Politely but firmly, as any traveler boarding trains in London’s Underground can attest, an insistent female voice reminds passengers to pay attention to their surroundings. Unfortunately, there is no similarly effective system for urging those who work in non-profit organizations to “mind the gap” between the current and desired state of things.
Every night we ask our two boys to set the table as my wife or I prepare dinner. After the older boy asks “What are we having?” and the younger one distracts himself with the dog, almost invariably the conversation goes something like this: Is the table set? Yes. Everyone has forks? Yep. Did you set out cups? Uh-huh. Looking from the kitchen into the dining room, it appears both boys have cups but neither parent is so fortunate. Were you planning on giving your mom or me a cup? Oh! I didn’t know you wanted one.
Whether it’s due to existing organizational systems and culture, our education, or our job description, too often we find ourselves overmatched by the problems we’re asked to address. Hampered by a fixed-view, linear mindset, there is a gap between the problems we face and the skills we bring to bear in solving them – almost a planned obliviousness.
A dynamic environment
Few things exist in isolation. Sick people need doctors. Cars need fuel. And a flower needs sun, soil, water, bees, and an environment free of feet to stomp on it or tires to run it over. In all endeavors multiple factors affect one another, yet our response in the face of complexity has been to evolve into a collection of specialists where one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing. As the Epicurean Dealmaker observed:
As the body of scientific and technical knowledge swells exponentially, scientists and engineers by definition simply must become narrowly focused specialists. You cannot be effective as a scientist or engineer nowadays if your knowledge spans too broad a field.
But who will aggregate and balance the competing viewpoints, suggestions, and research programs of all these specialists in highly complex microdomains? Who else but someone who has been rigorously educated in the general discipline of how to think, of how to evaluate competing claims and conflicting evidence under conditions of extreme uncertainty?
Who else but a designer?
Before accusing me of being delusional, let me explain. Most people think of design as an act of creation. Among other things, designers make products, buildings, posters, and websites. But design is as much – if not more – about how we think than what we make.
If you had customers facing physical danger in the course of receiving your product or service, it’s safe to say that fixing this problem would be a priority. Less alarming, but similarly, if your website was difficult to navigate or your process for thanking volunteers was too slow, these might also be identified as problems worth solving.
These are all design problems. And, since design is part of everything we do, all of us have a stake in thinking like designers.
Psychologists have long identified pattern recognition as essential to human intelligence. It’s the only way our powerful, but limited, brains can process massive amounts of stimuli. Imagine reading, playing chess, solving equations, or understanding human behavior – all rely on keen recognition of patterns.
The problem with relying only on specialists, is that the patterns they’ve learned can make it harder for them to consider and integrate new thinking. They know too much.
Design thinking is a structured approach to generating and developing ideas to meet a specific challenge. Fostering the conditions in which insider knowledge meets outsider perspective encourages the kinds of questions and breakthroughs that remain largely absent with a more insular approach.
What’s needed now, more than ever, is for recognition that “business as usual” is a pattern that doesn’t exist – the status quo is forever changing. We need specialists with their deep, but narrow, expertise to collaborate with less linear, more iterative thinkers – the designers in our midst. In other words, in an age of increasing specialization, we need to be paying attention to both the forest and the trees.
When that happens, we’ll make a regular habit of improving our organizations, not just our logos and websites, and eliminating the gaps between what exists and what is possible. As the web application developer and founder of 37Signals, Jason Fried, has said: The design is done when the problem goes away.
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