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When Design Thinking Sessions Are Good, They Are Wicked Good

How a little bit of design thinking knowledge is a dangerous thing.

April 25, 2019
 
 

photo credit: Eugene Korsunskiy 

How many “design thinking” sessions have you participated in over the past few years?

How did they go?

This week, I had the opportunity to participate in a design thinking session run by professor Eugene Korsunskiy.  It was wicked good.  (Can you tell that I grew up in Boston?)

Nowadays, it seems as if every professional meeting that I attend contains sticky notes, whiteboards, and multi-colored pens.

Everyone wants to unconference, rapidly prototype, practice empathy, and ask “how might we?”.

Mostly, I’ve grown to hate these meetings. They almost never, in my experience, result in anything actually happening.  The design thinking exercises seem to be the ends, rather than the means to do something else. 

The fastest way to send me to the exits is to pull out a set of multi-colored sticky notes and a box of pipe cleaners. 

The design thinking session that Eugene facilitated, however, was really good. Excellent even. 

Professor Korsunskiy was able to surface a huge number of ideas, challenges, and possible solutions. 

The quality of the thinking and collaboration in the room was way beyond what I would have gotten by leading a seminar-type discussion.

The design thinking moves that professor Korsunskiy introduced and facilitated resulted in a group collaboration that was generative, productive, and energizing.

Why was this design thinking session so good, but so many others (that at least I’ve participated in) so bad?

Here is my hypothesis. Facilitating a productive design thinking meeting is a difficult skill.  It takes a long time to master, and the best people at the task are immersed in both the research and the communities of practice.

My guess is that design thinking methods seem deceptively easy to master, and therefore we have way too many people thinking that they can lead design thinking sessions.

In looking at professor Eugene Korsunskiy’s background, he has been honing his design thinking facilitation skills for years.  First at the d.school at Stanford, and then at UVM, Dartmouth - and as an active scholar, speaker, and consultant.  Eugene teaches, researches, and does design thinking for a living. 

What to make of all this?

First, if you want to have a meeting or a session or convening that includes some design thinking - then you should probably get in touch with Eugene.

If Eugene is busy, I’d say to be very careful about the person you choose to facilitate the design thinking session.

And if you think that you are different, that you are a good design thinking facilitator.  I’d say that you may want to think about how bad we all are at evaluating our own competencies and abilities. 

If you are not trained in design thinking in a formal sense, with lots of experience and connections to the professional community of practice, then maybe you should stop passing yourself off as a design thinking expert. 

There are too many bad design thinking sessions going on nowadays in higher ed, and I imagine everywhere else. 

This lack of consistency, standards, and maybe even certification risks giving the whole design thinking enterprise a bad name.

What has been your experiences, good and bad, participating in design thinking sessions?

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