Title

Against The Design Thinking Meeting

On the benefits of arguments over empathy.

January 18, 2017
 
 

I’m here to argue against the design thinking inspired meeting.

Who in their right mind could ever be against anything inspired by “design thinking”?

The people who speak the language of design thinking are the cool kids.  Not just the people with the awesome glasses and the black clothing.  These are the people who have those awesome jobs with “innovation” or “disruption” on their business cards.  

More and more of our higher ed (and edtech) meetings seem to be designed and facilitated along the core principles of design thinking.  

These design thinking inspired meetings emphasize doing over talking - which usually takes the form of rapid prototyping and fast iteration.  The participants identify the challenge to be solved, and a premium is placed on focused listening and empathy in surfacing the challenges that the group will address. 

The convenings are often tightly facilitated, with small team activities structured to bring the group to a place of creating solutions. 

Some time may be spent on presentations, but they are limited to early in the convening so as to provide a common language or context, with the majority of the time reserved for interactions and collaborative (often hands-on) work.

So what’s not to like? 

Who wants to sit through another meeting of bad PowerPoints?  Who isn’t tired of gatherings where nothing is accomplished but talking?  What is the point of getting lots of smart people in a room - only to have everyone (pretend to) pay attention to a few people at the front imparting their wisdom?

Here are the problems that I have with design thinking inspired meetings:

They Assume No Prior or Ongoing Work:

The great thing about participating in a design thinking inspired workshop is that you don’t have to come to the session having done any work.  Everything starts from the work created in the room.  (At least, that is my experience).  This approach lets the participants off the hook.  There is no need to spend hours preparing a talk or a paper to discuss, as the work happens within the session.

The problem with this approach is that much of our work is ongoing.  We don’t need to spend time defining our problems because we have already been working together.  We don’t need to develop empathy because we already know the people that we’re working with.  

What we mostly need to do is talk.  We don’t need to prototype or solve or present or report out.  We need to talk.  We need to plan.  We need to do all those things that don’t fit in well with a tightly facilitated methodology.  

Maybe we should abandon the idea that the "real" work happens in the meeting.  

Perhaps we should only meet when we have work that is ongoing, and when getting together pushes that work ahead.

The Benefits of Arguing:

The vibe of design thinking inspired meetings is relentlessly positive.  All ideas are welcome.  We are told to say “yes, and” - following the principles of improv.  

Truthfully, I think that I’d rather have a good argument.  I’d rather be told that my ideas are crap.  I’d rather get challenged on my thinking.  It would be great to hear ideas and arguments that totally rub me the wrong way - and I’d like to tell the presenter why this is so.  

The ideal meeting for me is really smart people sitting around a table - with everyone having a friendly argument. 

Meetings would start with a peer giving a presentation - or reading a paper - that everyone else would then try to tear to shreds. 

We’d argue and laugh - and not take ourselves too seriously. 

Then everyone would go to the bar.

How did we get this idea that all ideas are equally good?  That every perspective must be understood as valid?  

I have plenty of terrible ideas.  (This post might be one example).  The only way to have a few good ideas is to have lots and lots of bad ideas.  But how are we going to know if our ideas are bad if nobody tells us so?

Yes, yes, yes.  I’m overstating the case against the design thinking meeting.  I’m probably not even characterizing these sorts of designy (is designy a word?)  meetings correctly.  

Is it only me that has grown to hate the confluence of professional meetings and multi-colored sticky notes?

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