Design thinking – Designers solve problems and create new possibilities by asking questions. On a new project, designers will invariably ask what designer Bruce Mau calls “stupid questions,” … “the kinds of queries that challenge assumptions in such a fundamental way they can make the questioner seem naïve.”
As in a medical examination or a structural audit on a construction site, the function of the stupid question is to thump around in the context of a product or issue to uncover, understand and test underlying assumptions. Designer Paula Scher talks to Mau about the value of approaching a problem from the perspective of an outsider,
“When I’m totally unqualified for a job, that’s when I do my best work … If you have too much expertise—if you think you know the answers already—you won’t be as open to offbeat possibilities. But if you’re a neophyte, you’ll ask what would seem to be obvious … From ignorance, you can come up with something that is so out of left field that it has been ignored or was never considered a possibility.”
Mau points out that, “The fear for so many people is that, in asking these kinds of questions, they will seem naïve. But naïve is a valuable commodity in this context. Naïve is what allows you to try to do what the experts say can’t be done.”
Outside of the realm of design (which I believe is a debatable distinction, since most problem solving activities can legitimately stake claim in the category of “design”), this approach can facilitate reconsideration of the foundations of a situation, provide a different perspective on the world, and help us “regain focus and retackle old, entrenched problems.”
Cut to the White House Situation Room – In what has been described as a “head-snapping” moment, high ranking members of President Obama’s Afghanistan review team realized that his approach to emerging military issues in the region was not simply a matter of “updating” his previous strategy, but essentially “starting over from scratch.”
Over a three month period, President Obama engaged U.S. military experts in an “intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest and at times deeply frustrating process for nearly all involved.” The decision-making exercise became a “virtual seminar” driven by the President’s “insatiable demand for information.” Not only did he invite new perspectives and challenge competing view points to debate, he also listened and asked probing questions a la “college professor/cross-examiner.”
Taking a page from Gordon M. Goldstein’s book on the Vietnam War, “Lessons in Disaster,” President Obama concluded that “both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson failed to question the underlying assumption about monolithic Communism and the domino theory – clearly driving the Obama advisors to rethink the nature of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
Over the course of the analysis, Obama challenged the veracity of long-held assumptions about nearly every aspect of the Middle East scenario. By adopting the open, imaginative mind-set of the naive outsider/learner, President Obama engaged the U.S. military advisors in a rigorous design thinking exercise.
National security advisor, General James L. Jones spoke to the exhaustive inquiry, “From the very first meeting, everyone started with set opinions. And no opinion was the same by the end of the process.”
We’ve all seen Tom Hanks in the 1988 movie “Big” where he encounters the over-sized piano keyboard on the floor of Manhattan’s FAO Schwarz toy store. Watching him exercise his playful inner child is nearly as entertaining as if we were stomping out the tune to chopsticks ourselves.
Seems like whether we’re doing it or watching it, fun is … fun, and according to the fun folks at Volkswagen, the experience of fun can be designed to influence human behavior.
Such is the theory behind the German automaker’s aptly named “The Fun Theory.“ According to the initiative’s website, The Fun Theory is all about doing good by having fun, and seeks to encourage innovations around that theme through “The Fun Theory Award.”
“The award recognizes those thoughts, ideas and inventions that help prove the fun theory — that fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better.”
Judging by the 5,561,328 hits on YouTube, The Fun Theory is a big hit:
For those who are game, The Fun Theory competition is running through November 15th, 2009. The first prize is 2,500 Euros (why not a brand new, very fun VW Beetle??). The best entries will be constructed and placed on public display.
“Obama lauds innovative spirit … Future economic prosperity depends on building a new, stronger foundation and recapturing the spirit of innovation.”
Historically, tough economic times have catalyzed surges in innovative thinking - Hewlett Packard and Polaroid were formed after the Great Depression, MTV came close on the heels of the recession in the 1980′s, and Apple’s iPod (developed during a sharp decline in sales and margins of consumer electronics in 2001) joined the “pantheon of game-changing innovations born of hard times, alongside Depression-era breakthroughs such as nylon and the jet engine.” (HBR, July/Aug. 2009) If history repeats itself, the current economic downturn is the perfect storm of opportunity for innovation.
The rustling in the bushes is all there – at the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer suggests that, “Companies and industries that continue to pursue innovation during tough economic times will achieve a significant competitive advantage and position themselves for growth…” … And, “… companies investing countercyclically in R&D (biz-code for innovation) during downturns tend to outpace their competitors on the upswing.” (HBR)
What all this means is, between random jolts from the Federal Reserve and the pitch and yaw of consumer confidence, companies and industries around the world are rifling through drawers, combing executive profiles, and making the mad dash into the ethers in search of both survival and triumph in the huge pot of gold at the end of the Next Big Innovation. Suddenly, the fluffy and elusive x-factor of creativity/innovation/design has become the imperative “it-force” behind economic recovery and prosperity. From Washington to Wall Street, everyone is using the “I” word, rushing into the vortex with new takes on how to pin down and quantify innovation.
Dev Patnaik, founder and chief executive of Jump Associates, a Silicon Valley growth strategy firm (clients include Nike, Target, and Hewlett-Packard) discusses the underpinnings of innovation in this month’s Fast Company, ”Forget Design Thinking and Try Hybrid Thinking.” Fast forward to his point, Patnaik suggests that there is a unique role that designers and their skill-set/way of thinking can play in making everything — products, services, experiences, and industry-specific entities such as finance, education and government — better. He then pushes beyond that thought to propose that something bigger is going on in the minds of successful innovators:
“… something bigger is going on, more powerful than the adoption of a single school of thought. The secret isn’t design thinking, it’s “hybrid thinking “: the conscious blending of different fields of thought to discover and develop opportunities that were previously unseen by the status quo …”
We’re not talking about “multi-tasking” here … True hybrid thinkers (you know who you are) traffic in the cracks between traditional areas of expertise and are able to ”connect the dots between what’s culturally desirable, technically feasible, and viable from a business point of view.” The new face of innovation demands that we “see the world through multiple lenses and draw meaning from seemingly disparate points of data.”
According to Patnaik, “hybridity” matters now because the problems we need to solve are too complex to be handled by any one skill-set. Gone are the good old silo days where depth in a single field trumps breadth in multiple areas. Audiovox design executive Lou Lenzi asserts that those who want to innovate, must be “one part humanist, one part technologist, and one part capitalist.”
Well, “hybrid thinking” might be a catchy modern phrase, but it isn’t a new concept. In the spirit of “Everything old is new again,” hybrid thinking can march to the back of the line behind lava lamps, lime green and liberal arts. Two words for Dev: 1. da; 2. Vinci.