The second instalment in Season 2’s exploration of the changemaker’s journey through the lens of Design Thinking, this episode tackles the problem space — and how we understand and engage with the dynamics at play in any problem. Using the Cynefin framework and the iconic “How Might We?” question of Design Thinking, Kevan and Veronica ask what it might accomplish to frame problems as questions, and see them as potential thresholds we can choose to cross into futures of innovation and growth.
The Way We Frame the Problem
Domain7’s Facilitation Practice Lead, Kevan brings wisdom from over a decade of experience leading award-winning digital strategies for a wide variety of institutions and businesses. A seasoned and engaging facilitator and speaker who has been with Domain7 since 2010, Kevan has helped shape our collaborative and people-centric culture. He’s studied design thinking and innovation processes at the THNK School of Creative Leadership.
Veronica is Domain7's Brand and Editorial Director, exploring themes around digital making and human flourishing. A creative leader with rich experience in brand and storytelling for tech, social purpose, and higher education, Veronica enjoys cultivating a deeper understanding of how contemporary technologies can aid and support healthy human connection and create new spaces for meaning to emerge.
Veronica: Welcome back to season two of Change is in the Making. In this season, we’re exploring the changemaker’s journey. Episode by episode, we’re looking at change leadership through the lens of design thinking. Today’s episode, we’ll look at how we frame problems.
Kevan: Problem framing is one of the most critical skills in design thinking, or you might even say in leadership, period, but it’s often skipped over or done poorly or seen as optional, which is weird. The word is problem, it means that something is wrong.
Veronica, you’re describing this as a threshold moment or a threshold opportunity. The moment when you first realize, oh, you have a problem, and it’s actually yours to step into leading.
Veronica: Yeah, when we were talking about that sort of realization, that moment where things change, there’s so much potential and opportunity in that moment, and it reminded me of an interview I heard with the Irish poet John O’Donohue, when talking to Krista Tippett. He was talking about more of the really serious moments in life when you realize something is different or wrong. Maybe a little bit more-
Veronica: Tragedy and intense than what we encounter, thank goodness, in our day-to-day at work, but I think there is a lot that we can extract from what he was saying, because he described these moments as thresholds. It’s a really interesting word that captures that feeling that I was hearing you describe. It was like a moment when you see that you’re stepping from one way of seeing the situation, one environment, almost, into another, and you have this opportunity to respond differently.
His words were, “For instance, you’re in the middle of your life in a busy evening,” these are his words, “50 things to do, and you get that phone call that someone you love is suddenly dying. It takes 10 seconds to communicate that information, but when you put the phone down, you’re already standing in a different world. Suddenly, everything that seemed so important before is all gone, and now you are thinking of this.”
“The given world that we think is there, and the solid ground we are on is so tentative, and a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and very often, how we cross is the key thing.” What I thought was most valuable about his words in terms of how we cross was the next line, and that was, “When we cross a new threshold worthily, what we do is heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere.” That idea of healing the patterns of repetition and being caught somewhere, but then suddenly, a problem space or a massive change of perspective blowing that open and giving us an opportunity to get unstuck. Obviously, that happens when you get those phone calls that kind of stop your heart, but there’s actually a lot of more minor thresholds that we encounter in everyday life, and I feel like quite often we almost have threshold blindness.
Kevan: Oh, wow.
Veronica: We blow right past them. But if we could recognize that feeling of, wait a second, I have just bumped up against something, I’ve encountered something that feels like a problem, instead of just rushing on. How do we cross that new threshold worthily, in O’Donohue’s words.
Kevan: Wow. That’s so beautiful. The thresholds that are around us that we might just breeze through, assuming that it’s better to just make progress or to move forward or to deny it. What opportunities are being missed, like those exact moments where everything changes is the chance for us to define our style, to choose our approach, to take a stance that might be different than the way we’ve acted before. It’s as you’re saying in quoting O’Donohue, it’s the chance to heal these patterns of repitition that we were in, and that doesn’t just have to be personal habit. It can be organizational norms. It can be ways that we’ve operated before that now need to change.
In this phone call metaphor, we can be looking for crises, real big lightning strike moments that can change us and tell us that we’re at a threshold. What if we’ve been already at these thresholds the whole time, like the slow boiling pot that we haven’t acknowledged that we’re in, but we’ve been in there the whole time. What gets to change now is our stance, based on a new accounting of our situation.
