Innovation Through Design Thinking

January 26, 2017

Design Thinking is an approach to innovation that provides a process for creatively bringing in and trying out new ideas. Expanding from the idea of designing a “thing” for people to interact with, it incorporates designing the way the person interacts with the “thing.” The “thing” becomes less important than the change in human behavior the “thing” evokes. The “thing” can even be an experience, such as checking in to a hotel or dining in a restaurant.

In this way, Designing Thinking can be seen as a process for Making Things Right. It is a response to dissatisfaction, allowing the dissatisfaction to be expressed as action for improvement.

Making is the key
A sublime gem of an idea from this approach is that Making Something is the default approach designers intentionally learn to use. When they don’t know, they Make Something. Making requires lots of little decisions, so it forces the designer to wrestle with difficult decisions and make a choice.

There’s not time to make everything perfect. It’s not even possible to make the right decision! There is no way of knowing what the right decision might be without exploring the Something after it is Made.

Making is the way to test things
Making involves other people, so those interactions provide a feedback loop with different perspectives. When the “thing” is made, there is an additional feedback loop that flows from asking yourself and others, “How well is this working?”

Making involves the expanded mind of the embodied brain
Making Something also requires Externalization. The ideas don’t stay confined to the mind. They enter the world. This process of Making Something involves Embodied Cognition. Making prompts new neural pathways to form because it engages the neurological system throughout the body, beyond the realm of imagination up in the newer part of the brain. Because Embodied Cognition activates the fuller nervous system and prompts new neural pathways to form, Making can rewire the brain.

Making is more profound than planning
Making Something is not Planning. They are very different. Planning leads to talking-about. Talking-about leads to talking each other out of bold ideas. This makes the outcome less innovative.

Making is learning
Making is used as a process in order to Understand. The idea in your imagination is manifested in the world to explore it within context, how it interacts with other “things” and how well people can interact with it. Many of these outcomes can only be explored when the “thing” is manifested, or made real, in the world.

Making is improving
The process of Making Something is intentionally iterative – which means it is expected that the “thing” will be created through many versions, each of which is incrementally better than the previous version. An initial version of the Something is Made, then tested, and then made better in another version based on the feedback loop; then tested again with that feedback leading to improvements in the next iteration; and so on.

This creates a pattern: Try – Fail – Improve.

Making embraces Failure as the path of improvement
Notice that “Fail” is an intentional part of a Design process. Notice also that this is more than carefully constructing something after thinking through lots of possible outcomes and then looking for small “tweaks” to make it better. This process involves Making Something to get the ideas outside the mind where they can be explored and understood in ways that cannot happen in the mind alone. It anticipates Failure because it accepts from the beginning that the person cannot know all the elements without Making.

There is no possible way to “get it right” in imagination alone. There is no possible way to test all the possible outcomes in the mind. It must be brought into the world to be tested.

A revolutionary approach to ideation
The “Aha!” experience I had during this presentation was not because all of the ideas were new to me. Many were familiar. I use the concept of the growth mindset with coaching clients to point out that we can improve in skills and qualities with intentional effort. I include this notion and other ideas to encourage an open, explorer’s approach to new things, plus extending grace to yourself knowing you will stumble and fall whenever situations and experiences are new. I use phrases like “fail fast” and “fall forward,” especially when talking about creating or growing a new small business.

The “Aha!” experience for me evolved from the way these concepts are woven together in Design Thinking. The very early start to Making was enlightening — that idea of creating the earliest version when you don’t know much because you can’t really know much yet, since imagination is limited.

Because the material world is sometimes BIGGER than imagination
The acceptance that imagination is limited in its ability to test out its own ideas seems like it can be transformational. This not only means understanding that things and experiences we create will not be perfect. More strongly, it means we create without any concern for it being “perfect” or even “ready” because we know it can never get to the point of excellence, or even “good enough,” until it has gone through many iterations.

It is through Making that we explore and learn about the idea. It is an interconnected part of the process.

Sounds pretty liberating, doesn’t it? Ultimately I think it produces much better outcomes than outlines, lists, and even mind maps. And it’s a lot more fun!

For more information on Design Thinking
The overview I presented here is based on my notes from the presentation given by Kate Canales, Director of the Master of Arts in Design and Innovation (MADI) program at SMU. She was the featured keynote speaker at the October 6th, 2016 Prism Symposium put on by ICF North Texas.

In her presentation Kate specifically referenced Ralph Caplan’s book By Design if you would like to learn more. You can also click here to see Kate’s TEDxSMU presentation on Disruption by Design.

Lead it forward: Find a low-risk or at least managed-risk way to try out this approach. Take the idea you are crafting in your mind and create a manifested version of it in the world so you can see how it interacts with the world and can get feedback from others. Wherever you lead or mentor others, help them see ways to Make Something as part of the process of ideation. Encourage them to embrace the learning that will come from Making a version and gathering the feedback.

May you be well, may you do well, and may you Thrive!

Take Care,

Stephen Coxsey, MA, LPC, PCC
Whole Life Leadership Coach

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