Beyond Brainstorming: Design Thinking Delivers Real Solutions and Synergy

A human-centered, whole-brain approach to understand, reframe and solve complex challenges.

By: Sandy Frinton, PULSE Editor-in-Chief

I like to brainstorm. Having worked in creative agencies, it always gets my juices flowing to see large flip chart paper, sticky pad notes and magic markers come out.

So, I was excited to join in the Design Thinking workshop on day three of OWS2.0 led by Mary D. Lewis, COP, Manager, Sourcing, Sprint; Sara Musil, Manager, Sourcing, Sprint; Cynthia Batty, Chief Knowledge Officer, ISG; and Chris Okamoto, Associate Partner, Strategy & Design, Infosys.

While I thought it would be a fun way to toss around ideas to problems and work with new people what resulted was much more powerful and truly produced synergies, team bonding and a sense of pride in our solution that I didn’t see coming.

And that was just after 15 minutes working with a group of strangers. Imagine the possibilities if we each took the concepts back to our workplaces and built on it?

Demystifying Design Thinking

Our leaders first demystified design thinking for the group and shared this definition: “Design thinking is a human-centered, whole-brain approach to understand, reframe, and solve complex challenges. It integrates the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

While design thinking was first introduced in a 1987 book on architecture and urban planning, it predates that. Robert McKim of Stanford University’s School of Engineering introduced a similar iterative design process in 1973 that was expanded by engineer Rolf Faste at Stanford in the 1980s and 1990s.

Design thinking found its way into the business world when David Kelley founded IDEO in 1991. Today, design thinking is used worldwide by companies, startups and schools, including Infosys and Sprint. It is a 21st-Century business skill to be leveraged by everyone – engineers, marketers, designers, business leaders, and other professionals.

The presenters explained that for many companies, traditional solutioning begins with an assumption that we already understand the problem. Teams immediately begin brainstorming and then focus on a linear solution development cycle. Design thinking ensures that the correct problems are addressed, streamlines business processes and increases shareholder value.

So, having never participated in this approach, what was I missing? I was about to find out there was a better way.

The Dream Garden 

Working at large tables with about 8 to 10 people, we were given an assignment that sounded simple enough: Cultivate our own dream garden. The “garden” was loosely defined and could be whatever we wanted it to be.

Each group was given lots of fun supplies to creatively bring our ideas to life in the prototype stage: brightly colored construction paper, playdough, pipe cleaners, yarn, pom-poms, popsicle sticks, Sharpies, scissors and tape.

Our process would be to use creativity to build on each other’s contributions, discussing points of view with workshop participants and deliberating with the group on how to create value.

We were taught to reframe our problem as a challenge question: “How might we?”  According to the Harvard Business Review, this is the top-secret phase that innovators use to get the creative process started. Phrasing the question this way assumes that no idea is out of bounds, makes people feel safe coming up with ideas that may or may not work, and leads to collaboration and building on ideas.

Asking “how might we cultivate a dream garden,” we were given directions to list possible garden themes on Post-It notes, deliberate as a team on the meaning of those themes, choose a garden theme and identify obstacles.

Ready, set, go! Our diverse group quickly threw out ideas on sticky pad notes in this stage of brainstorming that fell all over the place based on our own experiences. How about a garden in the clouds, in the ocean or an ecosystem? Or a dream garden, book garden, technology garden, exercise garden, sweets garden?

The colorful paper notes were grouped and regrouped as we tried to find common themes and something that would emerge. As we lined them up, more fell into the area of innovation and the idea of an iGarden formed.

I saw empathy, understanding and appreciation for all the ideas. Each of us contributed in some way. Even as we struggled to come up with something that resonated, we were having fun and bonding.

Suddenly we began to look at the question differently. What if the garden wasn’t physical but a virtual garden! It was our A-Ha moment. Our team began to build on the concept where people would wear virtual reality goggles and plant and grow crops around the world in a game environment.

In the Ideate stage, we got more into discussing the elements of our garden. We talked about the crops and where they would be located. We deliberated on the meaning of each of the elements.

Having heard throughout OWS2.0 about the impact sourcing movement and having a delegate in our group from South Africa, we decided to add impact workers from marginalized communities around the globe to harvest our virtual fruits and vegetables.

We addressed the obstacles of who would pay for our garden. It would be in the play store available for Apple and Android users, of course, and maybe we would get some sponsors. We would measure success by how many users we got and our social media exposure.

In the prototype or visualization stage, we designed the layout of your garden with our materials. Out came the supplies and members of our team jumped into creating VR goggles and cutting paper to locate the countries on the map of our garden.

Pipe cleaners were twisted into people kneeling over square crop beds made out of the sticks with green playdough as the soil. Our crops of corn and coffee beans were made from yellow and brown pom-poms.

We began telling a meaningful story about the purpose of our garden where people could make a difference and even came up with a logo for our iGarden and a song, Pure Imagination.

As the exercise was coming to an end, we looked around at the other groups to see what they had developed. The results were fascinating – a world peace garden, impact garden, social garden, multigenerational garden, inclusion garden, giving garden. Interestingly, many of the themes from throughout OWS2.0 of “doing well by doing good” were reflected in our gardens.

In discussing our process, we learned that words can become magic, leaderless groups were common and diversity strengthened our ideas. Some of the most creative ideas from our group came from an engineer.

In the end, no idea was too crazy, one solution didn’t fit all and creativity fueled collaboration. Our group posed for photos, exchanged contact information and continued the conversation long after the session concluded. What an inspiring way to end OWS2.0!

Sandy Frinton, PULSE Editor-in-Chief

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