Veronica: Yeah, I think one of the interesting lines in what he’s saying is, “The given world that we think is there, and the solid ground that we are on is so tentative,” and I think in our day-to-day work, we quite often see things as quite concrete, especially if we’re in an organization where we’re repeating habitual patterns, right? We all have them, and organizations have them the same way that people have them.
Sometimes problems that arise are just so easily … we’re so quick to have knee-jerk reactions to them. We label them problems, we have ways that we just react to them, almost unthinkingly, but if we are able to hold the actual reality that we’re always able to do things differently, that there’s actually a lot of room for change in even our most daily work and routines. When we bump up against a problem, instead of that needing to just be an irritation, what if that is a portal, a window into the flexibility that we actually have, the uncertainty that just is part of life, and that uncertainty can actually be an opportunity, that problem can be an invitation into an opportunity space instead of something we reactively label and feel irritated about.
Kevan: That’s amazing, that’s amazing. I love your use of the word portal or window. I was expecting you to say opportunity, which you later did say, but this portal, this jumping ahead point, this shortcut, this otherworldly zip line to take you from a reality that you’re in, into a space you didn’t even think you could get to. It’s almost this surreal opportunity that can appear.
I used to think this was basically a platitude to say, any problem is an opportunity.
Veronica: Oh, I hadn’t even thought of that. When you say it that way, I’m like, oh, I’ve heard that.
Kevan: It’s almost obnoxiously too easy to say. And yet, my lived experience this past year has reinforced that that is absolutely true, and that in a moment where a crisis occurs, and you’re looking at a problem, choosing a different stance, that’s access to the portal.
Kevan: I used to think this was basically just a kitten poster of a cat hanging on a line, hang in there buddy, every problem’s an opportunity, but I realized that it really is a transformative leadership mindset, and that the tools that we talk about a lot in design thinking, they’re not theoretical, they’re not just for designers. This changes the game and how you can choose to engage communities in finding a new future together. I learned that by living through a really challenging 2018 in a leadership capacity. I said yes at the beginning of the year to being board share at the church that I’m part of.
At the beginning of last year, I said yes to this position, and my whole approach at the time was a bit hands in the air, like, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’m going to try. I know there’ll be lots to learn, I’ll read the policy manual. Then what happened two weeks into the job is the lead pastor ended up resigning. It had been brewing behind the scenes without me knowing for the past little while, and the moment came after the annual general meeting where this news reached me in that phone call that John O’Donohue mentioned, where in one moment, I’m in one world, and after the phone call, it’s a different world. I realized that this is not going to be leading a ship that is just going to continue to maintain course. This is a bit of a crisis moment where something needs to be different.
I didn’t have the luxury of relying on my vast experience in this role to know what to do, and the people around me hadn’t been expecting this either. So, what we needed to do was we needed to get together as a board and discuss the plan. We called that meeting, it was probably on a Saturday morning, and I wrote on the board, “This is an emergency meeting,” but I spelled the words differently. I wrote the word emerge and see. I was saying like, “Right now, where we are right now, we’ve received unexpected information, all of us are on edge, none of us know what to do. We have some expectations and some assumptions, but the first thing we need to do is pay attention and listen to what is trying to emerge here. This is an opportunity in front of us to do things differently and pay attention to what our community needs to become.”
I don’t know why or how I was able to say that, but it couldn’t have been a more valuable catch point to catch us all to say, don’t do the instinctive thing immediately. The instinctive immediate thing is go hire a new person. As we began to read some of the literature that exists about the space that we were finding ourselves in, there is this philosophy of transition leadership, which is to say like, get somebody temporarily, kind of on a contract basis, to work with you to find out the values and the vision that are nascent in this community already that you want to draw out, so that this leadership gap gives you the chance to ask questions about what’s next. You’re not just seeing it as a staffing gap, but you’re seeing it as this real important moment to delve deep into what guides you, you know?
We ended up doing that. We held this space. We are still, as a community, not yet in possession of a new lead pastor. Throughout this year has been a surprising, difficult, stressful, strenuous, impossible journey for everybody involved.
Veronica: You just have a short list.
