How design thinking changes the way people speak to each other

Throughout this blog series, we’ve shared Jeanne Liedtka’s views on how becoming a design thinker will fundamentally change you as a person. A journey which requires you to develop an entirely new approach to problem solving, which includes setting aside all your long-established biases, will inevitably do that.

But what does that change look like? I asked Jeanne: How will a person who has moved from ‘doing design’ to ‘experiencing design’, (as Jeanne and her co-authors describe it in their book) behave differently?

This is what she said.

People start paying more attention to how they participate in conversations

I think the most obvious place that it shows up is in the conversations they have. I also see it through my students’ journals and with their teams. It may show up first as insecurity because you begin to chip away at their confidence. These are pretty outwardly confident people, MBA students, business people, people whose livelihood and self identity is based on the fact that they’re ‘knowers’. They get good grades, they get results, they think they already know what they need to know.

And when you begin to erode that, and they realise their own biases, and the way in which they put up their own obstacles to accomplishing what they want, you start to see that self-doubt come into their conversations. They’re listening and thinking: Am I biased about this? Am I really listening? They have that meta conversation with themselves.

Part of the beauty of design thinking is you sanction that meta conversation with the team, too, because often teams ignore all of those dynamics. We’re all conflict averse, so we don’t want to call anybody out, but if the team never talks process, unless you’re incredibly lucky, it’s going to lead to problems. So, you kind of give this permission for a team to talk about how they’re working together with this clear set of criteria for good conversation.

Fearless communication leads to bigger, better ideas

One of the things that happens in design thinking is we pay a lot of attention to the ethnographic tools up front in the design thinking process, and the experimentation tools at the end. But for me, the real magic, the kind of ‘social technology’, as I’ve called it in my work, is the rules of the conversation that permeate the whole thing. Those really show up in the middle of the process.

The holy grail of design thinking, for me, is the emergence of higher order solutions out of a group who see together what no one of them could have seen individually. That’s why we do design thinking. That’s why we put a diverse set of perspectives in the room and then work our way through all the conflict that creates.

We do it because we have this belief, this hope, that if we figure out how to leverage that diversity, instead of drowning in it, we’ll find something better than any of us could have done alone.

All of those experiences people have at the start of immersion and making sense of someone else’s experience, lay the groundwork for a conversation where emergence is possible.

Groups support each other to change for the better

Maybe the most important thing we teach is the structured rules for conversation, things like turn taking, the willingness to productively challenge people, to listen for possibilities and assumptions rather than listening to debate etc. These are all the rules of dialogue, and they are what makes everything else possible. They’re the river that flows through it all.

And again, people have to have experienced some personal change to change the group conversation. It’s a virtuous cycle – I changed a little, I’m willing to change, I go with the group of people who are also willing to change, and together we support each other to change.

A lot of these dynamics happen under the surface and are very hard to see, but they are some of the biggest indicators of change.

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