design thinking


The leader whose thinking is constrained within well-worn ruts, who is completely governed by his established passions and prejudices, who is incapable of thinking either gray or free, and who can’t even appropriate the creative imagination and fresh ideas of those around him, is as anachronistic and ineffective as the dinosaur. He may by dint of circumstances remain in power, but his followers would almost certainly be better off without him. (Dr. Stephen Sample, Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership)

In my last blog post that spelled out what I call leading as an art director, I promoted the idea of gaining buy-in and then letting an idea go. Letting go doesn’t mean the leader can’t continue to feed the idea. He or she needs to do this by challenging lazy thinking and by destroying natural constraints to thinking. Here are four ways to do that:

1. The threshing floor. I love the concept of the threshing floor, where ideas can be tossed in the air to see what solid nuggets of wheat fall to the ground while the chaff blows away. I am a proponent of “thinking out loud.” Until an idea is stated and turned over a few times, you don’t know its value. I believe everyone has something to contribute, so when a meeting ends and someone never spoke up, I wonder what held back. I’m convinced introverts could solve most of the world’s problems, but they’re happy to take their solutions to the grave!

2. Design thinking. I can’t articulate the concept of design thinking as taught at Stanford’s d.school, but I learned the concepts the hard way, through five years of undergrad training and nine years of practice. One basic tenet is that the ideal is not ready-aim-fire as much as ready-fire-aim-fire again. In other words, don’t analyze something to death before you ever move. Trial and error is the best way to develop an idea.

Another tenet drummed into me at Georgia State is that your first ideas are likely worthless. However, if you don’t get them out on paper and then intentionally throw them away, they will limit your thinking. Push yourself to come up with at least one more viable idea. Many leaders talk about the trap that results when everyone in a meeting is in agreement, and they intentionally push someone to argue the other side or challenge group think.

3. Thinking free. Former USC Chancellor Stephen Sample articulates this practice in a fabulous leadership book called The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. It’s a process where a group of people intentionally remove all constraints to their thinking for a period of time so they can break out of their ruts. It goes way beyond brainstorming, allowing anything to be considered and sometimes exposing a simple, obvious solution no one has ever seen before. Sample explains the idea in the second half of this essay:
Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership

4. Fresh eyes. When someone is new to a team, a company or initiative, their most important asset for the first three months is their ability to see with fresh eyes. I try to meet with them in the first week to empower them, encouraging them to ask silly questions, challenge our thinking and point out anything that doesn’t make sense. Without encouragement, they will keep these observations to themselves because of natural desires to assimilate.

Dr. Sample offers an excellent rationale:

It’s well known among engineers that the most important inventions in a particular field are often made by people who are new to that field – people who are too naïve and ignorant to know all the reasons why something can’t be done, and who are therefore able to think more freely about seemingly intractable problems. The same is true of the leadership of institutions: It’s often fresh blood and a fresh perspective from the outside that can turn an ailing organization around.

5. Courageous questions. It takes a secure leader to encourage radical thinking and invite questions. We must always have the courage to ask the right questions, even if we don’t want to go where the questions might lead us. If the questions lead us back to where we are, then we have greater confidence in the direction we’re already moving. Or they might expose the absurdity of our current path and open the door to new possibilities.

The point of these exercises is that inertia creates laziness, and leadership is never about going along with momentum. If, as Gary Hamel put it at Global Leadership Summit 2009, “It’s so easy to mistake the edge of your rut for the horizon. We have to learn to be contrarians.” There are some proven exercises that can help you forcibly break out of your own thinking or lead a team to release the constraints that bind their imaginations for what could be.

I’m a graphic designer. Non-practicing, I’ll grant you, but a designer nonetheless. There are no former graphic designers, just as there are no ex-alcoholics. I’m a designer, and I always will be. It’s how I see the world. It’s the way I think. It’s the way I operate, no matter what my specific job responsibilities are at the time. Let’s take non-profit leadership, for instance.

I lead as an art director. I paint a picture for my team of a preferred future or the direction I think we should go, and then I invite them to bring their best to help make it happen. Because people are creative, with experiences and vantage points I’ll never have, the result is almost always better than I ever imagined. Of course, the more diverse those vantage points are, the stronger the result will be.