Kevan: That’s the short list. It’s been a year of asking questions, of coming together, of really redefining the vision and the values.
Now we’re at a place where we do have a search team doing work actually today to look through the incoming application and to be making a choice in the next coming weeks for what’s next. It’s being done from a base of a shared sense of vision and values. It isn’t just what the leaders think. It’s actually built into what the community is all about because this space was held to engage them and to ask them.
That, for me, it was the most satisfying and gratifying living case study of these Design Thinking principles being used as a leadership mindset that can actually help in a transformative way. We have seen people come together and like really become leaders or co-creators here that there previously just wouldn’t have been a space for because everybody would be looking to centralized leadership to make those decisions for them. This gap has activated the community and created the space for their own involvement, which now is the defining characteristic.
Yeah, that’s an amazing story of how this can unfold. What is so remarkable to me about that anecdote is just at the beginning there when you had the… It’s such a dad joke, Kevan. I love that you’re so a dad. The emergency meetings.
Kevan: It’s such a dad joke.
Veronica: But, there’s a lot there,We’ve all been there in our careers where some news breaks, and, yeah, it’s that threshold moment where like yesterday you were doing work as normal and today it’s like, oh, things are turned on their heads.
We’re such meaning making creatures, right? We rush to create narratives. Quite often what can rush into that space is blame, or concrete plans, or strong opinions about what we should do. Lots of should’s, right?
But, to hold the space to see what emerges, and to take a year to ask questions, to walk through activities and exercises that are designed to help you come together and collaborate. What’s beautiful about that is whatever you build on top of that might not be perfect but will certainly have deeper roots and be more thorough, holistic, stronger, resilient, than just like sort of like potentially repeating broken patterns by rushing to knee-jerk reactions, right?
Veronica: But, that takes a lot of strength to be like, okay, we’re going to pause, we’re going to choose. We’re not going to rush to defaults here, to our default sort of behaviors. That takes a lot of strength as an individual and as a community of people too.
Kevan: Yeah. I appreciate you saying that. I would sort of shine it back to the listeners to say, it does take a different stance. It does take a different approach. Like, what’s it going to take for us to say, “yes” to that different approach. You know?
It doesn’t just have to be that we fluke into that approach in our community and it happens to work because of the style of community it was. It’s my growing sense that finding a way to take that stance in any community you lead will be utterly transformative for how leaders can attain these things we hear listed out as designers. Things like how do we be more consultative as leaders? How do we encourage grassroots innovation from around our organization? How do we become more, you know, pick your word, nimble or agile.
It’s going to take a radically different approach. It’s like you’re saying, again, from the O’Donahue quote, the healing of patterns, of repetition that we were in. Our organizations are stuck in so much repetition. If you have any desire of engaging your people… And, I’ve got to cut myself off here because I don’t mean to say this from like a berating, persuasive way. To say like, “You’re not doing it well enough” or anything like that. It’s just I want to call attention to the unsafe work ahead or truly engaging and listening.
Kevan: We’re going to get into that in the next episode.
Kevan: Something has to inspire and compel you to do this outlandish thing, which is actually paying close attention to the needs of the community, actually involving them in close Co-creation, so that something different emerges. If you want to go there then you better be utterly convinced that this problem you’re encountering is different and it’s worth engaging in a different way.
Veronica: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. It’s interesting because not every problem requires that response. Right?
Kevan: Yes, totally.
Veronica: There are tasks. There’s work. There are shared goals. Then there’s like these thresholds that require something a little bit different.
Kevan: Yes, totally.
There’s a framework that applies perfectly well right here. It’s called the Cynefin Framework, which is a Welsh word. It means habitat. It’s basically a way to make sense of these problem spaces we find ourselves in. It’s developed by Dave Snowdon in the 90s, I think, when he worked at IBM. He basically says there’s these four or five spaces. The first one is the obvious domain. It’s where… Do I even need to explain it?
Veronica: It’s obvious.
Kevan: You know what to do. The problem has a linear cause and effect. When you look at it, you know the solution. It’s very simple. It’s straightforward. It’s clear. It’s obvious.
Veronica: Mm-hmm (affirmative). This is the area where you would use best practice.
Veronica: Which is a phrase that is used in probably more environments than just the obvious one. But, it’s the right way to go about the obvious.
