Verbal jujitsu for coaching design thinking

By Mago Torres and Tim Regan-Porter

Students in the Coaching Design Thinking course coach students in the Needfinding in the Wild course. Photo: Michelle Jia.

It’s hard to spend any time on the Stanford campus — or in Silicon Valley or increasingly in almost any creative, technical or academic environment — without hearing about design thinking, a human-centered process for problem-solving. While it is true that this process has been instrumental in the design of many of the products we use every day, its most ardent proponents come across as peddlers of a magic elixir for any problem.

Nonetheless, JSK Fellows have experienced firsthand the value of design thinking. Our JSK Fellowship orientation included an immersive crash-course as former fellow Tran Ha helped our cohort apply the process to understanding our journalism questions. Many of us followed orientation with courses and “pop-out” sessions at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (better known as “the”).

Having witnessed failed design projects in the past juxtaposed with excellent examples of success at Stanford, two of us decided to take the course Coaching Design Thinking to better enable us to apply these methods in newsrooms and with other teams.

The course vividly illustrated that successful design-thinking implementation involves much more than the canonical five steps, Post-it notes and enthusiasm.

An exercise in aerodynamics illustrated how even coaches can get locked into early ideas, failing to iterate and learn quickly and repeatedly. Photo: Michelle Jia.

At the beginning of the course, instructor Michael Barry emphasized the difference between teaching/managing and coaching. The former usually centers around top-down dissemination, with power and status often playing key roles. In the latter, coaches facilitate more than instruct or direct. Coaches are tools to help teams build on each other’s knowledge rather than sources and conveyors of knowledge themselves.

To prepare our class of graduate students, fellows and staff to coach another course, Needfinding in the Wild, Barry and teaching assistant Michelle Jia expertly demonstrated effective coaching methods throughout the course.

Often role-playing difficult team dynamics, one of them would redirect the course of an interview, debrief or brainstorming session to help the team dig deeper, rethink assumptions and broaden perspectives. We were fascinated how effective deceptively simple questions and statements could be: What does that mean?What else could it mean? Say more. There was elegance to their verbal maneuvers. Watching Barry and Jia in action was like watching world-class jujitsu martial artists, using subjects’ inclinations and momentum to (seemingly) effortlessly move them in better directions.

For our final project, we decided to create a pocket-sized chapbook for coaches that captures some of the short but strategic phrases and sentences to help teams.

Leading with our key takeaway from the course — a quote from Barry, “Coaches never need to have the answer, just an additional question” — we grouped phrases into five categories useful for different stages of a team’s work process: needfinding, imagining new possibilities, digging deeper, encouraging the team and surfacing the story.

The result is a handy collection of tips you can put in your pocket for your next design-thinking session. The first link below shows the individual panels for the screen. The second link allows you to print the document so that it can be folded into a pocket-sized booklet. (See the slideshow or video for instructions for folding the chapbook.)

For the screen
For printing

The chapbook was a hit with Barry and the class. Its simplicity and visual layout fit the course content and the approach and aesthetic, Barry assured us. Many of the phrases now included came from the classes added contributions as we presented the prototype.

We invite you to use the chapbook for your next design-thinking session. Let us know how it goes. What worked? What didn’t? What would you add?