Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

After the Post-It Notes Are Gone

A wall filled with yellow and pink Post-It Notes shot as a close-upLate last year, I attended a design thinking workshop. There were about 30 people in attendance, all interested in exploring ways to respond in the wake of the presidential election. As the facilitator noted, there are as many ways to get involved and take action as there are people.

It was a lively morning. Stories were told. Ideas were shared. And, of course, by the end of the workshop, the walls were covered with Post-It Notes.

As my small group was wrapping things up, one person asked: “How can we maintain this momentum? I would love to see something come of this effort.” We exchanged business cards and made vague promises to follow up. In January, I initiated a group email. One person declined, one never responded, and I had a beer a few weeks later with the fourth member of our group.

And that was that.

From idea to execution
I have participated in dozens of design thinking exercises and brainstorming sessions and, sadly, experiences like the one above are not uncommon.

Today, more than ever, when organizations face wickedly tough challenges, they may turn to a problem-solving technique known as design thinking, or human-centered design.

The process is well-defined and intended as a collaborative exercise. It begins with empathy – seeking out and understanding the needs of your intended audience. Once the challenge is defined, ideas are generated – the more the better. Prototypes are built and tested as the process moves closer and closer to the best solution.

Except when it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, with the design thinking process, there is often too much thinking and not enough doing. Despite the increase in recognition of design thinking from the press room to the board room, why has it largely failed to deliver on its promise?

Probably because that messy iterative part of the process – after the fast and fun idea generation session is finished – is really hard to do well.

An uphill battle
The most common mistake that leaders make is buying into the notion that a lack of good ideas is restraining an organization’s growth and innovation. Usually, it is the follow-through that is lacking.

Design thinking, like Six Sigma or other common business processes, is reassuring to executives. It offers the promise of a tested methodology – a step-by-step process that leads to a desired outcome.

When a new process is initiated, leaders often assume that the biggest hurdle has been cleared and turn their attention elsewhere. In fact, the toughest challenges remain.

It takes real commitment to fend off resistance when strategy turns to tactics, resources are redirected, and new ideas clash with the status quo. Long after the idea generation stage, it takes highly-determined individuals – with ongoing, explicit engagement at the highest levels – to overcome organizational inertia.

Design thinking is, by definition, iterative and open-ended. In an impatient, results-driven environment, people are tempted to jump at the first plausible solution – and look no further. Most people don’t have the security, authority, or attention span to embrace uncertainty.

What’s more, it’s human nature to seek out the familiar. Studies show that most people are more proficient at completing short-term, immediate tasks – doing what we are told to do – rather than thinking of new ideas and executing them.

Define and clarify the problem
Design thinking isn’t magic. It’s a method for solving problems with the user in mind. When design thinking attracts the attention of business executives, if executed poorly, it runs the risk of undermining rather than reinforcing the value of design.

It’s easy to get excited about new ideas. Two additional techniques familiar to designers might help transform those good ideas into better outcomes.

One way to refocus and test the viability of the discovery – or idea generation – stage of an assignment is to draft a one-page creative brief. This includes:

  • An executive summary that provides the context for the assignment.
  • The purpose of the project – what is the current state and how do you want to change it?
  • A defined target audience – prioritized, if more than one.
  • Specific objectives. What do you need to do to make this project successful? By what measures will this project be considered a success?
  • A timeline. Nothing happens without a deadline.

The creative brief refines and prioritizes project goals and establishes both a blueprint for design development and criteria for measuring the project’s success going forward.

Think more effectively
Despite the absence of evidence that brainstorming is an effective method for generating more and better ideas, it has become a time-honored technique. Its value may be more about bringing the team together. People enjoy feeling like they are a part of the process.

Design thinking exercises provide a similar value.

Research shows that individuals are better at divergent thinking – thinking broadly to generate a diverse set of ideas. Groups are better at convergent thinking – selecting which ideas are worth pursuing.

Is it possible we have the creative process backward?

Instead of convening to dispatch a pile of Post-It notes at a project’s inception, maybe we would be better off gathering as a group after working independently. This sounds a lot like a critique – a staple of my days in college art and design classes.

In a critique, fellow classmates (or project team members in a business setting), offer constructive evaluation and analysis to push the best ideas forward. This provides more structure to propel an open-ended, iterative process toward a conclusion.

Think and do
Designers are uniquely suited to contribute when there are problems to be solved. They can visualize options as well as analyze and synthesize information. Designers learn how to think that way through practice.

When design thinking is trotted out as a cure-all for the world’s problems, it can undermine the value and contributions of designers. It over-promises and under-delivers.

As Helen Walters, a writer and researcher of innovation, notes: “Design thinking isn’t fairy dust. It’s a tool to be used appropriately. It might help to illuminate an answer but it is not the answer in and of itself.”

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