Monday, December 21, 2015

Balancing Brains and Teams

Tony Buzan's classic Use Both Sides of Your Brain has gone thru three editions since 1976 and is still considered by many to be foundational in the area of brain science. His step-by-step exercises for discovering the powers of the right and left sides of the brain and learning to use them more effectively have been a source of inspiration and insight for millions.

Two recent articles, one in FastCompany; 4 Tips to Master Thinking with Both Side of Your Brain and Boot Creativity and the other from the National Institutes of Heath; The Neural Basis of Optimism and Pessimism, offer further insights on the inner workings and wiring of the brain and the interplay between Cognitive Bias and Creativity.

FastCo; "The right side of the brain remembers the big picture, the left side of the brain recalls the details. Complex cognitive functions require the brain regions to work in integrated fashion, shifting between divergent and convergent thinking to combine new information with old and even forgotten knowledge... the more easily you shift between both sides, the more complex a creative a thinker you can be."

NIH; "Like all other human experiences, the basic mental attitudes of optimism and pessimism are closely interlinked with distinct physiological processes. Pessimistic views are generally mediated by the right-hemisphere (RH), whereas optimistic attitudes are mediated primarily by the left-hemisphere (LH)."
If the right side of the brain remembers the big picture and is more pessimistic and the left side recalls the details and is more optimistic, what does this tell us about how to creatively problem solve?

It appears that when we're in the details we're more optimistic and when we're looking at the future we're more pessimistic. What is the difference? The perceived degree of ambiguity. This also offers some insights in to why "analysts" may be more risk averse and pessimistic and "synthesists" more optimistic and tolerant of ambiguity.

Awareness of this element is critical when using or facilitating Design Thinking's problem solving process. If the composition of the team makes it highly risk averse (analytical and intolerant of ambiguity) or short term focused (impatient) it will be difficult for the them to generate ideas that are very different and diverse. At the same time, if the team is heavily loaded with out-of-the-box thinkers it could be a challenge to converge on a viable solution.

This isn't to say that all you want on the team are Dreamstormers. In order to narrow down to an executable solution which is also viable, deep critical consideration of weaknesses and potential failure points has to occur somewhere in the design process. That should happen after the dreamstorming is over and the ideas have been captured and organized, but it has to happen if you are going to achieve any useful success.

This idea is reminiscent of Disney's Three Rooms and the associated roles of Dreamer, Realist and Critic. Leave any one of them out of the process and there is a much greater chance of having missed something important to the success of the project.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Radical Collaboartion - How Lunch Saved EPCOT

The biggest challenge getting EPCOT ready for opening day wasn’t technological, WED does technology with the best of them. The VP of Engineering, John Zovich, called the problem "the invisible stuff" or "the voodoo," and the Engineering division of WED wouldn't get anywhere until the problem was sorted out.

Soon after he starting at Disney Art Frohwerk discovered that engineering was the most misunderstood and disliked group in the entire organization. At the heart of this was a lot of finger pointing. The Creative group complained that Engineering hadn't listened to what was at the heart of the story. Engineering would counter that the creative concept was impractical. At the same time, Purchasing was begging to get orders for materials like circuit boards, which had a painfully long lead-times and were difficult to obtain, while Engineering was struggling to work out the details of the design.

Frohwerk knew that something needed to change and decided it needed to begin with Engineering. He gathered the entire team together to go over the new rules; Rule number one was no more finger pointing. Art explained what that looked like and emphasized that if any more finger pointing occurred the perpetrators would visit with him personally, in his office. The second visit would include a set of empty cardboard boxes. The success of EPCOT was too critical for the teams to not get along with each other.

Having drawn the line in the sand, Art added a carrot to the end of the stick. Engineering Management would pay its Imagineers to have lunch with their peers from the other divisions — storytellers, show designers, manufacturing, purchasing, planning, etc.

He set aside about $5,000, and initially the plan worked. People started turning in lunch receipts. Then, after a couple of months, it stopped. Art wasn't sure what was happening. He asked the leadership team why he wasn't seeing any more receipts. At first no one said anything. Finally, an Imagineer spoke up and said: "Art, we wouldn't charge the company to take our friends out to lunch."

Art succeeded in busting down the silos and in establishing working relationships throughout the organization. Some six months later, everyone was invited to a meeting with Ron Miller and other Disney executives, to celebrate the progress and turn-around that Engineering had made, not only in organizing themselves for building EPCOT, but in their becoming better team players.

