit organisation that helps injured veterans who have suffered life-changing injuries, visible or otherwise, while they were serving their country. Restart’s goal is to help these veterans find the motivation to move on and find their place in the workplace.

The problem statement for our workshop was — how do these men and women create a new career for themselves, and not stay defined by their injuries?

Since the problem statement of this workshop was centered around hiring and recruitment, we asked a few IBM HR managers and recruiters to join us, as representatives of that persona.

The agenda was compact and included — Stakeholder Mapping, Empathy Mapping, Needs Statements and Big Ideas. The workshop participants came from all walks of life, they varied in age (25–40) and many came from a non-technical background. Very quickly they were all participating, sharing, playing back and collaborating together.

The real breakthrough came when participants were doing the empathy map for the HR recruiter persona. Up to that point, they were all consumed with self-doubt, they had assumed that HR recruiters only saw their injuries, their post-trauma stress disorders and their limitations.
Design Thinking asks that you “get to know your users”, so the veterans interviewed IBM HR personnel, and had their long-held assumptions broken.

One recruiter told them:

“I don’t mind your injuries, I see your recovery as evidence that you don’t give up, not as a weakness. We all have problems we are dealing with in our personal lives: some employees are caring for sick relatives, others may have a disabled child, or may be coping with a chronic illness. IBM is a workplace that understands this, and looks beyond these problems.”

So as they were trying to empathise with this persona, they understood that recruiters saw them not as damaged, but as heroes who had overcome a tragedy. This happened because the “observe” part of Design Thinking forces participants to understand the user by bringing the real user to the table, and to validate or reject assumptions about them.

Hen Shkedi, Design Manager at IBM Cloud Security, leading the workshop

How Design Thinking can help with social issues

We usually try to focus the discussion on the exercise we’re doing and attempt to avoid side-discussions. When dealing with such an emotional problem statement, it is much harder to contain side-discussions. We found that in this case, being sidetracked is actually a good thing. When participants were playing back for the team, they were sharing their most personal fears and confessing as they had never before.

In retrospect, we tried to understand why Design Thinking worked so well in such an unexpected setting. We’ve come up with a few reasons that make Design Thinking is uniquely advantageous when attempting to solve a social or emotional problem:

1. The “no talking, only writing” rule — 
In most group discussions, there are one or two more participants who dominate the conversation. Other, more introverted participants, usually keep quiet for most of the session. Design Thinking dictates “write, don’t talk” for the first few minutes of each exercise. This creates a sense of democracy — each participant has an equal voice and equal opportunity to contribute. The entire group benefits from hearing multiple viewpoints and opinions.

2. Standing and using post-its — 
Emotional problems are usually discussed with a therapist in a therapy session while sitting down. Standing up and placing post-its on a whiteboard are not the usual path used to solve your most personal issues. This difference creates a small but unexpected change to the perspective for approaching a problem you’ve been dealing with. From our experience, we could see how standing up changed the discussion and empowered participants. We assume that the change comes from passively sitting and talking, to actively standing.

3. Walk in someone else’s shoes — 
For the injured veterans, who are obviously very focused on their own problems and recovery, doing the empathy map for the persona of HR recruiter was a good exercise. The HR recruiters in the room spoke of their work goals and challenges and assured the veterans that they were looking for good employees, and not focusing on their faults. Interviewing the actual persona gave them a new perspective on their injury as proof of overcoming a challenge.

In conclusion, we discovered that Design Thinking can be used as a tool for emotional and social improvement.

We’ve partnered with Restart twice and are eagerly looking forward to helping them and other non-profits again.

Shira Brin-Barak is Design Lead, IBM Cloud Security based in Tel Aviv, Israel. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.