Drinking design thinking Kool-Aid: 3 factors of success

This is the post by Brent Heckerman, Customer Success and UX Champion at RealtimeBoard.

Throw a virtual stone and you’ll find Design Thinking experts in every corner these days. But not here: this article is about the deeper forces that play into our mythologies, which have made Design Thinking one of the most sticky subjects to arise in the past 20 years. For ease of use let’s call a spade a spade: design thinking is just design, by any other name.

For companies who are struggling to adapt design into their monolithic cultures, here are three things needed to fuel long term success.

1. Reward and embolden the curious

Design as a human activity could not exist without curiosity.

Our mythologies do a lot of damage when it comes to rewarding curiosity. Aesop’s “look before you leap” has the silent warning “…or you’ll die” attached to it. Daedalus fried himself by flying too high. Look at all the fairy tales of kids going off to discover something in the woods, only to be captured, tortured, eaten, or worse. Ben Franklin apparently risked his life driven by his curiosity about electricity. You get the point: being curious can lead you into danger, discomfort, even death.

The flip side is that danger and discomfort are precisely the forces that, when harnessed, lead to some of our greatest discoveries. You may be unprepared to navigate the challenges that await you in unknown territory. Yet the unknown is the place where we turn unexpected corners in our imagination. It’s the place where discoveries are made sometimes with very high stakes, and sometimes with exceptional outcomes.

The late Joseph Campbell, who spent his life studying comparative mythology, achieved some fame with his analysis of the hero’s journey. In his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, he describes the narrative tropes across cultures in which a hero leaves his or her community to face unimaginable tests. They go off into the unknown on a quest for something of importance — an object, a token, some lost knowledge, or new information. Typically they experience some transformation, and return home with new understanding. Sometimes, the hero’s ideas are rejected when the parent culture hasn’t adjusted to the hero’s conversion.

Sir Gawain and The Green Knight: Discomfort is curiosity’s omnipresent traveling companion

The formulas of successful design teams follow similar patterns within a company: Encouraged by deep curiosity or a call to innovation, they brave the unknown, they take scary risks, they leave behind the comforts of convention and habit, and they arrive at new points of view that might be good for the culture.

A team’s best ideas might come from unknown places

For companies to enable long term success of design team competencies, there must be a shift in attitude about risk tolerance and in the systems that reward curiosity and imagination. Without the support of the community and its executive champions, design may end up being merely a label or title which bears little fruit, not the bold venture of the curious-minded that it should be.

2. Live optimism as a core value

There’s always a better way to do something, even if it’s as simple as tying your shoes. My son is left handed, while I’m right hand dominant. When he was learning to tie his shoes, I showed him my right handed approach in reverse. It was taking him a long time to tie his shoes in the morning. He soon improvised a knot that worked for him, which turned out to be the better way from his perspective. If I wasn’t paying attention, I might have looked at his shoes and assumed he did it wrong. But he used the pattern of tying I had shown him and adapted it to his left-handed perspective.

Design within a company has the power to transform every practice, from executive communications strategy to the service design of a chatbot. At it’s heart, design’s only ideology is the tenet that optimism empowers us to take those first steps into the unknown. Optimism fuels our curiosity to peel back layers of doubt, and helps companies unleash everyone’s ability to contribute on equal terms.

Most companies already have all the basic ingredients at their disposal to improve their design practices and outcomes. They may just need a little help getting started. The Stone Soup folk story is usable way to think of how optimism, in the shape a skilled facilitator/con man with a rock, who brings about positive change through collaboration. In the story, a traveler convinces a hungry village that he can make enough soup from a stone to feed everyone. Read about it in Jared Spool’s article on Medium.

Design Thinking seems so appealing is because it is a bit of a con

Companies who adopt optimism as a core value know that collaboration is their biggest challenge to solve. These companies also know that optimism is not about creating false expectations that everything will work out in some Pollyanna fashion. At its heart, optimism is accepting that different and even competing perspectives can arrive at better outcomes.

3. Make resilience a winning narrative

Think of evolution as the least lean design project ever. At scale, nature is taking risks on ideas that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, usually with the goal of improved survival. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the iron man snail and the photosynthetic salamander. Yes, these are real designs invented by Nature.

The most recent studies remind us that nature does make us measurably happier. But when you’re stuck on a mountain with no way to charge your phone, dining on cooler-soaked sandwiches, and avoiding wildfires and wildlife hazards, it’s hard to realize you’re in the middle of the biggest design experiment ever. Experimentation is going on all around us on a time scale that we can’t perceive or easily appreciate.

The History Channel’s “Life After People” is a humble lesson in the futility of human experience, illustrating how quickly nature will eventually turn all of our well-designed cities and monuments into rubble and weeds. The big takeaway: nature never stops improving on itself. Even when catastrophe abounds, time and the ever-forward drive towards improvement brings about forces of renewal and equilibrium.

Design is daunting. Mythology is terrifying. Nature always prevails. (© 2015 James Sparkes)

Nature’s resilient constancy is mirrored in our own survival instincts, and belongs right alongside optimism. In our design journey, this is more about learning from failures and marching on towards your shared vision. Maybe you hit a wall and have to pivot. Or the market shifts and you have to adjust your tactics. Or you get acquired and have to scrap everything and start from an entirely unknown point of view.

Resilient teams are ones that have taken risks, learned from their mistakes, figured out how to pivot, and had each other’s backs when times were tough. These teams have a shared narrative that is more powerful than a slogan or elevator pitch: it is a narrative about transformational values which end up shaping everything the team does and stands for.

The reason concepts like Design Thinking seem so appealing is because they are a bit of a con. There is a hope that with a handful of new tactics and tools, customers will become more satisfied, revenues and profits will rise, shareholders will pop champagne corks, and the competition will take a seat. But that’s not the magic. The magic is in the deeper narratives of going beyond our current understanding, of accepting that invitation to the designer’s journey, and evolving our thinking even while Nature does her very best to put us in our place.


About the author

Brent is a design leader and consultant with over 20 years of multi-industry design experience; a past User Experience Leader at Nielsen, where he built and managed a global design team and a UX education center. Brent is also a Design League Coach at Interaction Design Foundation. Outside of work, you might find Brent fly fishing in the mountains with his two sons.

Originally published at realtimeboard.com on February 15, 2017.