Sometimes it’s appropriate to use this principle to help you make a decision. Other times it’s appropriate to scrap the old and build something new. Figuring out when to do what is the hard part. Knowing how to frame the decision is a good start.
If you read this blog, then you know that I’m interested in techniques for harnessing collective intelligence. Why? Because the complex problems we face require participation from a diverse array of stakeholders. Why? Because diverse participation, when done right, leads to better outcomes.
If you do a lot of teamwork, then you know that it’s easy to fall into the pattern of letting a few people on the project team dominate the majority of the conversation. A great technique for engaging the entire team, and thus arriving at more creative results, is write-storming. What write-storming does is it carves out time and space for all team members to engage in quiet writing and reflection. The ideas that individuals generate during a write-storming session can then be drawn on for group discussion.
I’ve been doing write-storming in one form or another for years but I really like how author Leigh Thompson maps out the technique. I’ll summarize here: Write-storming sessions are short, like 5-10 minutes. In a session, team members work silently to generate a lot of ideas on their own. Each idea should be written on an individual index card in legible hand-writing – I recommend all caps for legibility. Then the cards are collected, shuffled, redistributed, and read aloud for discussion. It’s important that the ideas remain anonymous so that the team can focus on the work and not on egos. The next step is for the team to categorize the cards and flesh out the ideas that have the most potential. I recommend fleshing out an array of ideas from conventional & easy ideas to unconventional & challenging ones.
TAKE IT FURTHER
Design is often understood as how a product looks, but that’s because form and color are the visible edge of design. But there are several other elements of design. Design-thinkers don’t start their projects with a technology or a product idea. Instead, they start their projects by finding problems that humans have. Then they study those problems where they occur like an anthropologist in the field. Finally they prototype and test product ideas that address the problems they’ve identified.
Design-thinkers never assume that the problem they start with is the problem they’ll end up solving. They spend a lot of time at the beginning of a project making sure they are addressing the right problem. They constantly revisit the problem statement and if they stray from it they do one of two things: revise the prototype to address the problem more clearly or reframe the problem. Here, they are both anthropologists and artists: the former interacts with humans to understand the problem and the latter is iterating.
Design-thinkers know the difference between divergent and convergent thinking. And they know when in a project timeline it’s appropriate to engage in one or the other. Divergent thinking is exploratory, like what we do when we’re brainstorming or sketching. And critique is convergent, honing in to make decisions. The entire product-development process goes back and forth between these two types of thinking. For example, once you hone in on an idea to develop it further (convergent), you put your divergent hat back on to explore all of the options.
Design-thinkers value critique. They don’t consider their ideas precious; they just want to find the best one. And if that means sharing ten ideas to find that most of them fail, then so be it. Here, they are like artists who have a complex relationship with their work. Work is painful and they accept that. Critique hurts at first, but after a few of them you develop a thick skin.
Design-thinkers don’t have all of the answers before they start designing: they prototype. This practice is similar to that of making art. Sure, artists think about what they will do and make sketches, but the best discoveries happen as they start the work.
Part of what makes designing so challenging is that it requires you to navigate ambiguity. Design-thinkers accept this. They are “at home” with uncertainty and know that it can be frightening, but they rise to the occasion because they accept it as part of the design process. If someone had the problem figured out already, it wouldn’t be a problem, right? Design-thinkers recognize that the problems they are working on are problems for a reason and that their job is thus appropriately difficult.
One of the reasons design-thinkers often struggle with ambiguity is that they are challenging the status quo. If they see a problem they don’t like, they never say, “I can’t do anything about that. That’s just the way it is.” Like artists, they make stuff to promote change. If you’re developing a new product, you had better believe that you’re in the business of promoting change.
That’s not to say that design-thinkers don’t appreciate users’ comfort zones. They know that their own vision is often too radical for users, so they put their anthropologist hats on and work on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is their vision; at the other is users’ comfort zone. The trick is to find that sweet spot on the spectrum where people are pushed out of their comfort zone, but not so much that they are scared away. Once we find that sweet spot, we’re in a position to nurture early adopters.
