Why real design skills come from tackling real projects

As discussed in our first post in this series, Jeanne Liedtka is a huge advocate for the power of projects when teaching and learning design thinking.

She believes, as do I, that it’s not enough for people to just learn design theory and think about how they might use it hypothetically. To embed the learning and empower people to effect real change, they need to have experience putting design thinking into practice on a real project that matters to them, within a safe learning environment.

So, in the second post from our Designers can change the world – ‘Conversations with Jeanne Liedtka series, we share what Jeanne had to say when I asked her: How do projects help people experience design? How do you choose the right projects for people to work on?

Here’s what she said.

Projects let people fail in a safe environment

So you’ve got your learning model where people come together to learn and then you send them off to apply it. Well, we know what happens – they don’t. Their organisations and their normal ways of doing things just overwhelm them. And even though they realise that it would be valuable if they could use what they’ve learnt, they don’t have any help to get through the challenge of applying it.

That sequential learn/apply model does not work for design. Maybe it works when you’re teaching financial models, or introducing theoretical frameworks, but those tasks are about analysing things, they’re not about changing fundamental behaviours.

I think people need to learn design through practice, and that’s where projects come in.

If you want people to embrace real change, you need to give them real projects

Design is all just language without a real project.

This is where I part ways with people who believe you can make up projects. I have not found that to be true. With my students, they need to be on the line to solve a real project, preferably for a real client.

It needs to be something that carries with it some – but not too much – penalty of failure, so that they are motivated to follow through, but still feel safe acting on what they’re learning. These real projects are critical to push people to the depth of learning that they need.

We all skate superficially across the surface of learning on so many dimensions, and that may work in areas like business strategy, which is where I’ve taught my whole life. It doesn’t work for design thinking because you have to change who you are to really embrace it, so you have to have a methodology for going deep, and nothing works as well as projects for that.

Motivating people

Motivating business people is difficult, so let them pick their own projects

You need to motivate someone to undertake this scary work. For students in a degree program, that’s not hard because they have no choice. But for business people, particularly people who are super busy and who don’t feel they have time to do the things they need to do already, it is.

To convince them to take on the enormous effort involved in learning a fundamentally new skill set that is often at odds with all of the skills they’ve already accumulated – where do you find the motivation for that?

I think you find it by engaging them in solving problems that really matter to them and that they need to solve anyway. I don’t believe in having organisations mandate big strategic projects. I think managers should pick their own projects that find that sweet spot between something that matters, and yet that’s not so visible that the fallout from failure is too great. Otherwise, the anxiety associated with it skyrockets.

It’s that kind of middle ground of finding a project that’s meant for design thinking and that they care about, but that allows a learner to make mistakes, and still succeed. Those to me are the critical ingredients.

Motivate with measurement

The good news is you can often sell projects with ROI. If you build a measurement component in at the design brief stage, you can demonstrate the ROI projects bring. That can be a really powerful motivator, helping people demonstrate the value of their work.

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