Everyone received a shirt with a graphic that stated "I love 510" with Mickey peering over the top. 510 referred to the name of their department. It was a celebration that the department Walt Disney Productions hated to deal with the most was now the department most loved by others. Department 510 had learned to collaborate, explain itself, and facilitate whatever it took to pull off the mission.

Soon after, Department 510 had its own visioning session to reflect on what it had now started to accomplish. Their internal motto became to: "Pick up where dreams left off."

We all have opportunities to "pick up where dreams left off," Its accomplished by effectively working with those around us - and a key element of Design Thinking.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Bob Gurr on Imagineering Part III

This last edit of the July 2015 Bob Gurr talk at Google gets into some very interesting material about Bob's departure from Disney and his take on the future of Themed Amusement. It's vintage Gurr, calling it like he sees it.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

In the Details at Jock's

Jock Lindsey's Hanger Bar
One of the hallmarks of Walt Disney Imagineering is their attention to detail. In a recent posting Stephanie Pashowsky takes us on a delicious visual tour of the new Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar at Disney Springs. I love aviation and old radios, so some of her images are more than just eye candy for me.

Jock's Radios
The Indiana Jones saga covers a lot of ground chronologically; Temple of Doom was set in 1935, Raiders of the Lost Ark was set in 1936, and Last Crusade was circa 1938. Crystal Skull was two decades later in 1957, so I was curious about how well the Imagineers did at getting the radio gear right.

Stephanie's image (above) shows three pieces of equipment if you include the microphone. The radio on the top is a Hallicrafters SX-99, a four band single conversion general coverage HF receiver which was in production in 1957 - so they are spot on with the a Crystal Skull radio selection.

Hallicrafters SX-99 (1957)
The radio on the bottom is a Hallicrafters, S-20R although the grill and the knob below it are different. The microphone is also plugged into the headphone jack. BTW - this radio made another appearance in Some Like it Hot, the 1959 comedy film starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Joe E. Brown, when Osgood Fielding III makes a ship-to-shore telephone call to the hotel, with his feet propped up on a S-20R. This radio is *close* to the date for Last Crusade, but the S-16, S-20, S-21 S-22, SX-16, SX-17, or SX-18 would have been spot on.

Hallicrafters S-20R (1939)

The S-20R Sky Champion was made from 1939-1945 and sold for $49.50. It was the first in a long line of receivers, running from the S-40 (1946-1955), to the S-85 (1955-1959), and finally the S-108 (1959-1961). It covered frequencies from 540 Khz to 44 Mhz and had bandspread tuning, Automatic Volume Control, Automatic Noise Limiting, a Beat Frequency Oscillator, three-position tone control and a headphone jack!

The microphone appears to be an Astatic D-104. The earliest were made about 1933 and continued in production with little change until the 1960s.

In 1935, the era of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Hallicrafters offered the S-7 and SX-9, but neither of them are particularly photogenic.

The next year, 1936, Raiders of the Lost Ark, featured the S-9, S-10, S-14, SX-10, SX-11 and SX-12.

If you were looking for the iconic radios of the era, you'd would have to include SX-17 and the SX-28.

Hallicrafters SX-17 (1938)

If I had to pick one radio that represents the peak of the Hallicrafter's World War II era offerings it would have to the be SX-28.  Introduced in 1940, this radio has enough knobs, switches and dials to keep any one busy for days. This radio almost defines the term "boatanchor" which is the nickname many vacuum tube radio fans use to describe equipment from this era.

 Hallicrafters SX-28 (1940)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

What Design Thinking Really Is

Over the past few years I've participated in a number of online forums devoted to the subject of Design Thinking. I have a personal interest in the subject because 40 years ago I was present when the seeds of the were planted at Stanford.  I subsequently graduated from it's forerunner; the Product Design Program, and went on to successfully apply what I'd been taught there in both my personal and professional life.

Having that background in Design Thinking may help explain my amusement, amazement and occasional irritation, when someone levels a critical eye at DT and declares it a fraud. I probably should be more understanding of the critics and in fact I want to be and have spent countless hours asking myself why anyone would take issue with something which has so much potential for good.

A thought occurred to me about this recently which may bear some fruit. It has to do with something that will be familiar to teachers called Bloom's Taxonomy.