The designer’s skill set is seen as a generalist skill set. This might be because designers are trained in two complementary areas: artistic practice and social science. They learn artistic practice so they can master a creative process (sketching, modeling, building, testing, iterating). Designers train in social science so that have tools that help them to understand and collaborate with end users of what they design.
It’s a valuable skill set. But it’s also broad. It can be applied to just about anything. It can be applied to scaling a product like facebook so that the company can get billions of users addicted to using the platform. Or it can be applied to a non-profit so that they can engage their community in positive change.
These examples are two extremes and of course, there are lots of applications between them. But I want to pause here for a moment and ask the people who are interested in design to ask this question: Design — what is it good for? Why is it important to learn this skill set? Do we learn it so that we can help the 1% get richer which, at the end of the day, is what the facebook application is about? Or do we learn this skill set to genuinely make the world better?
Irene Posch and Edru Kurbak are artists and designers who that integrate handmade textile making with computing. They refer to their work “Macro Electronics” in that their technology isn’t hidden in a black box, but rather, visible and with stories to tell. Their hope is to inspire their viewers to explore computing themselves and ultimately to diversify who makes technology.
TAKE IT FURTHER
Interview with Irene Posch
There’s a lot of fluffy writing out there about the business value of design. It’s frustrating. So I was super happy to hear this report from McKinsey yesterday which maps out the value of design clearly and includes evidence, themes, problem areas, and advice.
To tee up this investigation, McKinsey looked at the performance of 300 publicly listed companies over a five year period and pulled out two things: 1. Their Financial Performance and 2. The Design Actions that these firms took. (Design Actions can range from putting a designer on the exec board to deciding to track design metrics).
What did they find?
The revenue growth of top design performers was almost double that of their industry peers.
These are good numbers.
They also found that the business value of design reaches across industry sectors. Their study includes analysis of three distinct industries: consumer packaged goods, medical devices, and retail banking.
The report defines four themes that contribute to the positive correlation between financial performance and design actions:
1. More than a feeling. These companies bring as much research and rigor to design as they do to other business functions
2. More than a department. Design isn’t done in a siloed department. In fact, the researchers found that siloing designers can actually lead to decreased financial performance. Instead, design-driven firms embed designers in cross-functional teams throughout the organization
3. More than a phase. Design-driven firms adopt an attitude that design is never done. They iterate on their design from strategy to launch and beyond by building prototypes, gathering customer feedback, and turning that feedback into better designs and customer experiences
4. More than a product. Design-driven firms understand that customers don’t respond to individual widgets as much as they respond to the entire experience with their company. With so many physical products having software and service components these days, this should be a no-brainer
Nothing sums up the gaps between theory and practice better than this quote from the report:
If you look at these actions, while they may be commonsense, they’re not common practice, because they need senior management to orchestrate.
Why is it so hard to integrate designers? Well, they are different. What makes having them on your teams great also makes having them on your teams challenging. The advice? Look for “T-Shaped” designers that have a depth of knowledge in design and breadth in related areas like business strategy and technology trends.
Another tip for moving to an integrated design practice is to not do it all at once. Instead, pick a project and apply the themes to that project. That’s your prototype. Mock it up, test it, iterate, then scale.
TAKE IT FURTHER
The full podcast and transcript is here
Social platforms can be great for connecting people from all over the world. But they can also be great for connecting people locally.
While facebook drives me nuts, I ❤ its events feature. I wish it had an app of its own like messenger does. When the weekend is approaching I use the location search filter in events to see what’s going on in different “day trip distance” towns and cities. This has been particularly fun during the holidays when so many holiday craft fairs and concerts are going on.
I like it when technology makes it easier for me to connect with folks who live and work where I live and work. Craigslist can work like this–it helps co-located people share or sell goods and services. I like searching by location on Etsy. And I remember the moment when the organic farms around here created paypal websites for CSA signups. It felt like a significant shift in their capability to get, keep, and grow community members.
