Tag: Jon Kolko

design thinking

Leadership & Design Thinking: Missed Opportunities

A recent article titled ‘The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking’ gets a lot of things wrong not because of what it says, but because of the way it says it. If we are to see better outcomes from what we create we need to begin with talking about design and design thinking differently.

I cringed when I first saw it in my LinkedIn feed. There it was: The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking. I tend to bristle when I see broad-based claims about the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do something, particularly with something so scientifically bereft as design thinking. Like others, I’ve called out much of what is discussed as design thinking for what I see as simple bullshit.

To my (pleasant) surprise, this article was based on data, not just opinion, which already puts it in a different class than most other articles on design thinking, but that doesn’t earn it a free pass. In some fairness to the authors, the title may not be theirs (it could be an editor’s choice), but what comes afterward still bears some discussion less about what they say, but how they say it and what they don’t say. This post reflects some thoughts on this work.

How we talk about what we do shapes what we know and the questions we ask and design thinking is at a state where we need to be asking bigger and better questions of it.

Right and Wrong

The most glaring critique I have of the article is the aforementioned title for many reasons. Firstly, the term ‘right’ assumes that we know above all how to do something. We could claim this if we had a body of work that systematically evaluated the outcomes associated with leadership and design thinking or research examining the process of doing design thinking. The issue is: we don’t.

There isn’t a definition of design thinking that can be held up for scrutiny to test or evaluate so how can we claim the ‘right’ way to do it? The authors link to a 2008 HBR article by Tim Brown that outlines design thinking as its reference source, however, that article provides scant concrete direction for measurement or evaluation, rather it emphasizes thinking and personality approaches to addressing design problems and a three-factor process model of how it is done in practice. These might be useful as tools, but they are not something you can derive indicators (quantitative or qualitative) to inform a comparison.

The other citation is a 2015 HBR article from Jon Kolko. Kolko is one of design’s most prolific scholars and one of the few who actively and critically writes about the thinking, doing, craft, teaching, and impact of design on the people, places, and systems around us. While his HBR article is useful in painting the complexity that besets the challenge of designers doing ‘design thinking’, it provides little to go from in developing the kind of comparative metrics that can inform a statement to say something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It’s not fit for that purpose (and I suspect was never designed for that in the first place).

Both of these reference sources are useful for those looking to understand a little about what design thinking might be and how it could be used and few are more qualified to speak on such things as Tim Brown and Jon Kolko. But if we are to start taking design thinking seriously, we need to go beyond describing what it is and show what it does (and doesn’t do) and under what conditions. This is what serves as the foundation for a real science of practice.

The authors do provide a description of design thinking later in the article and anchors that description in the language of empathy, something that has its own problems.

Designers seek a deep understanding of users’ conditions, situations, and needs by endeavoring to see the world through their eyes and capture the essence of their experiences. The focus is on achieving connection, even intimacy, with users.

False Empathy?

Connecting to ideas and people

It’s fair to say that Apple and the Ford Motor Company have created a lot of products that people love (and hate) and rely on every day. They also weren’t always what people asked for. Many of those products were not designed for where people were, but they did shape where they went afterward. Empathizing with their market might not have produced the kind of breakthroughs like the iPod or automobile.

Empathy is a poor end in itself and the language used in this article treats it as such. Seeing the world through others’ eyes helps you gain perspective, maybe intimacy, but that’s all it does. Unless you are willing to take this into a systems perspective and recognize that many of our experiences are shared, collective, connected, and also disconnected then you only get one small part of the story. There is a risk that we over-emphasize the role that empathy plays in design. We can still achieve remarkable outcomes that create enormous benefit without being empathic although I think most people would agree that’s not the way we would prefer it. We risk confusing the means and ends.

One of the examples of how empathy is used in design thinking leadership takes place at a Danish hospital heart clinic where the leaders asked: “What if the patient’s time were viewed as more important than the doctor’s?” Asking this question upended the way that many health professionals saw the patient journey and led to improvements to a reduction in overnight stays. My question is: what did this produce?

What did this mean for the healthcare system as a whole? How about the professionals themselves? Are patients healthier because of the more efficient service they received? Who is deriving the benefits of this decision and who is bearing the risk and cost? What do we get from being empathic?

