How Design Thinking Surprised Me Yet Again (this time on my birthday)!

Photo by Will Clayton

Photo by Will Clayton

On my birthday this year, I found myself surrounded by people inspired and fueled by finding ways to strengthen individuals and communities. Could you ask for a better birthday celebration than that?

I was in Baltimore at the annual Net Impact conference, running the Local Impact sessions. Six local DC/Baltimore organizations applied to be part of this workshop, where conference attendees would use design thinking skills to help discover new ways of approaching their organizations’ respective challenges. And, believe me, the challenges they were tackling we no small feats- one organization serves 18-21-year-old foster youth in MD.  Another is seeking to bring the pneumonia vaccine to the developing world.  Still, another organization is working on strengthening green infrastructure in DC!

So this was the Local IMPACT session at the Net IMPACT conference…lots of impact, right? And lots of expectations to create big ideas to lead to real, systemic, lasting change.  As the design thinking coach/teacher and facilitator, I was feeling a little bit anxious about this session. We had 90 minutes to ideate around these challenges, with just a 2-page design brief. Eek! In my perfect world, we would have 2 days of ideation, and weeks worth of ethnographic research across all kinds of customers & stakeholders to serve as our stimulus.

But the essence of design thinking reigned and I was humbled.  Using just 2 design thinking tools and 90 minutes, the organizations walked away with a slew of ideas, representing new ways of thinking and approaching their challenges. This is not a feat to be overlooked for organizations with a handful of employees and at a critical juncture in their growth.

As it turns out, our expectations were low too, and we all walked away surprised by, and inspired by, what happened in those 90 minutes.

A few design thinking principles I underestimated:

  • Action, not talking.  If all you have is 10 minutes, that’s 10 minutes of ideation that you could be doing.
  • Co-creation. Involving others will always make your ideas better. And sometimes those others can be outsiders- they’ll push your thinking to new places.
  • Well-structured, but playful ideation.  Strong trigger questions, small groups and a playful format are essential for ideation. Most ‘stretch’ ideas come from building off each other (small groups) and thinking of things from a different perspective (trigger questions).