What other social platforms help co-located people connect in meaningful ways? And which ones don’t exist yet? And how might we create them?
Cory Henry is a Brooklyn born musical prodigy with breadth and depth. He plays keys, all keys: Hammond organ, synth, clavier, piano. He plays a range of styles: jazz fusion, gospel, R&B, pop. And he gathers fantastic musicians to collaborate with.
Put some headphones on and check out this video of 4-year-old Henry playing the organ at church. About 45 seconds in you see him trying to reach the foot pedals which is adorable. But pay special attention to his left hand. Magical.
TAKE IT FURTHER
Go on a listening binge. You can start here, but anywhere is good
If you want to read more about Henry, check out this 2018 interview with Forbes
and for some music history, check out this live video of Weather Report, 1976
Yesterday I participated in a workshop that helped me articulate the following guidelines for removing barriers to innovation and for harnessing the collective intelligence of a team. Thanks to all who participated for sharing your perspective. It was inspiring.
Below is a list of action items that leaders should address early and often when working with a team. These are also things that team members should ask for:
- Define what success looks like
- Articulate priorities
- Figure out what not to do
- Check in on team member goals
- Acknowledge and celebrate the diverse points of view of your team
- Call in an outside facilitator when you have issues that are too hard to navigate internally
TAKE IT FURTHER
Yesterday’s workshop was lead by a thoughtful, down-to-earth facilitator, Erica Marx
Chade Meng-Tan (Meng) was a software engineer and employee number 107 at Google when he founded the “Search Inside Yourself” mindfulness program at the company.
In this talk above, Meng offers a standard definition of Emotional Intelligence (EI), which can be achieved through mindfulness practice:
Emotional Intelligence: The ability to monitor one’s own and other’s feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions. (Salovey and Mayer, 1990)
Then Meng follows it up with his own, simpler definition:
Emotional Intelligence: a collection of emotional skills
Meng claims that developing EI happens when you practice mindfulness which will change your brain via neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity relies on the assumption that what we think, do, and pay attention to changes the structure and function of our brains. Meng claims we can change our brains in 6-7 weeks, 20 hours of practice.
WHY change your brain? Meng offers an interesting analogy about the relationship between our emotions and our thoughts.
Think of a horse and rider. The horse is emotions and the rider is the thinking mind. With practice, the rider can steer the horse. Learn to influence where the horse goes. And eventually, master that control.
The first step to achieving emotional intelligence is to practice ATTENTION TRAINING. The goal here is to “bring the mind to a state that is calm and clear and to be able to do that on demand. If you have the power to calm the mind on demand, that space becomes reliably accessible. You get choice, power, and freedom.”
Meng suggests a simple practice for attention training: Focus on the breath for ten minutes. When your mind drifts away, bring it back.
The second step for achieving EI is SELF KNOWLEDGE AND MASTERY. Here, Meng claims that the focus is on clarity. Moving from seeing things in a low-resolution way to a higher resolution. Meng articulates subtle yet important shifts in mindset such as a shift from, “I am angry,” to “I am experiencing anger.” From there is even a more profound shift from, “I am experiencing anger” to “I am experiencing anger in my body.” When you experience pain in your body, Meng argues, then you can do something about it. You hurt your hand, for example, then you have choices: you can ice it, massage it, distract with ice cream (his joke).
The third step in Meng’s schema is to CREATE USEFUL MENTAL HABITS. One he recommends trying out is that whenever you walk into a room, without doing anything, wish for two people in that room to be happy. This is a habit of kindness. “Habit becomes personality. Personality becomes you. You become a kind person.” (again, neuroplasticity at work).
Note that Meng is sometimes critiqued for applying mindfulness to what can be viewed as a corporate leadership program. Do with that whatever you will. But hopefully, you can pull some useful gems from his work.