The leader’s job is to inspire and motivate, but not to hold his idea too tightly. The ideal is to achieve buy-in and then let go. Of course, buy-in requires that a team has been given significant opportunity to speak into and even sway the direction we’re going. The more the team gets excited about the idea and brings their best, the more alternatives and improvements they will propose, and the more momentum the concept will gain.

The key for the leader is to decide ahead of time what the non-negotiables are going to be. What is the deadline? What elements must be included? Just as a kite will not stay in the air if it is not held in tension with the ground, creativity is impossible if there are no parameters. A graphic designer cannot get the first mark on a page if there aren’t some ridiculous tensions that generate sparks: the name of the company, the fact the client only likes green, the minuscule budget and the unreasonable deadline. The designer might grumble at the constraints, but now she has some material to work with.

Leading as an art director means there will be compromise. Any gathering of creative people will include passion, tension and rabbit trails. If the project is drifting too far from the intent, does the team need firm direction or is it okay to let them run with it for a while? Is the drift in fact an improvement over the original idea? Perhaps my dream was too small, and the team is seeing new opportunities to expand the idea. Perhaps the new direction is in fact the creative foundation for another project. 3M has made a killing, when the proposed solutions didn’t solve the immediate problem, by allowing employees to persist in the belief that they’ve solved something (they just don’t know what yet) until it becomes viable. Consider the history of the sticky note.

In some cases, the idea just doesn’t work. The leader must then have the courage to shut it down. If the project fails or leads to bad results, there are a few possible reasons:

  • I failed to adequately describe my vision.
  • I didn’t fully pass the baton. I didn’t achieve the buy-in I was shooting for, or I held onto control unnecessarily.
  • I didn’t pull in a diverse enough team to add their strengths.
  • It wasn’t worth doing, or it failed. Some ideas just aren’t robust enough to stand on their own. Others are risks that may or may not survive.

A few years ago I heard an old leader muse that most leadership books try to boil down a leader’s experience into a formula that won’t work for anyone else’s context, and wouldn’t even work if that leader tried to apply his own formula again. Perhaps that’s why I’ve found it so difficult to articulate my instinctive leadership style. Multiple times I’ve tried to put thoughts to keyboard and then given up. I’m still not satisfied that I captured the essence of the way I lead.

So perhaps this methodology is best left as a blog post fleshed out just enough to paint a picture, and allowing readers and leaders to bring their own creativity to the practice and make it even better.

The most fascinating parts of Creativity, Inc. have to do with failure. Let me unpack a few of Ed Catmull’s points about failure.

1. Leaders must overcome fear.
At the heart of failure is fear. Leaders must overcome fear of failure themselves, and they must loosen its grip on their followers. As Catmull puts it, “The goal, then, is to uncouple fear and failure—to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts” (p 123). Failure is an opportunity for learning, and an opportunity for creativity. In fact, Catmull says the ideal is to create a culture where staff are empowered—not only to explore new areas, to have room for experimentation and to fail without major consequences, but to break outside constraints to solve problems. There’s an enormous upside to such empowerment: “If you create a fearless culture (or as fearless as human nature will allow), people will be much less hesitant to explore new areas, identifying uncharted pathways and then charging down them” (p 111). Some of the ways Pixar creates these avenues:

  • Animated shorts, which have lower budgets and give new directors more opportunity to learn story telling and explore the range of technology.
  • Pixar University, which offers classes for all staff across the company to learn drawing, scene lighting or management.
  • Notes Day, where the entire organization once took a day off to work toward solutions to a problem that impacted them all.

2. Leaders must respond well to failure.
The book is worth reading just to catch the story of how an overly-enthusiastic programmer at Pixar accidentally erased the entire Toy Story 2 movie from the company servers, and how a rogue staffer who had previously set up some backdoor work processes managed to save it. When I shared the story of the accidental deletion with my nine-year-old daughter, her first reaction was, “I’ll bet he got fired!” That’s how most CEOs would respond, and that’s the best way to undermine everything you’ve been preaching. Catmull says if employees are given freedom to experiment, they should never be punished for mistakes. “Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions—and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure” (p 125).

