Reflections On My Time At Stanford’s d.school

I’m reflecting a bit on my time at the Design Thinking Bootcamp at Stanford’s d.school. I plan to follow up this post with my thoughts on the question, “What is design thinking?”

First, I recorded some items on some note cards handed out to us at the end of each day to aid our memory and reduce our many thoughts and experiences down to the essential items of action or questions for further consideration. Here is what I wrote on each card.

Day 1

A key behavior I want to take back to work:

  • Creating an attitude where failure [of new ideas] and disagreement are acceptable and encouraged
  • Rejecting the vanity of requiring omniscience before action can be taken

Day 2

Today, we did this:

  • faced rejection and awkwardness to find complete strangers who were excited to tell us about their experiences and themselves
  • accepted feedback gracefully as an opportunity to improve our offering and refocus on what problem we’re really solving

A key behavior I want to take back to work:

  • Stop worrying about surveys, start speaking directly with our users
  • Focusing on emotions conveyed through story-telling
  • Emphasize breakthrough solutions, not incremental improvements

A question I still have:

  1. What’s the best way to break the ice with a user?
  2. How to know what experiences matter before the problem is known?
  3. When to abandon an interview versus dig deeper?
  4. How long does this process take to cycle through to a solution?

Day 3

Today, we did this:

  • Built low-resolution prototypes
  • Took them into the field and used them as excuses to have conversations with strangers about feelings

A key behavior I want to take back to work:

find reasonable excuses to have deeply personal discussions with our customers

A question I still have:

  1. How do I identify the right problem to work on?
  2. Who is going to help me with this?
  3. How often should we be doing this (design thinking work)?
  4. How long will it take to reach a conclusion?

Now that I’ve shared some of my daily reflections, I want to make some notes about my overall impressions and reflections of the experience.

As I discussed with one of the coaches at the d.school, I believe we are standing on a “burning platform” in our business due to technological and competitive dynamics and it’s imperative we take these risks seriously by thinking about radically different ways of doing business, up to and including finding a completely different business to compete in. Therefore, I had one over-riding goal in attending the Design Thinking Bootcamp: gain a toolset that would help our organization think about the challenge we face differently than we think about it now, and design a radical solution.

Along with that larger goal came many smaller goals about specific areas of our existing business where we perceive an opportunity to radically innovate.

Going into the program, I thought that the program was going to mostly revolve around these specific business challenges and I would be working, almost one-on-one, with design thinking coaches to learn how to apply design thinking to our challenge. I imagined that what I was primarily gaining was an individual insight that I could hopefully share or train our larger organization on as needed when I went back to base.

I had done some research ahead of time and was aware of some of the things we’d be doing in the course of the program:

  • going out into the field to do interviews with “users”
  • working on a design challenge for a sponsoring major corporation
  • doing team-based thinking games to explore different aspects of design thinking

I was apprehensive (in a “good” way) about the interviewing because it is one thing from my previous operational management experience I liked least or felt least comfortable with– actually talking with our customers. Most of my interactions with customers were defensive in nature, trying to calm down someone we had pissed off through process failure or other failure to live up to their expectations or our commitments. I didn’t have much experience or confidence in just talking to people to try to gather insights about how to make business better in a proactive sense. This was a skillset I very much wanted to gain and was ready to do uncomfortable things to master.

Another thing I was concerned about on a personal level was sustaining my energy throughout the program, especially when considering the suggestion that food might be hard to come by. Some of the early material I received in preparation for the week seemed to imply that meals would be light and limited and we’d often be on our own. The Wolf was concerned for me, and the first question she asked when I checked in after Day 1 was “Are they giving you enough to eat?”