The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives came out of a series of conferences which were held between 1949 and 1953, which were designed to improve communication between educators on the design of curricula and examinations. Bloom's Taxonomy is a framework teachers use to evaluate how well a student understands a subject.

Although there are several ways to represent it, I like the pyramid-cake model because its structure closely follows the phases of Design Thinking and the behaviors associated the the highest level, which is called Create, are "combining parts to make a new whole."

All the phases in the Design Thinking process are here; The fact collecting of the Deep Dive, Empathic Inquiry leading to Understanding, Application of the ideas in Rapid Prototyping, Analyzing and Evaluating the results and the most creative step; combining things into a new whole to tell the story or solve the problem.  Another aspect of Blooms Taxonomy is its consideration for emotional content and the student's ability to appreciate other living things' pain or joy.

In today's STEM classrooms this is being taught as Problem Based Learning. My wife is teaching it to 4th graders.

Placed into the context of education, Design Thinking is a group of methods to learn what is needed to solve almost any type of problem as rapidly and efficiently as possible. At the highest level the result are creative solutions for highly complex, ambiguous, even life threatening situations.

Even our understanding of DT can be viewed in the context of Blooms Taxonomy. Novices are at the stage of gathering and recognizing facts about DT. Some have actual experience applying it to real world problems. Others are evaluating and judging its application and results. A handful are even pushing the practice to develop fuller more effective methods.

Underneath it all, Design Thinking is about learning what we need to know in order to solve life's most challenging problems. Call it what you want, as long as you "Just Do It."

Friday, December 11, 2015

Bob Gurr on Imagineering - Part II

Here is Part II of Bob Gurr at Google, talking about "Free Thinking" and "No-Process" in the context of his time with WED Imagineering.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Bob Gurr on Imagineering

On July 30, 2015 Imagineering Legend Bob Gurr visited Google's Headquarters in Mountain View California, sharing his reflections and experiences as an Imagineer.

The full presentation lasted an hour with the last half devoted to questions from the Google employees. Bob covered a lot of ground, but his comments about Walt and the way Imagineering was done "back in the day" were very interesting. (I've edited the first part down to 6 minutes.)

My key takeaways were that when you are doing something that's never been done before, trying to apply an existing process doesn't have a high probability of success.

Although Bob initially says "we don't use processes", he follows up with; "we just do it."
While he doesn't provide a short list of what that means, he describes "just do it" in his stories.

When you put all the pieces together; non-judgmental brainstorming ("French cats bouncing off the walls"), daily, tight communication (Empathic Inquiry), prototyping (build-it), Bob's non-process fits the Express-Test-Cycle basics of Design Thinking / expert class problem solving model perfectly.

Friday, December 4, 2015

First Principles of Design Thinking

Gordian Brain Knot
Two years ago posted a video on YouTube of Elon Musk explaining the First Principles Method of problem solving, which he characterized as a "boiling things down to the most fundamental truths." That got me thinking about what the fundamental truths of Design Thinking might be.  There are a handful of core characteristics;
  • Start with Empathy
  • Embrace Ambiguity
  • Novice Mindset
  • Radical Collaboration
What does “empathy” mean exactly, and how is it different from sympathy or other emotional experiences?  Frans de Waal and Stephanie Preston compiled a list for their 2002 article, “Empathy: Its Ultimate and Proximate Bases,” which appeared in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.  From Design Thinking's interest in determining of Point of View it appears DT considers both emotional and cognitive empathy.
  • Empathy: The subject has a similar emotional state to the object as a result of perceiving the object’s situation. Empathy preserves the distinction between self and other. The subject’s emotional state is partially focused on the other, often resulting in kind or helping behavior.
  • Cognitive empathy: Apart from being emotionally affected, the subject cognitively understands the object’s predicament and situation. This implies perspective-taking and attribution.
Although there are many creative skill building techniques, until recently there hasn't been much addressing the development of empathy or tolerance for ambiguity, both of which are important because if you lack either, your creative teams' abilities are probably compromised. There are some simple tests which can be used to gauge capabilities in these areas.

Empathy Quotient Test - developed by Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge.

Roman Krznari says we can cultivate empathy and use it as a radical force for social transformation.
Here are his Six Habits of Highly Empathic People;
  1. Cultivate curiosity about strangers
  2. Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
  3. Try another person’s life
  4. Listen hard—and open up
  5. Inspire mass action and social change
  6. Develop an ambitious imagination
Tolerance for Ambiguity - from a study at the University of California, Berkeley

With regard to ambiguity there is a deeply neurobiological component having to do with the structure and function of the brain.