Failure Failings

Failure is among the most problematic of the words used in this article. Like empathy, failure is a commonly used term within popular writing on innovation and design thinking. The critique of this term in the article is less about how the authors use it explicitly, but that it is used at all. This may be as much a matter of the data itself (i.e., if you participants speak of it, therefore it is included in the dataset), however, its profile in the article is what is worth noting.

The issue is a framing problem. As the authors report from their research: “Design-thinking approaches call on employees to repeatedly experience failure”. Failure is a binary concept, which is not useful when dealing with complexity — something that Jon Kolko writes about in his article. If much of what we deal with in designing for human systems is about complexity, why are we anchoring our discussion to binary concepts such as ‘success’ and ‘failure’?

Failure exists only when we know what success looks like. If we are really being innovative, reframing the situation, getting to know our users (and discarding our preconceptions about them), how is it that we can fail? I have argued that the only thing we can steadfastly fail at in these conditions is learning. We can fail to build in mechanisms for data gathering, sensemaking, sharing, and reflecting that are associated with learning, but otherwise what we learn is valuable.

Reframing Our Models

The very fact that this article is in the Harvard Business Review suggests much about the intended audiences for this piece. I am sympathetic to the authors and my critique has focused on the details within the expression of the work, not necessarily the intent or capacity of those that created it. However, choices have consequences attached and the outcome of this article is that the framing of design thinking is in generating business improvements. Those are worthy goals, but not the only ones possible.

One of the reasons concepts like ‘failure’ apply to so much of the business literature is that the outcomes are framed in binary or simple terms. It is about improvement, efficiency, profit, and productivity. Business outcomes might also include customer satisfaction, purchase actions, or brand recognition. All of these benefit the company, not necessarily the customer, client, patient, person, or citizen.

If we were truly tackling human-centred problems, we might approach them differently and ask different questions. Terms like failure actually do apply within the business context, not because they support innovation per se, but because the outcomes are pre-set.

Leadership Roles

Bason and Austin’s research is not without merit for many reasons. Firstly, it is evidence-based. They have done the work by interviewing, synthesizing, commenting on, and publishing the research. That in itself makes it a worthy contribution to the field.

It also provides commentary and insight on some practical areas of design leadership that readers can take away right away by highlighting roles for leaders.

One of these roles is in managing the tension between divergent and convergent thought and development processes in design work. This includes managing the insecurities that many design teams may express in dealing with the design process and the volume of dis-organized content it can generate.

The exemplary leaders we observed ensured that their design-thinking project teams made the space and time for diverse new ideas to emerge and also maintained an overall sense of direction and purpose. 

Bason & Austin, HBR 2019

Another key role of the design leader is to support future thinking. By encouraging design teams to explore and test their work in the context of what could be, not just what is, leaders reframe the goals of the work and the outcomes in ways that support creativity.

Lastly, a key strength of the piece was the encouragement of multi-media forms of engagement and feedback. The authors chose to illustrate how leaders supported their teams in thinking differently about not only the design process but the products for communicating that process (and resulting products) to each other and the outside world. Too often the work of design is lost in translation because the means of communication have not been designed for the outcomes that are needed — something akin to design-driven evaluation.

Language, Learning, Outcomes

By improving how we talk about what we do we are better at framing how to ask questions about what we do and what impact it has. Doing the right thing means knowing what the wrong this is. Without evaluation, we run the risk in Design of doing what Russell Ackoff cautioned against: Doing the wrong things righter.

A read between the lines of the data — the stories and examples — that were presented in the article by Bason and Austin is the role of managing fear — fear of ‘failure’, fear from confusion, fear of not doing good work. Design, if it is anything, is optimistic in that it is about making an effort to try and solve problems, taking action, and generating something that makes a difference. Design leadership is about supporting that work and bringing it into our organizations and making it accessible.

That is an outcome worth striving for. While there are missed opportunities here, there is also much to build on and lead from.

Lead Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Inset Photo by R Mo on Unsplash

art & designenvironmentpublic health

Design Space in Public Health

EmabarcaderoFountainIf design is everywhere humans are and shapes our interactions in the built environment, which dictates how we interact with the world around us should it not be considered important enough to be a part of public health?

