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A number of us attended the Emerging Issues Forum last month in Raleigh.  It was organized by our friend and former colleague, Anita Brown-Graham.  The topic this year was creativity, and it focused on making North Carolina more competitive by bringing greater innovation to bear across many different dimensions.  There were some excellent presentations and I was glad that a number of our folks attended.

A recurring theme was the need to use our whole brain in trying to resolve challenging problems.  Not just the analytical left side of our brain, but also the more intuitive right side of our brain.  Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, worried that we exalt analytic thinking over more creative and intuitive thinking.  I’m sure he would readily acknowledge that creativity occurs within analytic thinking, and none of the speakers argued against the importance of rational, analytic thinking.  Just the opposite.  Their point simply was that it is not enough.

Martin and David Kelley (general manager for IDEO) advocated a move toward design thinking, which is a methodology developed by Kelley that applies principles used in designing objects to solving other kinds of problems—including the improvement of organizations.  It involves understanding problems from different perspectives, breaking them apart, and then putting them back together in new ways.  The intuitive side of design thinking tends to produce creative leaps that otherwise don’t happen with other approaches to problem-solving.  It requires more than drilling down to understand the elements of a problem—it also involves a breadth of knowledge and experience that allows you to see old problems in new ways.  This is something Kelley called “veja du,” as opposed to “déjà vu.”  Daniel Pink was another speaker who talked about thinking with your whole brain.  He provided some wonderful illustrations of how thinking like an artist can offer important perspectives that help people to see and understand their work in new ways.

David Kelley
David Kelley

I’m not doing justice to the concept of design thinking, and I plan to return to this topic in future posts.  In the meantime, here is a short article from Inside Higher Ed about design thinking in higher education if you are interested in learning more about it.  The article does a nice job of outlining some of the leading trends in the field.  A short article about David Kelley in Fast Company gives you a nice feel for the evolution of design thinking through his work at IDEO.  I’m convinced that we can do better as an organization if we apply the principles of design thinking to some of our work.  I will keep you posted and solicit your feedback as I learn more about it.

3 thoughts on “Design Thinking

  1. On NPR some years ago I heard a delightfully entertaining and enlightening interview with actor John Cleese, who described a personal experience very much germane to your topic. Having been given a copy of Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain Tortoise Mind to read on a flight to Japan for a business conference speaking engagement, he was so moved by the author’s message that he felt compelled to abandon his prepared speech and instead read the entire book to his audience. Despite how boring that sounds, it was very well received. Claxton’s book about lifelong learning, Wise Up, is a good read as well. Another interesting initiative encouraging thinking in a wider perspective is the Long Now Project, a project of computer pioneer Daniel Hillis and Whole Earth founder Stewart Brand: (Anyone else still have a copy of the Whole Earth Almanac?)

  2. The speakers at this conference were all intriguing for differing reasons. I appreciate having had the opportunity to attend.

    One of the take-away lessons for me is that we can’t truly encourage creative right brain thinking by using our more traditional left brain teaching practices, such as lectures and passive PowerPoint presentations. The conference gave us a great opportunity to learn about the theory and thought leaders for example, but there was not the chance to actually practice or process what we learned. We have to have time to discuss and experiment, using all of our senses – not just our brains, to really get the creative juices flowing.

    Given the magnitude of the economic transitions and stressors in NC this century, it seems to me that communities really do need the encouragement and opportunity to re-think, re-imagine, re-experience, and re-design from the ground up. This type of creative practice will likely take more time and involve more risk (and probably more people) than our traditional planning processes. I’d love to give that a try!

  3. We have borrowed Hare Brain Tortoise Mind from Davis Library for six months. Contact me, if you would like to borrow it, and I’ll put your name in the queue.

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