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Design Thinking: Lessons from the classroom

December 8, 2020
Tabea Berg, MBA
Design Thinking: Lessons from the classroom

My mother tells me that when I was a little girl – about five years old – I would rally the neighbourhood kids to participate in one or another game of make-believe. We would play our respective parts in some grand adventure, usually set in a mystical land where we would exercise magical powers to conquer whatever terrible monsters or villains our young minds could conjure. Of course, our epic tale emerged as we went along, one or another of us advancing the storyline with breathless anticipation. Mom laughed and shook her head at how a kindergartner could get 11- and 12-year-olds to do what she wanted. She thought I had some gift of persuasion. But I know the truth. What compelled the older kids and the rest of us was the invitation to be part of a larger story by using our collective imagination.

I’m often asked what I do as a design thinking educator (right after I’m asked, “What is design thinking, anyway?”). I’ve had the opportunity to teach and apply design thinking in a variety of projects and courses, professional development workshops, and to coach student teams in the Royal Roads Design Thinking Challenge. In my now 10+ years of post-secondary teaching, working with students in design thinking projects has provided some of the most fulfilling and inspiring experiences of my career.

In fact, working with design thinking teams and observing their responses to the process motivated me to pursue my doctorate degree. I want to learn more about how teams make sense of the design thinking process in real time – whether for themselves, or as a team through what gets expressed between them or through the artifacts they produce. This processing, I am learning from experience and research, is as important to design thinking, and creative work in general, as the specific steps in the process.

My design thinking practice has been impacted by working with and observing students in project work. Here are just a few attributes of design thinking I have come to more deeply appreciate through my students. Because the student experience and not my own is what is most interesting, two RRU BCom graduates and my former students – Dave MacNaughton and Graeme Comberbach – add some great perspective. They engaged in a number of design thinking projects in their courses, and they were both members of the team representing Royal Roads in the 2020 Royal Roads Design Thinking Challenge.

Design thinking offers space to explore and develop one’s creative identity.

I believe everyone is inherently creative. Many students do not believe this about themselves – at least at first. They often equate creativity solely with the arts and may be surprised to learn how important creative problem-solving skills are to other domains, including business and social innovation. When they consider creativity in these broader terms, they can find or redefine their personal creative identity. The design thinking phases and principles provide enough structure to support creative skill development, while offering latitude and safety to explore.

Design thinking puts a spotlight on the advantages of working collaboratively.

Organizations that apply design thinking typically do so using interdisciplinary teams. Functional and other forms of diversity heighten the potential of creative teams because many perspectives mean opportunity for more, and more novel, ideas. I have seen this manifest with student teams in interesting ways, including feedback that their team members’ different backgrounds and skillsets showed up in the process and their design ideas in ways that pleasantly surprised them.

Stakeholder input, especially from those you are designing for, provides necessary insight to help ensure the solutions generated meet the most significant needs and are feasible. If those stakeholders are coming to you, that’s great – but if you have to go to them, and maybe don’t even know who they are, that can be intimidating, especially for novice design thinking practitioners.

The 2020 Royal Roads Design Thinking Challenge focused on how to increase home retrofitting for energy efficiency, and it required teams to gain direct insight from stakeholders, especially homeowners. This meant that team members, in many cases, were reaching out to people they didn’t know. Reflecting on his experience contacting and interviewing people, Graeme expressed feeling significant anxiety at first. But he was pleasantly surprised at how willing strangers were to help:

“It showed me that my own fears don’t translate to reality. People were very accommodating and willing to take time out of their day to talk and provide help.”

Design thinking takes courage.

Courage means moving forward even if it's challenging because you know it’s worth it. Like an amusement park ride, design thinking can be thrilling and scary at the same time, especially for those for whom it is new. The “five steps” outlined in perhaps the most widely used framework for design thinking (from the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University) can suggest that design thinking is neat and tidy and linear – but it's necessarily messy, with lots of ambiguity and iteration. This means that much of the time participants are moving forward without knowing exactly where they’re going. And seeming to move backwards at times. This can feel very strange and even uncomfortable at first.

Prototyping ideas, a defining attribute of design thinking, involves relentlessly putting something you created into the world to get honest and sometimes critical feedback. And because prototyping is iterative, you invite that critique repeatedly. Dave, reflecting on his own experience of the process says:

“I realized that this was just how the design space feels. I had to let go of my tendency to try and perfect things before moving on. It is important to move through the process and embrace the ambiguity of it all.”

If participants persist and trust the process, embracing the principle that failing forward is useful insight-building, they can design much more creative, effective solutions.

Design thinking requires restraint.

This might seem like the opposite of courage, but both courage and restraint require tremendous intention and discipline. In many formal education contexts, students learn that being “smart” means having the right answer. (The right answer is really important sometimes!) In creative work, there may be several potential “right” answers, but the first idea that seems right is rarely the best one. Design thinking involves deliberately pushing for many ideas and testing them before settling on any. Personal assumptions need to be set aside to pursue a deeper understanding of the challenge, which is not easy to do. Graeme experienced this struggle:

I had to constantly remind myself internally to stop thinking about solutions and to get my head inside those of the homeowners – to try and understand how they felt.”

Design thinking is inspiring.

The creative process is generative – both in the sense that its outputs include new products, services, processes, strategies, and so on, but also in the sense that the process itself creates a posture of anticipation and even hope. It can also be a lot of fun!

Design thinking is a rigorous approach to innovation practiced worldwide and across industries, in for-profit, government and not-for-profit sectors. Some of my favourite design thinking student projects have focused on reducing personal digital screen time, fostering mental health for stressed-out students, and bridging divides felt by students who self-identify as marginalized. Students in these and other projects have shared how they have been personally impacted by the stories of others and challenged to engage more actively in creative practice in their developing careers but also for the good of their communities.

In thinking about how he will apply design thinking moving forward, Dave shares: “It works in the professional sphere, being applied to goods and services. Due to the circumstances of the current pandemic, design thinking skills can be incredibly useful to create innovative solutions to new problems. I see it being useful in relationships and in creating the life I want to live. If nothing else, being more empathic with those around us and more creative with how we interact is an important lesson.”

I am not an evangelist for design thinking. It is one creative problem-solving approach, and it is not perfect. However, my experience teaching and coaching students using design thinking has shown me it can facilitate meaningful learning experiences around personal creative efficacy, empathy and collaboration, the gifts of productive failure and creative constraint, innovation for impact, and the power of possibility. Design thinking and creative problem-solving more broadly have, for me and for many of my students, helped harness the collective imagination and possibility thinking that was the hallmark of childhood neighbourhood games. It has been an invitation to be part of a larger story that is even more compelling than make-believe.

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