I recently picked up a copy of the architecturally-inspired Arcade Magazine because of its theme on Science, Art and Inquiry. Inside was a piece by Andrew Dannenberg, Howard Frumpkin and Daniel Friedman. The first two are MD’s and the last author an architect and all are from the University of Washington . In that article, they outline a case for why design and public health should go together. The audience for the piece are those interested in architecture.

Indeed, Arcade’s purpose is to “incite dialogue about design and the built environment”. It makes me wonder why we don’t have something that “incites dialogue about design and public health?”.

Yet, I couldn’t help but think that same piece should be published in a public health space. In the article, the authors outline a few of the key areas where design can contribute to public health.

Among the first of these areas is promoting physical activity and the role that design can play in building and planning for spaces that encourage people to move in healthy ways:

Working together with public health professionals and planners, designers can help remedy what urban theorist Nan Ellin calls “place-deficit disorder,” starting with the basics – stairways, sidewalks, landscapes and contiguous urban spaces – which they can compose to attract greater pedestrian use.

Designing for resiliency is another of the areas where good design can benefit the public by creating a solid urban infrastructure to literally weather the storms that come upon us:

Evidence-based design can help reduce vulnerability and enhance the resilience of buildings and infrastructure, but most importantly, the communities who depend on them.

They also look at the role of design in enhancing sustainability and as a means for assisting environmental health while shaping the demand for sustainable products:

Designers possess the unique skills, knowledge and practices to specify the use of benign materials across scales based on life cycle analysis, energy conservation, carbon management, and environmental and health impacts. As designers expand these practices, they educate their clients, inform the public and shift the market.\

Lastly, they focus on how design can contribute to reducing social inequities by drawing on evidence looking at the connections between space and wellbeing for those in low-income neighbourhoods:

Recent studies demonstrate that links between greater access to green space and lower mortality are more pronounced among the poor than the wealthy. Housing initiatives that offer better homes for low-income persons, workplace design that protects workers, and universal design that improves access for activities by persons with disabilities—these practices benefit vulnerable populations and offer designers unlimited opportunities to help foster fuller, healthier lives.

Expanding the discourse of design and public health

It was refreshing to read a ‘conversation’ between public health and design and some taking the issue of space and health seriously from a design point of view. Some, like Emily Pilloton and her Project H design others have sought to use design as a bridge to social wellbeing by looking at space as being about communities and economics. Her video below explains how she has taken a design-driven approach to her work in promoting new sustainable ways to engage her adopted community of Bertie county.

Both of these examples of design in public health take a place-based approach, however there is much that can be done with designing the experience of health beyond place. Jon Kolko’s group at AC4D looked at design and homeless in their book Wicked Problems.  Andrew Shea has looked at the link between graphic design and social good in his book, which is explained further in his TEDX talk below. The design firm IDEO has been working on social good projects now for a few years through its IDEO.org platform and program.

  Bringing public health in

What seems to be missing and that the article in Arcade did and that was bring public health in. Emily Pilloton, Jon Kolko, Andrew Shea and many other terrific socially-minded designers are changing the way the public thinks about public health. Public health needs to be doing this too. It is striking that we have so few public health professionals — Drs Andrew Dannenberg and Howard Frumpkin as exceptions — doing the kind of design-oriented research and publishing in this area. It is ripe and public health and design both need it.

I don’t expect a lot of public health folks read Arcade, but maybe they should. And maybe we should be reading more about design in public health publications too.

behaviour changecomplexitydesign thinkinginnovationsystems science

The Wicked Problem of Wicked Problems

All Knotted Up...Like a Wicked Problem

Wicked problems are receiving a lot of attention these days giving much excitement to systems thinkers and designers alike. Yet what these problems mean for planning and understanding social programs and policies is not clear and may be even more wicked that it first appears. 

I was excited to learn that Jon Kolko and his creative band of learners at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D) are coming out with a book on wicked problems. As one who studies and helps others to intervene in addressing such problems, this was like being a Star Trek fan learning that Leonard Nimoy was coming to speak at the Trekkie convention in my hometown. It is refreshing to see that the concept of the wicked problem is gaining traction beyond the small band of scholars and practitioners working at the intersection of complexity, systems and design thinking (which, admittedly is where many AC4D folk inhabit, but hopefully their audience will not).

But it’s not just one book. We are seeing transformations in education and science — with calls for a ‘new breed of scientist’ being created at places like Massey University in New Zealand — or spread through the news or business stories in various forms.