Your brain has three parts which respond to various stimuli differently in the creation of thoughts, feelings and reflexes. What is interesting is the way stimuli are filtered as they travel from the spinal cord to the cerebral cortex, passing thru the emotional brain. In particular, the Amygdala is the integrative center for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation and works with the the deep layers of superior colliculus (DLSC), to elicit defensive behaviors. These defensive behaviors can be helpful when analyzing and critiquing ideas, but can be show stoppers in brainstorming sessions.

For that reason, when building a team, it would be a good idea to have a balance of skills.
This is reminiscent of Disney's Three Rooms process.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Turning Anxiety into Magic

Are we feeling anxious yet?

The Walt Disney Corporation website has this to say about Imagineering's role in the company;

From castles, mountains and mansions to fireworks spectaculars, Imagineers are the creative force behind the iconic Disney attractions and experiences that our guests have come to know and love.

We combine our rich storytelling legacy with the latest technology to breathe life into beloved Disney stories and characters in our theme parks, resorts, cruise ships and other Walt Disney Parks and Resorts experiences around the world.

With one foot in the present and another in the future, Imagineers continue to push the boundaries of creativity, innovation and possibility as we create new experiences and new forms of entertainment for our guests of today, tomorrow and beyond.

That is a really compelling vision statement. Let's consider its implications;

Imagineers use the latest technology on theme parks, resorts, cruise ships. In order to do that they need to be architects and engineers who know how to work well with artists. Better yet, they should be artistic engineers themselves. That means they can use both the rational and emotional parts of their brains.

The other thing to remember is that there are (at least) two types of innovation; one is incremental the other is visionary. Over the years Disney has done both. The muti-plane camera, xerography and synchronized and multi channel sound were breakthru (aka "visionary" ) technologies. Disney hits it out of the park when they are visionary and it takes a certain type of personality to do that. Here's one example;

The WRAP's Gina Hall recently interviewed Andy Hendrickson and Hank Driskill on using the Hyperion rendering technology on Big Hero 6;

Hank Driskill: Some people were really excited by the promise. Some people were really anxious about something new and different because it was going to be painful.  (Notice the fear and pain. -df)

That anxiety was all the way up and down from the artists on the floor all the way up to the executives. There was anxiety about what this was going to be capable of, whether it would deliver on time, were we making a horrible choice that was going to impact the ability to deliver the movie. There was a big leap of faith on a whole lot of people’s parts to be okay with us trying to pull this off. It was a little bit crazy.

Andy Hendrickson: There was a lot of adrenaline associated with that. Basically we got to the point and some of the test images that we had created, we just looked at them. We were so enamored with what we saw in the visuals that we were creating, we said “OMG - we have to do this."

Consider the adjectives Andy and Hank use; adrenaline, anxiety, crazy, fear, horrible, pain. Then they use two very interesting phrases; "big leap of faith" and “OMG - we have to do this."

How does this happen?  How do you get from "horrible... crazy... painful... fear" to; 

"OMG we have to do this!"

Monday, November 16, 2015

Design Thinking as... CRM

On page 185 of Amy Fraher's book "Thinking Through Crisis" is an illustration of what she calls the Sense Making Cycle.

Fraher's Sense Making Cycle

Again, there are some striking similarities between this and the activities of Design Thinking;

The Five Phases (Design Gym)

There is a lot of digital ink being spilled around the question of what Design Thinking is, but at some point it's probably time to admit that "a rose by any other name smells as sweet."

What everyone who is seriously interested in the subject seems to be realizing is that Creative Problem Solving (CPS?) is a repeatable process with interchangeable parts and there are plenty of examples of how it works, across a wide range of situations, from in-flight emergencies to neonatal care to personal finance.

Problem Solving; I love it.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

More Dancing with Ambiguity

Ten years ago, Colin Camerer, an economist at the California Institute of Technology said;

"...ambiguity is the feeling of discomfort you get from knowing there is something you don't know and wish you did."

In one study, subjects were given the choice between betting money on the chances of drawing a red card from a "risky" deck which had 20 red and 20 black cards, (an even chance of winning) and making the same bet with an "ambiguous" deck where the color composition of the cards was unknown. In most cases, the subjects chose to make the risky bet. Logically, both bets would have been equally good because in both cases, the chance of pulling a red card on the first draw was the same as drawing a black card.

