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Design Thinking

I couldn’t decide whether to put this post under the category of “leadership” or “creativity,” so I finally put it under both. (I know, I know, this shouldn’t be a big decision, but there you go….)

Here’s why it’s in both. I think one of the most difficult things for leaders is to imagine something that is beyond our own experience. Actually, I think this is true of all of us. More often than not, the futures we imagine are slightly idealized versions of our pasts, and the solutions we come up with are essentially things we’ve seen work elsewhere or, even more likely, it’s answers we’ve tried before with hopes that this time around they’ll work better.

This makes complete sense when you think about it: we take the tools we know and the experiences we’ve had and apply that to problems in front us. It makes sense and often works reasonably well. Except, that is, when we’re in situations of adaptive change. Situations – as we’ve talked about before – that enough in the context has changed so that the old assumptions and rules don’t apply.

Right now, there are a whole lot of congregations, seminaries, businesses, and other groups caught up in this kind of massive cultural change and the challenge of a leader is to avoid doing what we’ve always done but a little bit better – because it won’t work!  – and dream things we’ve never experienced before.

One of the routes to move in that direction that I’ve found most helpful in this regard is what’s sometimes called “Design Thinking.” It’s an approach that begins at the end. That is, not with where we are and where we want to do – or what problem we have, for that matter – but instead by asking what kind of impact or outcome we want to have and, quite importantly, who we want to have that impact on. It then moves through various phases of exploring possibilities with folks interested in what we’re interested in (but not necessarily in our group), trying out multiple small-scale experiments and learning from those, and being committed to multiple iterations and upgrades. Despite what folks may tell you, there is no one way to do design thinking, although there is one common thread – 1) start with your audience and desired outcomes and work backwards to where you are now and 2) have a high tolerance for making mistakes and learning from them.

Design thinking is closely associated with the Standford Design School (d.school) and with Tim Brown, President of IDEO and author of the bestselling Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. Rather than say much more about design thinking, I’ll let Tim do the talking, as in this in 17-minute TED Talk he offers a great introduction to the concept and how it might help us imagine a future beyond our experience.


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