Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Connections and Design Thinking

James Burke - Observer of Design Thinkimg

Every now and then something which I haven't thought about for a long time comes bubbling up to the surface and fills in a gap in the fabric.  That happened last week when I was going thru my iTunes library and came across a recording of a talk which James Burke gave at BYU back in 2006. I recall having enjoyed it very much at the time and was disappointed that I wasn't able to find get a transcript of it.

The talk began with a quote from Mark Twain to the effect that in the real world, the right thing never happens at the right place and time. It is the job of journalists and historians to make it appear as tho it did.  Burke then went on to discuss the interconnections between seemingly unrelated events that led to remarkable outcomes, like how the sinking of the British Fleet in 1707 led to the invention of toilet paper.

Now, I've been aware of Burke and his work ever since I was a student of Product Design at Stanford, but for some reason the implications of his ideas really didn't hit me until yesterday. Specifically, I hadn't seen the bigger pattern in the context of innovation and Design Thinking.

Burke's stories always have a common thread; The way that seemingly unrelated things come together to create magnified outcomes; the 1 + 1 = 3 sort of things.  Burke's latest project, the Knowledge Web, is intended to create a method for students to explore that - retrospectively - using a relational database and a model of nested spheres which display the personal connections between the innovators.

I think this idea has another possible application in the context of Design Thinking.

Some of you may recall James Adam's book Conceptual Blockbusting and the idea of forced associations. It's basically a brainstorming enhancement technique to force relationships between concepts which otherwise might not naturally occur to you. (If you do a search on it there are enough hits that it probably went mainstream years ago.)

I had two thoughts in the context of all this.  The first was how similar many of the ideas which Burke was discussing were to the methods of Design Thinking and the second was how Burke's connection exploration engine might be leveraged from a retrospective tool to a predictive one.

(The third thought was DUH! why didn't I see this before, but we'll leave that one alone for now.)

If you haven't had the chance to listen to Burke's latest talk, you'll be able to view an illustrated version of it here - as soon as I finish it.  In the mean time, here is a link to the talk Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll on his blog.

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