Bryan Taylor

At the Heart of Design Thinking

Over the past two decades at Drawn, I have had the privilege of sitting in a number of board rooms. I have been able to observe how companies think and process information, how they strategize and make decisions. I have worked with companies who incorporate lean manufacturing techniques, or follow agile processes, or practice some hybrid of the two. Some have adopted very strict sprint schedules and others follow design thinking methodologies while using sticky notes like they’re going out of style. For some clients, our work has had to conform to fit their team’s various systems and acronyms. Others have asked me to read books and take personality tests so that they knew how to best communicate with me.

At the heart of all of these methodologies — every process and book and test — there seems to be a technique that comes with good intentions and, a lot of times, good outcomes, as well. But it also seems rare to find a team that truly lives and breathes the spirit that is underneath these various methodologies.

Design thinking is supposed to be a conceptual methodology that prioritizes a keen ability to observe, find threads, pull those threads together, ideate how to weave together solutions, and test ideas until they’re proven effective. The very premise of design thinking is highly strategic, even at a very high level, but the way we actually go about doing the work should, in theory, be informed by the situation; by our reading of the context in which we are working. We might have the vocabulary down, we might be seasoned vets when it comes to design sprints and huddles and share outs, but if we implement these methodologies without a deep understanding of why we do things this way, these techniques will be less effective, we will grow tired of their rigidity. We will likely become disillusioned with them and begin to search for a new system to try out.

"There is a significant difference, I think, between book smarts and street smarts."

It's rare to find a team that truly lives and breathes the spirit beneath design thinking methodologies. Photo: Drawn

There is a significant difference, I think, between book smarts and street smarts. I find too many of us approach our design thinking work with a lot of book smarts — we sound good and look experienced — but we don’t operate with a profound understanding of why these methods were first invented.

One of the requisites of design thinking is to be able to foster an empathetic understanding of any given situation. We cannot solve problems unless we first understand the problems from the very shoes of those who are facing them. And while a lot of time and energy is often spent on surveys and observation to develop empathy, many of us fail to approach our methodologies with much empathy for why these approaches were conceptualized in the first place. We don’t empathetically understand why empathy is important. We check the empathy box and move to the next box, rarely letting those early observations inform or alter the rest of the process.

"We cannot solve problems unless we first understand the problem from the very shoes of those who are facing them."

What if we approach a problem to solve without thinking of it as a problem in the first place? What if we accept that there may not be a solution? What if we simply walk into an opportunity for improvement with an open hand? What if we find that cultivating empathy is going to require more than surveys? What if we discover the real problem that is beneath the opportunity — and that means we should be trying to solve a different problem?

If we are true practitioners of design thinking, we should hold everything that is planned after a discovery process loosely. Yes, we have businesses to run and deadlines to meet and deliverables to deliver to pay the bills, but we can still do these things using a more organic process, approaching them from a place that understands the heart of design thinking and doesn’t just follow the head, the methodologies that have been read and memorized. It is from this place, this philosophically rooted process, that we can truly unearth the most original of ideas and begin to solve real problems with lasting outcomes.