3. The desire to avoid failure will doom your organization.
One of Ed Catmull’s most exciting moments came when Disney bought Pixar and put him and chief creative officer John Lasseter in charge of both animation studios. They found Disney Animation was paralyzed by institutional fear. “For too long, the leaders… placed a higher value on error prevention than anything else” (p 264). There’s no way to create original ideas or to liberate your employees to innovate if error prevention is your driver. That was the case when Disney went 16 years without an animated film coming in first at the box office.

The irony for Pixar, a company that has hit number one with every film, is that they consider failure to be inevitable. They therefore plan for failure. Yes, they guard against it, but they aren’t paralyzed by it. “If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy—trying to avoid failure by outthinking it—dooms you to fail” (p 109).

4. Failure is best done quickly.
How does Pixar keep from failure at the box office? By allowing—or even forcing—failure to happen earlier, when consequences are fewer. Catmull says every film that goes on to success is born an “ugly baby.” It needs a lot of work, and it would be shut down if held up against any standards of success.

Instead of trying to overplan or avoid failure, it’s better to make a decision and see where it goes. This is true for directors and the film-making process, where Catmull says there’s an upside to decisiveness: “The time they’ve saved by not gnashing their teeth about whether they’re on the right course comes in handy when they hit a dead end and need to reboot. It isn’t enough to pick a path—you must go down it” (p 111).

Catmull also says it’s true at the top of the company. “Leadership is about making your best guess and hurrying up about it so if it’s wrong, there’s still time to change course” (p 228). Catmull intuitively pushes many of the tenets of design thinking. It’s a “ready–fire–aim–fire again” approach that takes a best guess and moves forward with it, knowing you have a better chance of hitting the target the second time because of the lessons learned by missing early.

The beauty of Ed Catmull’s approach at Pixar and Disney is that he raised up an army of empowered problem solvers. That approach allowed him to serve as president over two animation studios at the same time. Here’s how he sums up his leadership style:

If we allow more people to solve problems without permission, and if we tolerate (and don’t vilify) their mistakes, then we enable a larger set of problems to be addressed. When a random problem pops up in this scenario, it causes no panic, because the threat of failure has been defanged. The individual or the organization responds with its best thinking, because the organization is not frozen, fearful, waiting for approval…. If you push the ownership of problems down into the ranks of an organization, then everyone feels free (and motivated) to attempt to solve whatever problems they face, big or small (p 164).

I remember a young lady in my graphic design classes at Georgia State University who had a take-it-or-leave-it approach to conflict. She would offer her opinion and, if someone challenged it, would respond, “What do I know? I’m just a graphic designer.” Her delivery of this line contained overtones of pluralistic acceptance and a passive-aggressive conflict style, but I’ve heard similar words expressed with different undertones.

That phrase – taken at face value – could be read a different way. It could reflect a deep-seated lack of confidence. Think of Gideon, who protested God’s call by claiming his clan as the weakest in his tribe, and he the least in his family. I can hear him now, saying “I’m just a grain farmer.” But God didn’t see him that way; the angel greeted him, “Mighty hero, the Lord is with you!” Wow.

Many of us think too little of our abilities or hide behind a simple skill-set when God has called us to much more than that. As a friend reminded me the other day, I could have skated by on my artistic talents instead of getting into leadership roles. Now, I’m not badmouthing graphic design; I’m badmouthing skating. Each person should pursue with enthusiasm and courage the role God has called him to and gifted him for.

If you’ve been reading my blog for long, you’ll know that I’m not suggesting that leadership is a greater gift, skill-set or body part than any other. Instead, I’m about matching giftings with needs. I’m about taking advantage of opportunity and moving forward courageously. And I’m completely against settling or skating by.

But let me turn the issue around. I think we are in danger of typecasting and overlooking people. Let me give you a couple of examples. I recently picked up my wife’s copy of the historical fiction book Lineage of Grace, by Francine Rivers. Rivers provides insights into the lives of five important women in Christ’s lineage:

  • Tamar was “just” a Canaanite wife, one of the foreign women God warned his people about intermarrying with. When she was mistreated by her father-in-law, she masqueraded as a prostitute to expose his hypocrisy.
  • Rahab was “just” a Canaanite prostitute who nevertheless believed in the Hebrew God and became the sole survivor when Jericho fell.
  • Ruth was “just” a Moabite widow who gave up her family and culture, risking everything to take on a Jewish identity and care for her mother-in-law.
  • Bathsheba was “just” a rape victim, stolen from her husband and forced to marry King David after he got her pregnant and killed her husband.
  • Mary was “just” a poverty-level teenager who consented to fulfill prophecies of a virgin birth at the risk of  having her reputation trashed by false charges of cheating on her fiance.