I am happy to report that the experience was much higher touch than I would’ve thought. We were fed ENDLESSLY– breakfast, lunch and dinner with oversupplied snack stations throughout the day and dessert offered at lunch and dinner. The food was high quality and diverse from a local catering operation and the snacks were gourmand. I never went hungry and it was clear the program coordinators put a lot of time and attention into this specific detail, not to mention all the others. “Class sizes” were small, typically 1 coach for 5 team members, plus other support staff and coordinators. We had a group dinner scheduled in San Francisco one night and had nice tour buses to shuttle us back and forth when we went out into the field. Overall, it was an extremely comfortable experience from a material standpoint.

The instructors were amazingly high energy and genuinely interested in their students and their learning. That was actually one of the things that was most challenging for me. Design thinking seems to require a lot of emotional energy, and by the time I got home I was drained. Imagine being super excited about everything for 12 hours a day for 4 days. Imagine sustaining this energy with people you’ve never met (I mean the strangers we interviewed, not just the team members in the program) and conveying the sense that the wacky stories they’re sharing are SUPER exciting and SUPER interesting as you interview them for twenty minutes at a time.

Maybe some people can sustain that for weeks, months or even their entire lives, but I can’t. I crashed when I got home, hard.

On the Monday after my return I was to begin my Post Program Design Project. The idea was that between 8am and 12pm, Monday through Wednesday, I would attempt a small design project from start to finish: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. There were 2 team calls scheduled for 1 hour at 9am on Tuesday and Wednesday to check in and support one another in creating ideas and processing feedback. Otherwise, in 4 hours each of three days you were expected to interview your own customers/users, define a test user to design for, come up with ideas that might make their life more wonderful, create a crude prototype and then role play using it with more customers/users.

I ended up doing the interviews but found it was a lot more challenging to do when the people in our organization that I asked to assist me weren’t really bought in and didn’t really understand how the approach “works” like the people I had teamed up with at the d.school. The interviews went okay despite that, but when it came to defining, ideating, prototyping, I lost my motivation and decided to “quit” rather than make excuses as to why I couldn’t get my project done.

This is probably the most frustrating part of my experience at the d.school, and the biggest lesson I could learn! It was frustrating for me because they made it quite clear before we left that making excuses and not getting the Post Program work done was for losers– in developing a “bias toward action” it is important to jump right in to trying what you learned in your own business, even if you end up sucking at it or it feels funny. This didn’t seem to give me much room to maneuver once I hit some speed bumps and started wobbling, so I just fell over.

On the other hand, experiencing a painful failure and getting back up on my design thinking bike (as I plan to, anyway) helped me think about the other important principle, which is that failure is okay and is part of learning. I now realize I need to sell what I’ve learned a lot better than I did and can’t assume people will rally around this approach just because the organization sent me off to a training program for a week. I also understand that I CAN do what I thought/think is uncomfortable and speak to real “users”, and I have some confidence in the idea that there are real insights we can gain from that effort if we work diligently and find the right people to design for. My initial failure has been a good reminder of the meta-principle of design thinking, which is that everyone can get better by iterative improvements.

My experience at the d.school was wacky and weird, fun and tiring, engaging and challenging. At one point it felt like being back in kindergarten, making macaroni art and playing make believe as we constructed these goofy prototype scenarios and then played them out with each other, with strangers on the street and for our fellow d.school teammates for feedback and evaluation. In the short time I was there I did not come across any “profound” solutions to burning platform business challenges (my own or others) and I realize I can’t expect that kind of resolution from a week long program or from my amateur tinkering with this new found knowledge. Design thinking isn’t a miraculous process, it’s an innovative process.

I’ve got a bit of travel ahead of me over the next few weeks, so I won’t get an opportunity to “do” much design thinking in the meantime. But it is rooted in my mind now and I am thinking differently than when I left for the training. My plan is to try to identify a lower-difficulty challenge our organization could work on and find a few people who are highly motivated to learn and practice a new approach with me. From there we can further test the principles and hopefully design an implementable solution that will be the tangible evidence of value needed to bring it to a wider organizational audience and signal that it is time to move on to bigger challenges.

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