Brain scans revealed that ambiguous wagers were often accompanied by activation of the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex, two areas of the brain which are involved in the processing of emotion. In particular, activity in the amygdala has been found to be closely associated with fear.

According to Cramer, a correlation between aversion to ambiguous decisions and activation of emotional parts of the brain makes sense from an evolutionary point of view;  "Freezing in the face of danger is an old, emotional response which probably was evolutionarily adaptive in our ancestral past."

In the modern human brain, this translates into a reluctance to bet for or against an event if information is lacking.  This is easily seen in the way scientists and engineers initially approach problems; research. In Design Thinking this is called the Deep Dive.

Another  key concept of Design Thinking is tolerance of ambiguity, overcoming fear and approaching problems like a curious novice. Acceptance and mastery of this idea can be a challenge for some people.

Ambiguity tolerance–intolerance is a psychological construct which describes the relationship that individuals have with ambiguous stimuli or events. People may view these stimuli as positive, neutral or threating.  Ambiguity Intolerance manifests itself in different aspects personality as well as developmental and social psychology.

In 1965, Bochner categorized some primary and secondary attributes of individuals who are intolerant to ambiguity;

  1. Need for categorization
  2. Need for certainty
  3. Inability to allow good and bad traits to exist in the same person
  4. Acceptance of attitude statements representing a white-black view of life
  5. A preference for familiar over unfamiliar
  6. Rejection of the unusual or different
  7. Resistance to reversal of fluctuating stimuli
  8. Early selection and maintenance of one solution in an ambiguous situation
  9. Premature closure
  1. Authoritarian
  2. Dogmatic
  3. Rigid
  4. Closed minded
  5. Ethnically prejudiced
  6. Uncreative
  7. Anxious
  8. Extra-punitive
  9. Aggressive
Comparing these with the traits associated with creativity; fluid, flexible thinking, comfort with ambiguity, patience, willingness to invert ideas and concepts and challenging the status quo, its easy to see why being Un-creative is on the list.

If there was a way to measure someone's aversion to ambiguity, how might that improve problem solving skills in yourself or your team?

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Integration of Facts and Feelings

Hostages of Amydala?

For hundreds of years the argument has raged; Facts vs. Feelings.  One path is described as the way of faith, the other reason. Advocates and opponents point out perceived and actual differences between the two. What if it's all just a war of words that grows out of the subtle differences in the way that all of us perceive and process information? Are we all hostages to our amygdalas?

Whether your philosophical preferences are towards facts or faith, the fundamental truth is that your brain has two parts, one associated with thoughts and the other feelings.  In your daily experience you have to deal with both. The path of faith passes thru the parts of our brain that feel. The path of reason runs thru the parts of our brains that think. Our best and most creative choices are made when there is no conflict between the two.

In order to come up with solutions based on both feelings and ideas we have walk both paths. This is the true power of "Design Thinking." It's cyclical process applies both theory and practice, thought and action, emotions and facts. Beginning with questions (Empathic Inquiry) proceeding thru thinking and experimentation, (rapid prototyping building, testing), reflection and analyzing, we pass back and forth between our internal and external worlds, the past, present and future, going thru every aspect of a problem, using both "mind" and "heart" to address the technical, emotional and fiscal aspects of the situation until we arrive at solutions which are achievable, humane and sustainable.

The path of faith calls for prayer and reflection, the path of reason calls for thinking and reason. Both are trying to relieve the stress associated with not really being able to know everything about anything.

Standing as we do in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and in the midst of the Information Revolution, it might be well to consider the observation of Carl Jung that the rapid growth in our technical progress has far outstripped our growth in social progress.

Which brings us back to the question; How can we be at our individual and collective creative best in the midst of the "fog of war"?

Ed Catmull is a really remarkable guy with a lot to say. Pixar is still on top of their game and Ed has given a lot of thought to how they stay there. It boils down to three things; Safety (Feeling), Openness (Thinking and Communicating) and Curiosity (Learning);
  • Creativity is the blending of art (feelings) and technology (stuff).
  • It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas. (feelings)
  • Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone. (thinking)
  • We must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community. (learning)
You can read the rest of what Ed had to say in 2008 here;  How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity

We've all seen the tragic consequences of ignoring either the thinking or the feeling parts of being human. Perhaps there is not only room, but a requirement, for using both faith and reason. 

Isn't it time to up our collective game and use all the tools in the toolbox?