Kevan: Yeah. It’s hard to draw this one out much further because it’s so obvious.
Veronica: There we go.
Kevan: The next domain is the domain of the complicated. This is where you kind of need an expert who has been there before to solve the problem. Not using best practice, which is like mainstream, but good practice that only a smaller amount of people are actually familiar with.
The example that I was using earlier was this sense of like, okay, if you’re in your individual apartment and your tap breaks, literally the handle fell off. That’s an obvious problem. Put the handle back on. But, if simultaneously three units start springing a leak, you might want to call in the experts who have worked in buildings like this with plumbing like this. That’s a complicated problem. It’s not unsolvable. It’s just that you need somebody who knows what to do.
Veronica: Yeah. You need somebody who can analyze the situation.
Kevan: Yeah, precisely, and bring a specific set of tools to the job.
Veronica: Absolutely. Yep.
Kevan: But, things sometimes move into a new category, and that’s complex. Complex is when you have more forces acting on you than you can actually keep track of, and when there are things taking place that are a little bit outside of your influence or control.
The analogy I would use is that you turn on your tap and, no, it doesn’t break, and, no, it doesn’t spring a leak, but the water is running brown. It’s running brown because there have been climate related issues which have influenced the quality of the water at the reservoir, as well the city that manages the actual water supply has run into bureaucratic and cultural snags that have diminished their ability to spend the money and the time on purifying the water. You’ve got this whole, massive issue related to, well, the thing you’re seeing, which is brown water.
That’s the complex situation. It’s taking into account environmental factors, cultural factors, technical factors, and human factors of you.
Veronica: Right, yeah.
Kevan: That’s going to take something different then a linear A to B problem solving approach.
Kevan: What you’d need there is this word that we’ve come up with already, which is emergent. Emergent practice. You might not actually know yet what to do, but you’re going to have to step into it and see what’s available to you to get into that and try to see the entire system reality around you so that you can creatively involve the forces at hand that can approach this is in a unified way. It’s right about there that a new tool set is needed. Right?
Kevan: It can go further. What’s the last domain? It’s chaotic. It’s where everything has gone wrong. The example, you turn on that water tap, nothing comes out, the reason being because the water lines are cut because there’s a literal hurricane outside of your apartment.
This is a class five emergency. Everything has come undone. Nothing makes sense. What you need is to simply act, take shelter, find out what to do afterwards. You need a new way of approaching things. No amount of like creativity or expertise is going to apply here. You just need to get into the problem and to get out of the problem.
Kevan: So, obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic, and in the middle, pure disorder. Those are the five domains identified in the Cynefin Framework.
Veronica: 26:18 It sounds like complex is where we spent a lot of time over the past year or so, Kevan, in terms what we talk about on the show and in our content. Trying to address, we use the word VUCA that we are in a VUCA era. By VUCA we mean, V for volatile, U for uncertain, C is complex, is that correct?
Kevan: That’s right. Yup.
Veronica: What is A?
Kevan: It’s ambiguous.
Veronica: Ambiguous. There you go.
Kevan: Yeah. So, if something is VUCA, a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, you know you’re going to need a different way of approaching it than simply pulling out a best practice toolkit. Right?
Veronica: That speaks to the emergence of tools and toolkits like Design Thinking, and the popularity of finding more creative ways to address complex challenges, but also to lean into innovation in a complex time effectively.
Kevan: Yes, yes. This is where, I don’t know if I’ll be able to express this well. You know, when you get a phone call saying somebody has resigned who is in a key position, it’s a visible crisis of complexity that you’re going to need a different way of handling. That’s easy. You were saying it took strength. Well, really, thank you, but it also just took like idiocy. I didn’t know what to do, so I needed to ask questions.
Veronica: You were kind of slapped with the problem across the face. It was like, “Okay, what do we do?”
Kevan: Yeah. Exactly. The problems are right in front of you. But, as we were saying, like what if you’re already in an environment that has all the ingredients of complexity and the toolkits available to solve it, but it’s just that we haven’t noticed. We haven’t called it a crisis because nobody picked up the phone and called us and said, “Hello. Your environment is now VUCA.”
