5 Ways Design Thinking Can Be a Culture Changer

Sometimes the signs are subtle, like a meeting room stocked with stacks of neon-colored Post-it notes and black Sharpies. Other times they are grand, like a prominent spot on the agenda of a product design conference. Design thinking makes its way into an organizational culture in many different ways. In my experience, organizations that learn not just the design thinking process- but the design thinking mindsets- are the places where cultures of sustainable innovation not only take hold, but thrive. Here’s what I’ve learned about what really matters.

1. Challenge assumptions- it’s empowering.

When Lime Design is brought into to work with an organization, it is usually because someone has an inkling that the ways things are being done isn’t quite working. That person is usually someone with the power to call for change. But how does an organization actually change? It’s when people see that challenging assumptions doesn’t mean that the way they’ve been working is being criticized, but instead that they are being offered an opportunity to ask the question “What if we tried_________?” It’s a glorious gift that, if embraced, is empowering and it leads to the culture changing knowledge that innovation is everyone’s job.

2. Build the skill set of having deep empathy.

We asked a group of 4th graders in the UK write a description of what they saw outside their classroom window. They emailed their descriptions to a class in Massachusetts, and the students there drew pictures based on these descriptions. When they received the drawings back across the ocean, the British students were dismayed. The pictures bore little resemblance to what they had described. Suddenly it became their responsibility to do a better job of imagining what their world looked like from someone else’s perspective.

To be truly innovative requires the ability to consider perspectives that are completely opposite to your own. It goes a lot deeper than simply saying “I see your point.” It’s about viscerally understanding a point of view/opinion/thought that isn’t your own as you move past acknowledging to empathizing. Organizations that are filled with people who believe that their job is to take their ideas and convince others to see it their way are not places where innovation happens easily. The ability to walk in someone else’s shoes is a skill. It is incredibly difficult, and often crashes abruptly into a high-speed get it done kind of workplace. Yet those organizations that focus on developing empathy are those that are the most successful innovators.

3. Try something you don’t completely believe you can do.

I took guitar lessons when I was 10-years-old and I learned to read the G clef in music. My Christmas gift this year was a piano, and I was excited to learn how to play. The problem was that there was another clef, the bass clef, on the piano and the notes in this clef were not the same as the ones I had learned as a child. It was as if someone told you that the letter b in the word boy was now an f, but if you are using your right hand on the keyboard it is still a b. How could my brain learn to distinguish different notes and play them with different hands? I was convinced I could never stop from seeing the notes I had known my whole life as anything else. I knew all about Carol Dweck’s notion of a growth mindset but suddenly realized that I didn’t think it applied to me. As I was telling my son, who is a musician, that I didn’t think I could ever learn the bass clef, he said, “Mom, just try it. You can.” So I did. For me, that sliver of light his suggestion provided prompted me to try. Maybe I would succeed or maybe I wouldn’t. Instead of trying to learn the whole keyboard, I decided to try to master three notes at a time. It took months of practice and my brain still sometimes makes mistakes. I learned that being willing to try something that feels so far outside what think you are capable of gives you confidence. And organizations filled with people who can do this are organizations that become the most effective innovators. Innovation, like piano playing, is a skill that improves with practice.

4. Say “Yes, And”; not “Yes, But.” It will change the way you work and think.

In our design thinking trainings, we do an improv activity that focuses on building on each other’s ideas. We form small groups and ask for a volunteer in each group to generate ideas for a birthday party. We ask the rest of the group to respond to each idea using the phrase, ‘Yes, but…” and give a reason why the idea wouldn’t work. For example, if the idea generator says, “We could have balloons,” the rest of the group might respond with “Yes, but lots of people are afraid of them when they pop” or ‘Yes, but that is too much money to spend.” In the subsequent round, we change the group’s response to each idea to “Yes, and…” Suddenly, there is energy, laughter, and an abundance of ideas. The group shifts from one person trying desperately to come up with ideas to a cohesive team building ideas together.

When we debrief, we realize what a profound impact this simple exercise has. Often people see themselves as always being the person who says, “Yes, but” and realize the impact this has. The dynamics of a group change dramatically when people are less worried about who owns an idea than on how to create something collectively. The capacity to shift from blocking ideas to building on ideas is a skill organizations that are great innovators value and possess.

5. Have the creative confidence to bring your ideas into the world.

Everything I have learned about creative confidence comes from David Kelley, the founder of Stanford’s and IDEO. But the greatest insight I had was when I realized the external nature of creative confidence. I had always believed it was something within a person. Yet David describes it differently. “Creative confidence is the notion that you have big ideas, and that you have the ability to act on them.” To me, that sense of agency makes all the difference. If you have wonderful ideas, and they never leave your head, you may be creative, but you don’t have creative confidence.

Big changes happen in an organization when small changes happen in a lot of people. And that can happen as you embrace not only the design thinking process, but the mindsets. The word embrace implies a physical, experiential, and emotional component- As Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

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