Design Thinking For A Better Life

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Design Thinking is a problem-solving approach that uses a combination of empathy, creativity, and analysis to tackle unique problems. At a macro level, the approach can be used by governments and organizations. An emerging economy launching a hundred smart cities project or an organization looking for the next big business idea can both use design thinking.

Design Thinking can be applied equally well at a personal level.

Bill Burnett is an adjunct professor at Stanford and leads the Design Thinking program. In a distinguished career spanning decades, Bill has used the principles to generate dramatic new designs in a variety of domains. In the last decade, he has also pioneered the “Design Your Life” course at Stanford. The course, among the most popular at Stanford, is now offered at the freshman, graduate, and doctoral levels. Bill is the co-author (with Dave Evans) of the book “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-lived, Joyful Life.” (Knopf, 2016).

Most of us have faced the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” multiple times over our lives.

Bill Burnett argues that this is a wrong question to ask.

Suppose we reframe the question:

What can I do to keep exploring throughout life?”

In other words, how to we nurture the curiosity of a five-year-old over a lifetime?

Psychologists and behavioral scientists (and employers) try to find out what our passion is.

Bill and Dave propose this is the wrong approach. It appears that only 20% of any population can identify a single passion. For the overwhelming majority (80%), there simply is no single passion. Most of us are passionate about many different things, and these may vary from the time of day to particular days of the week all the way to different stages of life.

The challenge is to apply the principles of Design Thinking to the “wicked problem” of life – be it managing one’s career, pursuing one’s heart, or realize one’s true potential.

A “wicked problem” is a large, ambiguous problem that is poorly defined, and even more poorly bounded. You will agree that life fits this definition.

First, the principles of Design Thinking:

1.    Empathize: Design Thinking places people and their needs at the center. What does the end user want? What is the “job to be done”? This step requires observation, engagement, and conversation. Most market research studies fail this first step. It should not come as a surprise that most products and services fail.

2.    Define: Once we identify the real “job to be done” from the perspective of the end user, we need to define the “problem” or “challenge” in a meaningful way. Defining the problem right is half the solution.

3.    Ideate: Use your creative mind to generate as many “solutions” as possible. Never mind whether the solutions make sense. Don’t try to figure out the “right” answer. Just allow your mind to come up with solutions that do not exist at present. Brainswarming (not brainstorming), mind mapping, and doodling are some of the useful tools for this stage.

4.    Prototype: Design Thinking is all about “learning by doing.” Convert as many solutions as you can into working prototypes. The essence of this step is speed. Don’t aim for the perfect solution. Look for a tangible solution that the end user is likely to be pleased with. Remember: it is better to fail and cheaply at this stage than to fail spectacularly later.

5.    Test: Go into the real world and test your solution/s. Don’t expect the smell of sweet success. Expect end users to trash your solution. Learn from their feedback. Iteration is at the heart of Design Thinking. Don’t ever think that your first solution is indeed the best. More often than not, your first solution is likely to be your worst – from the end user’s perspective.

Applying Design Thinking to Your Life

Use the core principles of Design Thinking. Find out what is working and what is not. Experiment. Dare to challenge the status quo. Applying Design Thinking to life involves “improvisation” and “wayfinding.”

1.    Maintain a “Good Time” Journal.

Assumption one: We find something missing in life. How do we improve this situation?

Start with a “Good Time” Journal. Keep a record (hour to hour) of all of your daily activities for a week.

Check the activities that you find most fulfilling.

When are you completely immersed in what you do? Why?

Which activities make you happy? Which ones make you unhappy?

Which activities help you to be calm and poised? Which ones create anxiety, fear, and anger?

When do you feel that life is a smooth flow? When do you find it turbulent?

What are you doing when you are most alive, present, and animated?

This is the critical step. The more insights you gather in this step, the better off you will be. Use the Design Thinking process to reinforce the activities that make you happy, and relegate or do away with activities that are not fulfilling. Iterate.

For the rest of your life.

2.    Track Your Energy.

You will find from the Journal that some activities energize you. And some activities just drain you. Maintain the Journal for a few weeks. You will have a clear idea of activities that energize you and activities that drain you. Merely knowing how each activity affects you propels you to do more of what energizes you and less of what drains you.

3.    Create Three Odyssey Plans.

Think of the next five years. Identify three paths or scenarios which you can pursue realistically.

The first scenario is a continuation of your current state. Status-quo.

The second scenario is what you would do if your current situation suddenly changes. What if you lose your job? What if you have a quarrel with your boss? What if there is a natural disaster in your area?

The third scenario is a hypothetical “wish list” of all that you might want to do over a life time. Sell off everything and walk or bike across the world? Become a chef? Go para-gliding or bungee-jumping? Go ahead. Create the most preposterous list that you can imagine. The point of the third scenario is to explore many different paths – most of which you might not have thought of consciously till now. Remember it is never too late to learn. Ten hours a day for three years can get you to the magical 10,000 hours to master anything.

4.    Define Your Problem.

Use the first three steps to generate a template.

What makes me happy and how can I do more of it?

What makes me unhappy and how can I do less of it?

What do I want to do next?

What skills do I need to move in a different direction?

Honestly, how much room do I have to maneuver?

Now that I have examined my situation, how can I make it better?

How do I create the next version of myself?

What do I need to change the most?

How do I reinvent myself?

5.    Ideate.

Please understand the difference between navigating and wayfinding.

You can navigate when you know exactly where you want to go.

Life does not afford the simplicity.

We know we want to go somewhere, but we are not sure exactly where.

Wayfinding is the answer.

Wayfinding is the method hunters use to identify their target.

Look for clues. Come up with alternatives. Brainswarm. Doodle. Draw mental maps. Once you have what you think will make you happy, start prototyping and testing your ideas.

6.    Prototype and Test.

When it comes to life, a prototype is a quick and inexpensive way to determine whether a certain idea will make you happy or not.

As an example, let us say you want to run a marathon in three years.

Ask a runner what it takes to do a marathon.

Start running short distances.

Increase the distance gradually.

Do you feel energized?

If yes, continue.

Taken to its logical conclusion, one day you might indeed run a marathon.

Or at some point, you may realize that running itself is more beneficial than running a marathon.

You may find that running two miles every day makes you healthier and more full of energy.

Make these course corrections and iterations again and again.

Do you want to learn a language? There are many portals that allow you to learn languages for free. Try one for a week. Feel excited? Continue. Feel drained? Think of another language, or music, or an MOOC. Experiment.

Don’t be afraid of failing.

Failures are the stepping stones to success.

What are you waiting for?

Use Design Thinking to create a new future – and a new YOU.
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