100 Things I learned at the d.school: It’s not about you (#2)

It’s tempting to make yourself the center of a project, but great design thrives on the opposite.


Think about how much time you spend managing your online profile. Don’t worry. I’m not judging you. I’d be a pot calling the kettle black if I did. The fact is, many of us spend an inordinate amount of time tending to ourselves. We act in our own best interest (or what we perceive it to be). We try to convince others to act in our best interest too by artfully spinning a tale about mutual benefits.

So much of what we do every day is about ourselves. Unfortunately, great design happens when we flip the script and start focusing on other people. Thanks to human nature, this is more easily said than done. It took me three years to figure out how to do it, and I still fall short more often than not.

It takes a lot of practice to turn away from yourself and fully turn to someone else. We naturally want to protect ourselves, and we see that as requiring constant self-monitoring. Ceasing to be vigilant about ourselves and our own needs risks pain, and pain is a real and powerful motivator.

Enter the e-word: empathy. The word floats around the design thinking world a lot. I’ve done more than my fair share of contributing to its gravity defiance. Over the past few years I’ve come to realize it’s an economical and kind way of saying, ‘It’s not about you. Really, it’s not.’

Every story I have heard of design thinking successfully applied has an ah-ha! moment. It’s the moment when a team sees the problem in an entirely new way and generates solutions that would never have occurred to them otherwise. It’s always a story of people realizing that stepping into someone else’s shoes means taking off their own shoes first.

This goes beyond finding solutions and down to the very way in which you work on teams. Top-down hierarchies incentivize thinking with a priority on self-preservation. You’re often working to protect your existing authority while acquiring more of it. The goal is to be the most powerful and well-compensated person in the room. It’s almost impossible, in a strict hierarchy, not to make it about you at all times.

That’s why, at the d.school, it’s not about who’s in charge so much as it’s about what’s getting done. If you’re the person who knows how budgets work, budget decisions go to you. If you’re the one who knows animal husbandry, then you’re the go-to on decisions around animal husbandry. If you’re the writer, then editorial decisions fall to you. It’s not about how old you are or how many hours you’ve clocked. It’s not about you.

So, what does this functionally mean, besides sitting down for some mindfulness meditation and getting rid of your top-down org. chart? Here’s what it boils down to:

  1. Work on diverse, flexible teams. If you aren’t on such a team, find one or make one. Insist on working in this way. It can be easy to settle into the idea that you’re a cog in the machine whose sole purpose is to keep your head down, your nose clean and your fingers typing. It’s equally easy to play along with the myth of the lone-wolf inventor/innovator. The fact is diverse teams beat individuals every time. Diversity means more than engineers, architects and chemists playing together. It means going beyond skill type to include all aspects of the human experience, from gender and race to religion and nationality. Once you’ve found or made your diverse team, keep it flexible. Sometimes you’ll need new members at different moments. Maybe it’s time for you to leave the team. Stay flexible and encourage flexibility in others.
  2. Prioritize skills over seniority. I get it, the buck has to stop with someone. Often, the person with whom it needs to stop is not the person “in charge”. It’s often said that the most powerful person in an organization is not the chief executive but their personal assistant. That’s because the assistant is an expert in setting priorities and translating ideas and concepts for the chief executive into concrete action and clear logistics. The assistant also sits in the catbird seat of an organization, observing nearly everything going on. They also rest atop a robust network of other knowledgeable individuals in the form of other personal assistants and organization leaders. Yet, how often do you think to bring the CEO’s admin into a brainstorming session instead of the CEO? Probably not that often, because your first priority is you and your face-time with the CEO. Next time, try inviting their admin. You might find they have the skills and the experience to get to a breakthrough.
  3. Practice taking off your shoes. Obviously, I’m not talking about your literal shoes. I am referring to your ability to stop focusing on yourself to fully and deeply consider another person. I often find that when I release the vice grip of focus I have on myself, my stress level goes down. I feel more in control, not less. Focusing on others gives you a chance to set down your own burden for a while and gain the benefits that come helping someone else.

Again, this is all easy to say and difficult to do. I still find myself with my shoulders up near my ears thinking deeply about my own problems. It’s a habit, but it’s one I know I need to break not only for my health but to improve my work.

P.S. Yes, there’s a sign in the d.school that literally says, “It’s not about you”. I kid you not. It’s one of my favorite artifacts in the entire place.

I run a consultancy at the crossroads of human-centered design, media, policy and professional development. I recently gave a TEDx talk on the need for a marriage of design and unconscious bias in professional development and media training.

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