These five were the only women worthy enough to be mentioned in Jesus’ family tree in Matthew 1. Where man might overlook them, God honoured them and angels greeted them as “highly favoured.”

Wycliffe taught me early to be nice to everyone; you never know which staff member who reports to you today will end up being your boss. There is no natural ladder to the top in this organization, so never underestimate what people might have given up to take a current assignment.

I learned this life lesson the hard way when my wife and I were going through Wycliffe’s four-week orientation course in 1997. We were studying basic linguistics through the form of exercises and word puzzles that gave us a false sense of being gifted as translators. Each week, the exercises got a little harder until we reached a language with clear rules that were undecipherable by our group of aspiring linguists. It turns out the language was from North America, home of some of the most linguistically-complex languages in the world. In fact, one of them was used as a basis for the only code the Japanese never broke in World War II. Once we were sufficiently impressed with this language’s complexity, our instructor sprang the trap. He pointed out that the translator of the New Testament in this language was on the orientation program staff. After we exhausted our guesses of all obvious candidates, he pointed to the little, hunched-over lady who had been in and out of the room the entire month, running errands and making copies. I don’t think I had ever even noticed her. She was just an administrative assistant, right?

Who are you overlooking? Is it someone else, or yourself? I firmly believe a leader’s job is to make heroes of the “just” castes. We need to notice them, and we need to tell their stories. So here’s to all the administrative assistants, maintenance staff, receipting clerks and graphic designers who fly under the radar.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-28)

Incidentally, I still look at the world as a designer — a unique viewpoint that sometimes allows me to see opportunity in challenging contexts. I’ve used that line before in leadership. At the end of the day, I’m “just” a graphic designer.

[re-posted from my ministry blog, teameyre.wordpress.com]

Thomas Jefferson is a fascinating character to me. I used to swallow everything he did wholesale: his beliefs about freedom, life and liberty, his inventive mind and his bent toward states’ rights. He was quite a Renaissance Man. When Becky and I went to the diplomatic reception rooms in the State Department last week, I didn’t expect to find my mind drawn to Thomas Jefferson in particular.

Thomas Jefferson painting at the State DepartmentThis image is interesting to me because, in an era of puffy-cheeked portraits, Jefferson looks a little gaunt. While George Washington took his dentures out for photos, requiring that the artist fill the cheeks back out again with cotton balls, Jefferson seems to have his own teeth. The artist also seems to have wanted to draw a connection between Jefferson and the ancient Greeks, perhaps suggesting esteem for a man he clearly put in the same category as Plato and Aristotle.

There’s also a Da Vinci feel to it, a connection I agree with. Jefferson was absolutely brilliant. And tall. At 6′ 1″, he was a head above his colleagues. As a result, he suffered from a bad back. So he drew up plans for an adjustable-height desk. The double hinge on his creation is remarkable. I could use one of these myself.

Jefferson's adjustable-height deskSo here’s a man whose day job is President, yet he can’t contain the ideas popping into his head regarding botany, architecture (the Jefferson memorial, for instance) and furniture design. As a leader whose primary strength is ideation, I can definitely admire a man like that! On my last flight, I sketched out designs for an expandable round conference room table. Perhaps I can find time to put my weekend warrior skills to work and build a prototype.

Yet Jefferson had clear blind spots. Let me give you a few. In writing the Declaration of Independence, he borrowed heavily from the big three rights hailed by the French: life, liberty and land. He and his subcommittee wanted a clean break from the land-owning aristocracies of Europe, but I’m not sure “pursuit of happiness” resulted in any improvements in the resulting culture.

I also fault his viewpoint on God and the world he observed. He couldn’t get past his logical mind to conclude that there might be such thing as mystery. A few years ago I read an account of Lewis and Clark’s exploration and lost a lot of respect for Jefferson, because of his flat viewpoint of the fantastic discoveries they made. Everything had to be explained. The fact that he made his own edited version of the Bible to explain away or remove the miracles sums it up for me. Sure, he was a product of his times, but he epitomizes the dangers of belief in the supremacy of mankind — our creations and our brilliance.

