Be it Basketball or Be it Design Thinking: Joy Matters



I spent the last six weeks in Singapore where I led twenty design thinking workshops for educators. I had decided that when I returned home I would spend some time reflecting on what I had learned. For me, that means a lot of time wondering. And what I wondered about the most was this: Why does design thinking have such a powerful effect on people?

I am a long-time fan of the Golden State Warriors basketball team and have really enjoyed watching head coach Steve Kerr lead his team through two (and hopefully three) championship seasons. As I was catching up in the sports pages of the San Francisco Chronicle I read how Kerr described his team’s motivation this season.

“It’s got to be about what’s important to us,” Kerr said. “The joy of coming to practice every day is important for our guys to remember…the process.”

To hear someone in the basketball business talk about joy is pretty unusual. But I think his statement highlights something really important about learning, mastery and hard work and how joy has to play a role in the process. It made me realize that the answer to my question about why design thinking has such a powerful effect is also all about the joy. I believe that is why so many different teachers, counselors, coaches, and school leaders in Singapore were so affected by what they had experienced.

Joy requires mindfulness; it is long-lasting and deeply fulfilling. It engenders a sense of purpose, engagement and investment in other people’s experiences.

The joy in a design thinking workshop starts with empathy. A workshop begins by conducting interviews on a specific topic that frames the design challenge. In Singapore, our introductory challenges included redesigning the moving experience, the before work experience, and the airline travel experience. The interviews are a way of gathering stories about the specifics of human experience. And the buzz in the room as people were deeply engaged and curious about another person’s experiences was filled with joy. As a facilitator I was constantly amazed by this strong sense of empathy and caring that happened in each and every workshop we led.

The second task in the design challenge is to take the information from the interviews and craft a Point of View Statement that encapsulates the interviewee’s needs. This is the hardest part of the design process and also the richest. And this struggle brings a different, quieter kind of joy. Hard work can be a joyful thing, especially when your purpose is to better understand another person’s experience and you are invested in uncovering and discovering what they really need.

Next comes brainstorming, and we heard the joy emanating across the room as our participants came up with an abundance of ideas ranging from the silly to the sublime. The ability to push the boundaries of our imagination is something that we often lose as adults, yet so essential to the joy that surrounds design thinking. And I felt that this freedom was a really critical part of the experience for our Singapore educators. In one of the most powerful moments of our debrief, one teacher said, “I forgot what it felt like to be childlike and free to imagine.”

The final parts of the design process are prototyping and testing. When we told participants that they had twelve minutes to build a prototype and invited them to use our assortment of popsicle sticks, hula hoops, straws, feathers, boxes, and cotton balls, they dove in with enthusiasm. Having the opportunity to craft with your hands is something that we don’t do often enough. The design thinking process requires you to build to think and do so joyfully because you are invested in creating something that will bring delight.

The common thread through my experiences in Singapore was that the people in our workshops had a purpose, a sense of engagement, and an investment in creating something for another person. And I believe that these three things are essential in framing the joy that is at the heart of design thinking. One thing I know is that be it basketball or be it design thinking- joy matters.

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