100 Minutes Of Intense Innovation, Or Changing The World In One Class

Design thinking, empathy, and the quest for “new”

It all started with two brothers, Tim and Dave. They started the design and innovation company IDEO, and that gave rise to the design thinking movement. To design a solution to someone’s problem, we must do more than clinically analyze the problem. We must empathize with the individual who has the problem. Only then can we really understand the nature of the problem and devise a solution that meets the needs of the client.

Lawyers, accountants, engineers, consultants, doctors shudder when they read that paragraph. While there are some truly empathetic people in the lot, the majority chose their profession because it gave them intellectual satisfaction. That doesn’t mean they aren’t personable, able to carry on a conversation, or even back-slap with the best. But if push comes to shove, they’d rather be in a corner with a book and their favorite beverage.

That is the stereotype we live by. The reality, however, is different. Whether introvert or extrovert, the thing that drives professionals is problem solving. Give them a new tool to solve problems, and they are gung-ho to use it.

Most professionals still have not been exposed to design thinking. If they used some lean thinking tools, they may have peaked under the innovation tent. But you must experience design thinking to understand the power it brings to innovation.

We did a design thinking exercise this past semester in my Entrepreneurial Lawyering class. I have limited the class size to 20 students, to keep it small and interactive. We have 100 minutes per class, so with a little judicious trimming, we can fit in a design thinking introductory exercise. Our topic was enrolling for classes.

The design thinking introductory exercise was put together by the Stanford d.school. The topic of the d.school’s exercise didn’t fit the setting, so I chose enrolling for classes because students cared about the system and it generated strong emotions (world peace will have to wait for another day).

The key to the d.school exercise is time constraint. You have several steps to complete, and you are given just a few minutes to complete each step. You always feel like you are out of time. But, the time constraint stops everyone from doing the famous time-wasting bellybutton contemplation. You must dig in and move.

Time constraints do other things. They force you to focus on the task at hand. They raise the energy in the room. The create a somewhat competitive atmosphere (as if law students need more competition). They get those creative juices flowing.

You work in pairs during the exercise. Depending on the topic and group, this gets interesting quickly. The students generally know each other, but of course many are “head-nodding” acquaintances. The first thing they must do is empathize with their partner and they get there by asking questions their partner may not have considered: “How did you feel when you couldn’t get a place in Secured Transactions?” (I am fairly certain I heard soft sobs when questions like this one came up.)

The exercise moves quickly, but at the end we had more than 60 suggestions to improve the class enrollment process. Those 60 suggestions had been winnowed from a longer list, and the participants already had feedback on 20 of those suggestions.

I’m Too Busy…To Improve

Talk to a lawyer and you would think no one in the world is as busy as the person in front of you. Look at the numbers and you might draw a different conclusion. The average billable hours for lawyers in large firms hovers around 1,600. A bit higher for some, lower for others (that is, of course, the nature of an average). Solo practitioners, according to a recent report, bill on average 2 hours per day.

Now, if you are an associate in an elite New York law firm, you will look at those averages and laugh (or cry). Your firm depends on higher numbers and if you are in one of the very elite 20 or so New York firm, you can expect to bill more hours (whether it is productive work, of course, is an entirely different thing). My point is this: lawyers have time to do design thinking, lean thinking, and other practice improvement activities. Don’t let them tell you they don’t.

If (there is that word) lawyers would learn design thinking, they could surprise their clients with innovation. The same is true for individuals in other professions and in fact it is true for all of us. Our clients and customers have problems they need solved. But, they only have a certain amount of time, energy, and money to solve their problems. They pick and choose. Professionals address the problems brought to them.

By getting to know your customers or clients, you can find out what bothers them. You can learn about the problems not being solved. Using design thinking, you can work on solutions for real problems that haven’t been addressed. You can get ahead of your customers and clients. You can do this in your job, by learning what problems your boss still needs solved.

Keep Your Client At The Center Of Innovation

Changing an organization’s culture is hard. What if you used a design thinking exercise to attack the problem? Even better (scarier), invite customers or clients to the session. Experience first-hand what your client feels when she works with your firm. It takes a strong ego to hear that type of feedback. Now imagine what you could do if you knew how to improve so that your clients loved working with your firm?

Design thinking is one of many tools lawyers and other professionals should have in their improvement toolkit. It drives innovation, something lacking in all the professions. It makes you think like a client (customer), which helps remind you that the best solution is the one that solves your client’s problem, at their price, on their timeline. Those are some significant constraints.


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About: Ken is a speaker and author on innovation, leadership, and on the future of people, process, and technology. On Medium, he is a “Top 50” author on innovation and leadership. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, and follow him on Facebook.