Veronica: Yeah. That’s were the more subtle sort of decline of business as usual has crept into the conversation in the business world. Saying like the old ways aren’t cutting it anymore. There’s a sense that there’s a threshold here, but sometimes it’s not as obvious as like a groundbreaking event.
Kevan: Yes. Exactly.
Veronica: A shift is needed.
Kevan: Yeah, which is why the skill of framing a problem well matters so much and is worth spending a little bit of time on. It’s a chance to say, “What are we facing here and how will we respond to it?”
Veronica: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Just being able to put words to what are we facing here kind of erases the mistake of making assumptions. Right?
Kevan: Yeah, of course.
Veronica: That the reality we see today is the reality that we’ve seen before and we can respond in the same way.
Kevan: Yes. Precisely. That’s extremely challenging in a leadership environment where you can feel the expectations of others, you can feel the accountability, and you want to prove that you know what to do.
Veronica: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kevan: You might pull on habits or customs or traditions that are established so that you can move more efficiently through that and relieve some of that pressure.
Veronica: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kevan: And, what if something different is needed? What if we are at a threshold moment where you need to break these patterns of repetition? Then what?
Veronica: Yeah. Kevan, you have a great story that illustrates this, I think, from your time at the THINK School of Creative Leadership.
Kevan: Yeah.The THINK School of Creative Leadership, which started in Amsterdam, runs a creative leadership program where leaders from around the world can come participate in what is basically a Design Thinking course, but re-casts with more of an innovation lens.
In one of the early classes in Amsterdam, we had somebody from the Island Nation of Mauritius who was responsible for economic development there. The problem they were looking at was basically, “What are we supposed to do with our economy? How am I supposed to develop this? We’re a tiny nation in the middle of nowhere. People come to us for tourism, but that’s it. There’s not a lot of sustainable stuff going on here that could actually help us thrive.”
He approached this problem a little bit more openly to look at the factors that they actually had. What he saw was that rather than seeing themselves as simply stranded in the middle of the ocean, he began to describe them as the world’s largest ocean state. The most abundant resource they have, more than anybody on earth, is more ocean.
Veronica: Hands down.
Kevan: Mauritius has the most ocean. With that, he turned that into something he could harness, literally. He began to propose modes of using title energy and doing ocean research and harnessing salt purification processes to create jobs but also be turning these into exports. Using title energy to power the actual country.
To this day, you can have a quick Google for Mauritius’s energy projects, and see that a lot of this stuff is afoot. They can be traced back to a leader with a portfolio seeing a problem and saying, “This isn’t working. The same patterns we’ve been employing have not solved this problem. How can I look at it differently?” and began to see that use of resources would change the way he leads.
Veronica: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. I love that story because it’s such a good example of how valuable reframing actually is. At the beginning when he hits on, we have a lot of ocean, it is a little funny. It’s like, “Well, yeah, you do.” But then as you like lean into that even further, it’s like “and that was transformative. Wow. That’s beautiful.” Looking at the problem from a completely different angle can turn the problem into actually the thing that helps you pivot into a whole new future.
Kevan: Yeah. What he was doing there was something that design thinkers and leaders who use Design Thinking encourage us to do, which is to begin to frame it as a question instead of a problem. Now he’s asking, “How might we harness Mauritius’s abundant ocean energy to boost our economy?” as opposed to, “Mauritius has nothing going for it. I need to stimulate the economy.”
Veronica: And stop. Yeah, yeah. I think that is such a … There’s a bit of relief to that idea of, in a moment of problem, letting go of stating things as a problem, and instead asking a question. The act of asking a question is an act of possibility in and of itself.
Kevan: I love that. Yes. Can you say that again, because that’s so beautiful. The act of asking a question …
Veronica: … is an act of possibility.
Kevan: Yeah. It opens it up. It really counters that cultural thing some of us have absorbed where a leader might quote something like, “Don’t come to me with problems. Come to me with solutions.”
Veronica: Yeah, yeah.
Kevan: No. Come to me with questions, because a question we can solve together, or we can explore together. We can involve more people. We can be creative here. A solution, but not a problem, assumes you’ve already figured it all out, and now what?
Kevan: It, again, misses that opportunity. Don’t come to me with solutions or problems. Come to me with questions.