Jefferson was a complicated man. In laying out the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right, he showed a clear naive optimism in the goodness of man. And yet, in laying out a form of government, he and his colleagues demonstrated a clear understanding that greed and the raw pursuit of power would corrupt any government. Eschewing pure democracy as a form of evil, they instead set up a republic, built on the idea of checks and balances. I may not like some of the opinions expressed by our senators and representatives, and I might despise the extreme polarizing ugliness we’re seeing during the debt standoff, but as I sat in the gallery of the Senate chamber last week, I could see the brilliance built into our system that keeps egos and fringe elements in check. We can thank Jefferson for a lot of the thought that went into the U.S. government.

Sometimes reframing the question simply means choosing to look at a problem as an optimist rather than a pessimist. Let me give an example from Wycliffe — an organization that’s 65 years old in the U.S. and 50 years old in Canada. As a result, both have an increasingly aging population and a large number close to retirement age. You could see that as a negative, since we’re going to need to replace a lot of workers, outpacing the retirements with recruiting if we want to grow. If we face that situation in a scarcity mode, the tendency is to either get depressed or try too hard to swing for the fences with one big solution rather than keep doing the things that have worked for a long time.

Let’s reframe the question. Wycliffe has four generations working side by side. What an opportunity for mentoring! How do we get those who’ve served 40 years in Wycliffe to pass on some of the corporate mythology to the younger generations? How do we get the young generations to help the older generations understand the times and that the values can remain constant in spite of “crazy” new methodology?

Here’s another thought: what if the decrease isn’t a problem? In other words, what if God is doing something new? At the same time as North America is becoming a tougher market to recruit in, there’s explosive growth in the Church in South America, and it has a missionary vision. What if we were to conclude that some of the dollars spent here would get a better return in Brazil or Bolivia? In addition, what if our burned-out recruiters, who have tried so hard for so long, some with very little fruit, could do a staff swap with someone in Bolivia, getting their vision refreshed and helping Bolivian Bible translation mobilizers figure out how to direct some of that missionary impulse toward the Bible translation movement?

Or what if we concluded we have to work in new ways and in new roles? Perhaps God is moving us toward more of an equipping and empowering role within the global Bible translation movement.

My point is that, if we look at the question from any of these perspectives, we come to different conclusions than if we assume the trend is problematic. Perhaps you’ve got another perspective or your own case study. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

How many times have you been forced into a situation where you have to replace the status quo, but no alternative seems an improvement? You’re not going to get your followers to move from “here” if they don’t see the potential for “there.” My suggestion is to reframe the question and come up with a different solution entirely.

I learned this trick as a graphic designer, and I think it applies just as well to leadership. Turn the question around and ask it in a different way. Reframing the question means asking whether your problem could become an opportunity if you looked at it a different way. Let me give you two examples.

I think Apple reframed the issue of smart phones. My previous cell phone was too big. I wanted something smaller, and I tried a number of brands, seeking the smallest phone with the largest screen. Then I got an iPhone, which is the biggest cell phone I’ve ever carried. My biggest complaint? It’s too small. I wish it was just a touch bigger. So what happened? The iPhone reframed the discussion of what a smart phone could be and do. The iPad is Apple’s solution, and I admit I have iPad envy.

My second example comes from my house, where we spent the long weekend adding to our stack of boxes ready for our move to Calgary. Our biggest challenge was convincing our kids to part with some of their toys, even for a few months. We tried “spinning it” as an opportunity to send a gift to themselves in Canada, labeling the box to themselves to open and get fresh toys to play with. Didn’t work. Meanwhile, their play room has been getting smaller and smaller as boxes line the walls. What did we do? We reframed the question. Yesterday, the solution presented itself: build a fort/maze with boxes. All of a sudden, the whines have turned into persistent cries to pack more boxes so we can add more walls to the maze.

So, whatever issue you’re facing right now, is there a way you could present it in a different light, set it in a new context or turn it around so the negatives become positives? Perhaps it will require a bit of creativity, but the solution is likely lurking around the edges.

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