The concept of the wicked problem was originally posed by management science scholar and systems thinker C. West Churchman with planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. The Wikipedia entry on wicked problems provides some examples of what these things are:

Classic examples of wicked problems include economicenvironmental, and political issues. A problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behavior is likely to be a wicked problem. Therefore, many standard examples of wicked problems come from the areas of public planning and policy. These include global climate change[4]natural hazardshealthcare, the AIDS epidemic, pandemic influenza, international drug traffickinghomeland securitynuclear weapons, and nuclear energy and waste.

In recent years, problems in many areas have been identified as exhibiting elements of wickedness – examples range from aspects of design decision making and knowledge management[5] to business strategy.[6]

As our social lives become more interconnected through the Internet, globalization, and mass migration, the complexity of the situations we find ourselves in grows. More of anything in diverse forms interacting together is likely to create complexity as new properties emerge and those properties change the trajectory of actions and reactions of the parts dynamically.

As one who is interested in wicked problems and works with people to address them, I should be thrilled to see the term used so widely. I am, but cautiously so. There is a risk that in the enthusiasm to embrace the lexicon of complexity that the meaning gets lost, which is what one gets from the hype cycle (See below).

The Hype Cycle: Coming to a Wicked Problem Near You?

The hype cycle is described as phenomonena initiated by a technology (or idea) and, once caught on, spikes the expectations beyond reason leading to discouragement, mass abandonment of the idea, and then — hopefully — a return to a level of reasonable return.

While the “cycle” (it is not a cycle) has limitations, the analogy here is well suited to fads of various types and the rapid ascension of the concept “wicked problem” in past years is indicative of a trend. Below are two representations of the amount of citations of the work “wicked problem” and “wicked problems” from Google’s Ngram service:

Wicked Problem Citations: 1950-2008

Wicked Problem(s) Citations: 1973-2008

It appears that wicked problems (plural) are increasing and reference to a single problem is staying the same.

Regardless, an upward trend is evident. What it means is another matter…

If wicked problems are becoming talked about more often and by more people, it is appropriate to ask what kind of impact that this new thinking will have on not only the way the problems are posed, but how people seek to address them.

To that end, it is worth envisioning the future with caution. One of the reasons for this is that wicked problems are often not wholly wicked in their composition or the strategy required to address the problem — which ironically makes these types of problems even more wicked.

This has to do with the interconnected, multidimensional, and embedded nature of the problems themselves which contain within them many interconnected non-wicked problems. I’ve started to see difficulties with organizations developing strategy that fails to consider this. It is, as I’ve discussed before, an artefact of either-or thinking. Tackling the kind of wicked problems like poverty, chronic disease, and global finance require a meta-level strategy that recognizes, shapes and adapts to complexity, while accounting for micro-level issues that are indeed, very linear and simple.

Finding, training and retaining the right talent to work with diverse communities on problems that are poorly supported or funded from many sources is wicked. The human resource needs for payroll, supply management, and field support might be much less so. Yet, both are joined-up and require strategies that can extend beyond traditional management and strategy, but also embrace some of the very ‘best practices’ that seem at the outset to be antithetical to complexity.

Just as I shake my head in frustration at seeing complexity dealt with using amplified linear strategies that ‘do the wrong things righter‘, I have surprised myself by how much I’ve been twitching at hearing recent converts to systems thinking rail against the traditional ways of planning as if anything other than seeing problems as complex would be wrong.

At issue is that wicked problems are made more so by having both complex and non-complex elements working together, requiring a level of strategy development that is far more sophisticated than many first thought. Even a review of the better management texts using complexity give short shrift to the relationship between the complex, the simple and the complicated working simultaneously in environments and how we plan for that. The Cynefin Framework provides a start, but just a start.

Until we recognize this complexity — no pun intended — in the way we plan, there is great risk of replicating the hype cycle when our sole use complexity-based models yield poor results of a different nature than the poor results we are seeing from traditional linear, reductionist thinking models applied to many of the problems we deem as wicked today.

Picture credits: A Close Up on Knotted Rope by Sundariel used under Creative Commons License from DeviantArt

Graph: Gartner Hype Cycle by Jeremy Kemp used under licence from Wikipedia.