Veronica: Yeah. There’s times when the answer is obvious, but I feel like we’ve all experienced that moment of I feel the pressure to have an answer, and so I’ve jumped to one, and I have a sense of something being unfinished or not as thoughtful as it could be, but I just need to run with it, because that’s what’s expected. Those are the moments, I think, when you feel that dissonance, those are the moments to maybe a step back and ask a question.
Kevan: 33:45 Yeah. That’s interesting. Totally. Yeah. It might have been appropriate to have had something come to you, and to go ahead and implement it. Again, if you’re in the domain of the obvious, or in the complicated and you’re the expert, but the advantage that you can gain by spotting that opportunity to ask a question and involve more people when you’re working with something in the space of the complex, that’s where that whole space becomes beautiful.
Because then you start to create something that’s real, right? You start to create something that’s actually relevant to the situation. You’re not just posturing as, “I need to have the answers, so here’s an answer.” You’re digging in. That’s the actual work.
Veronica: love this quote by Andre Gide, a French author, “ Pay no attention to appearing. Being is alone important.” Sometimes I think of that in the work world, where we can get sidetracked by appearing to have it all under control, or appearing to make headway, but sometimes you have to really pause and ask yourself, “Am I rushing to just do, or is this a moment where the actual work is a little bit under the surface, and I need to sink into doing the work?” That means reframing the problem and creating space to really investigate it.
Kevan: That’s really interesting. The humility to say, “I may be able to act, and I may appear quite important and authoritative and in charge and appreciated if I do act, but if instead, as my action, I ask questions, instead as my action, I involve others.”
Kevan: I will lose a bit of that status. People will be frustrated that it’s not moving more quickly. I know that firsthand. What is gained is the sense of appreciation in the long term for creating the space for people to be heard, and for a new unexpected transformative change to come through.
Veronica: Yeah. For authentic work, and for finding actual solutions that aren’t just the easy ones, not the easy answers.
Kevan: Yes, yes, absolutely. The tool that’s often used in design thinking for this is the, “How might we,” question. As we’re talking about this, it’s not like you just pull out those three letter acronym of HMW and begin going. Before you phrase a, “How might we,” question at all, you need to have a community that’s ready for it, actually thirsty for it; a problem that’s worth solving in that complex space; and the sense of understanding this is our threshold moment.
This is our time to design something differently, to lead in a different way. We’re going to go for it. The way we’re going to do it is by framing a, “How might we,” question. It might not even be officially written out, or printed on a brief and plastered on the wall, but at least this sense, the shared sense of a question we are carrying around together. How might we approach this differently?
Veronica: What I love about a, “How might we,” question is it gives us a tool. A threshold space can be a space of a lot of complexity. It can be disorienting. It can feel a little bit like a void. Where I think design thinking is so useful in those moments is here’s a tool that you can use to frame the space. “How might we,” has just proven over and over again … It’s not a silver bullet. There are other considerations that are really important to bring to bear as well.
Kevan: For sure.
Veronica: It’s not the whole story, but it’s a good beginning. It’s a good first three steps. How might we?
Kevan: Yeah, for sure. I love how you’ve brought that up. The components themselves in it, they have a lot going for them. There’s the we part, which means it’s not just you as the responsibility holding leader to appear decisive. You’re saying there’s more of us here, so you’re harnessing the collective energy. That’s so powerful.
The second is, this might, the word might. The sense, as you said of possibility here. It connects with this quote that Seth Godin shared recently on his blog called Might Makes Right. In this sense, might as in, “This might work,” or, “The might of making a generous assertion, one you can’t be sure of. Might, might, might,” he says, “It adds up.”
Veronica: That’s so good. We’re big on the word play today, emergency, might makes right. You and Godin.
Kevan: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Veronica: No, but it’s so true, and it flips that paradigm of might makes right, “because I said so,” the dreaded phrase from childhood, to possibility.
Kevan: Yeah, yeah. That sets a possibility. It’s hard to capture just how important that is.
Kevan: The, “How might we,” question is best phrased with a sense of a community in mind, whose needs you’re trying to serve, and this future state that you’re envisioning together of becoming, of getting to. If needed, another ingredient in a good, “How might we,” question is some ingredient that you know you need to use to get there, a constraint of sorts, or a set of materials, so to speak, or even just something that you’re stewarding. You can’t ask a question, you can’t lead from the design thinking toolkit unless there’s some actual thing you have influence over, and a community you’re part of.
