Tricks with Tips

The proliferation of ‘tips and tricks’ for boosting change-making and innovation efforts obscures the craft and commitment that transformation requires.

Visit sites like Medium, search YouTube, or scroll through your Twitter feed and you’ll find endless sources of tips and tricks to innovate, transform, or learn.

Tips and tricks work for formatting files with software. Tips and tricks work when you’re searching for something online or at the local shopping mall. They don’t work when trying to address complicated or complex problems.

Tips and tricks help make a skilled practitioner just a little bit better. (And for many who are skilled, that is what they are looking for). There are times when tips and tricks can help a novice make a leap, too. But the drive toward framing so much of our learning around tips and tricks can mislead us at best, be dangerous at worst

Tricky Tips: The Case of Design Thinking

There is much controversy and debate over the concept of design thinking and just who is considered a designer or not. There are those who view design more as a profession and are critical of those without professional training or experience to call themselves designers. For this group, no amount of design thinking will solve this; it might all just be bullshit.

Then there are those who believe everyone is a designer and that design thinking unlocks this design confidence using tools, strategies and techniques from professional design to do this. Some argue that saying design thinking BS is BS in itself.

It all gets rather ‘meta’ and you can spend all day reading about this.

I believe strongly that we are all designers. I also believe that not all of us are good at design. But I do think design skills (perception, craft, production, adaptation) are things we can develop and improve. I’m more in line with those who see the BS and still believe in design thinking’s utility.

Tips and Tricks to Practice and Evaluation

What I see as central to this debate is actually about tips and tricks. Design is fundamentally a practice. Tips and tricks only work if you apply them and they achieve what you look for. Taking a seminar, course, or weekend retreat in design thinking doesn’t make you a good designer unless you apply what you learn. Design thinking in the abstract or theoretical is useless without application.

This is where the tips and tricks are problematic.

To illustrate, these 10 Gmail add-ons can be learned about, adopted, implemented, and evaluated quickly. They might have a real, prominent impact on my work as a Gmail user. If I am learning design techniques or a tool for visualizing problems I need to have the same sequence of stages: exposure, adoption, implementation, and evaluation to know if it does anything. Too much credence is given to being taught something versus learning (and applying) something. This where the tips and tricks thing can falter big time.

As I’ve written before: design (and design thinking) is beset with a lack of evidence. Until we evaluate what we do and what comes from our work, much of what passes as design and design thinking can easily be BS. It was the lack of critique in design thinking that Natasha Jen used to argue that design thinking was bullshit.

That’s just design thinking. The same tips and tricks thinking is rampant in management theory, innovation, and behavioural science (just think of all the New Years Resolutions goal hacks and strategies out there).

Getting to Real Practice

I used to subscribe to literally hundreds of newsletters on topics of behavioural science, design, complexity, science, and more (all the topics I cover in Censemaking). In reading through these I’d argue that half of all of the space was dedicated to tips and tricks. One reason is that it works well for newsletters. Who doesn’t love a good bite-sized morsel of wisdom and practical advice? I’m guilty of this, too.

Complex issues, for which a vast amount of human experience represents, are not changed because there is a good tip or a trick to do it. Big changes — transformations – don’t happen because one small tweak tipped the scale. Tipping points themselves are fundamentally misunderstood. The right tip can be a catalyst for change with skilled practitioners scaffolding onto large stores of experience, knowledge, and practice.

What does create change is practice and persistence. Big change comes from small shifts done often and occasional random leaps. (Yes, luck does play a role). We deceive ourselves when we think we can do this without putting in the work or getting lucky. Why tips and tricks fail further is that they can create false confidence. Research on training shows that mere exposure to an idea can increase someone’s confidence without any evidence that they have what it takes.

Try reading, watching, and learning deeper. Avoid the seduction of the tips and tricks and limit your exposure to them. Lastly, evaluate what you do seek to pay attention to and see what kind of effect it has. Together, tips might help and tricks might turn to treats.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash and by Dan Smedley on Unsplash

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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