Kevan: 38:50 You ask, “How might we help,” name of community, “become more,” say that future state, “by using this ingredient.” This is the thing, whether it’s a building or program or something that can’t change. It just helps put a little bit of a realistic limiter on what otherwise is a very box opening methodology. Design thinking is going to go crazy places, so if you just realistically limit it with those parameters, what you’ve done then is create a healthy container for your explorations that you’re going to have next.
Veronica: Yeah, it’s like bringing your resources onto the table to say, “These are the things we have. This is where we are and what we have. What could we do with it?”
Kevan: Yes, totally.
Kevan: Totally. What I’ve loved too is there’s a bit of those aspects that you can also round out your, “How might we,” question with, which is, “Why would we,” and, “What’s stopping us?”
Kevan: These come from a little bit of the origin of this design thinking methodology. They’re sometimes forgotten when we’re doing, “How might we,” but yeah this question of, “Why would we,” from an ethical standpoint, is there anything that we need to be more conscious of that we could accidentally influence here, and, “What’s stopping us,” a legitimate accounting for of barriers and problems, and also this question of, “Is there any reason why this can’t move forward right now that we need to pay a little bit more attention to?”
Veronica: Yeah. That takes it out of a pie in the sky activity, to something that is clear sighted and realistic, and accounts for real challenges. Then people feel heard. If it’s like, “Well, there have been things that have stopped us in the past” … I’ve heard designers say before, “Every bad design had good reasons behind it.” It injects a little bit of humility into what’s the landscape that we’re actually working within right now?
It’s a thing our colleague Stanley Lai has been unfolding in his ethics research. In his development of ethical methodologies and frameworks for designers is, we have to take into account the ecosystems that we work within, the environments that we work within, things that have been tried before, cultural sensitivities, ripple effects and future states.
Sometimes in the design world and in the innovation world, we can get a little cocky and forget that things will not always go according to plan. Not all futures are ideal sunny futures. You have to consider futures that might be dysfunctional or dangerous or dark. There are safeguards that you can put around this to really make this methodology roll up its sleeves and work in the real world.
That’s so well said. I love those list of factors you brought up from Stan. The sense of what else is in the system around you? What else is possible that might emerge that we need to be cautious of? You just match that with those questions of what problem space am I in? Is this truly complex? Are there people involved here that either need to be worked alongside of or whose needs need to be represented?
It all brings us to this question of is this your threshold moment? Is it time to frame your problems differently, and say yes to a different mode of engagement and listening to creatively seek an unconventional approach here. If that’s true, then it’s your time. You can frame your problem in a way that lets us use the design thinking framework as a leadership lunch, and go and make meaningful change.
Veronica: Yeah. I just want to close with a quote from one of my favorite people, Krista Tippett. She’s an interviewer, so she deals with questions. She’s a journalist. I think the power of a good question is what a lot of this turns on.
Veronica: She says, “Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise or fall to meet. It’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question, but it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation.”
I think that’s why the, “How might we,” question, through all of the criticism that it has endured, and it has, because it was very trendy for a while, it still persists. It’s so timeless, because it’s a generous question. It’s a question that invites honesty, dignity and revelation in our work life together. It really helps us. It’s a tool that can help us create and hold the space for really meaningful, relevant, groundbreaking work, and work that invites us to be ourselves and in the workplace as well.
That brings us to the end of our episode today. If you want to explore more about how to ask generous questions and how to frame the problem, our podcast page has the listing of helpful resources. You’ll find it at domain7.com/podcast, where you can also explore Domain7’s cultural and digital services, sign up for our newsletter and follow us on social. That’s domain7.com/podcast.
Kevan: If you have ideas or feedback for this podcast, please get in touch with us. We really love it when we hear from our listeners. It’s super meaningful. You can send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Veronica is email@example.com. You can also find us on Twitter. Our handle is @Domain7. This episode was created by myself and Veronica,This episode’s producer is Kurt Wilkinson.
Veronica: Our team lead, Sarah Butterworth, helps create the space for thoughtful works, such as this podcast, and the Domain7 culture as a whole provides incredible support. Domain7 is a global agency working to transform systems and culture through people-centric methods. You can learn more about us domain7.com.
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