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." - Galileo Galilei

Two Ways - One Goal

Over the past several months I've been digging deeply into the roots of Design Thinking in an effort to not only understand what it is, but how and why it works as well as it does. Along the way, I've explored many facets of its methods and tools, theories of thinking and learning, neuroscience and biology.

Both individuals pictured above are seeking knowledge. Both have a philosophy of their internal and external worlds. I have come to believe that the fundamental differences in their approaches lays along at least two axes; one related to time and the other distance, which are the natural result of the way our brains work when we experience the stress associated with ambiguity and risk.

Fight - Flight

Human response to stress is typically considered in the context of both emotional and cognitive elements, each of which lead to a fight or flight response, which starts in the primitive brain at the beginning of the signal path to the cerebral cortex. The primitive brain is also the area associated with feelings. The intensity of the emotional response influences the nature and intensity of the resulting behavioral response. For example; individuals with higher levels of emotional reactivity may be prone to anxiety and aggression. Cognitive elements of the response include content specificity, perception of control, and social information processing.
Perception of control relates to an individual's thoughts and feelings about their ability to influence situations and events. Perceived control is different from actual control because an individual's beliefs about their abilities may not reflect their actual abilities. Over or underestimation of perceived control can lead to anxiety and aggression.

The social information processing model proposes a variety of factors which determine behavior in the context of social situations and pre-existing thoughts. The attribution of hostility, especially in ambiguous situations, seems to be one of the most important cognitive factors associated with the fight or flight response because of its implications regarding the perception of the presence of aggression.

The components of thinking in the fight or flight response seem to be largely negative in the context of creativity. Over weighting the importance of negative stimuli, the perception of ambiguous situations as threatening, recalling previous failures and past emotions may all result in a pessimistic bias.

Freeze - Fawn

There are two other possible responses to ambiguity which aren't discussed much; Freezing and Fawning. In the context of creativity and problem solving both are very useful, once it has been determined the there is no immediate risk of actual harm.

The freeze response can be useful because it creates the opportunity to observe at a distance. This makes the time for the cognitive parts of the brain to catch up with the primitive brain, move out of the present far enough to consider future possibilities.

Fawning is when we begin to explore the possibilities. This is where the real creative work can begin. Questions are asked, experiments are conducted, alternatives are explored, results are evaluated and weighed and informed decision making can occur.

Where someone naturally falls on this continuum of Fight to Fawn has a huge impact on which problem solving processes and tools they are comfortable with.

What is particularly interesting about this is that both the Scientific/Rational and Religious/Faith paths have limitations which can both bring the learning/creative process to a grinding and immediate halt; Both are subject to errors in accuracy and repeatability. If the goal is to reduce ambiguity, realizing that there are some things too small or quick or intangible to accurately measure does not help.
Consider the following process flow;
It's called the Scientific Method and represents the distillation of the best in "modern" problem solving. This is what most children are being taught in school today. It is rooted in the ideas of Newton and Descartes.

You can enter the cycle at any point. Design and Evaluate occur in the internal world of ideas and imagination. Create and Investigate occur in the external world of experience.

Going thru the full cycle, we move back and forth between ideas (theory) and experience (practice), learning and applying to refine the results. At least, that's the theory.

As a practical matter, what actually occurs is often somewhat different, due to the fact that other people - and the effects of their ideas and feelings - are involved in the process too. The neurological dance that goes on in our heads, and the effect which that has on our behavior, can lead to spectacular results, from the sublime to the disastrous.

Creativity Amid Chaos

Which brings us back to the deeper, more fundamental question; Awash in a neuro-hormonal sea which influences our most fundamental thought processes and decisions and limited by the accuracy and precision of our measuring tools and perception; How can we keep ourselves, and those who put their trust in us as designers, on the path to creative problem solving?

Friday, November 6, 2015

Stress and Learning

Studies of electrical and metabolic activity in the brain have revealed an interesting cascade as signals pass from the brain’s tactile sensing areas to the areas that regulate wakefulness, emotional response and memory. Bursts of activity in the somatosensory cortex are followed milliseconds later by bursts of electrical activity in the hippocampus, amygdala, and then the other parts of the limbic system. These findings, from one of the most exciting areas of learning research, suggest communication between the parts of the brain when information is being processed and stored, can influence the learning process.

When you feel threatened, your amygdala becomes activated, with associated feelings of helplessness and anxiety. At the same time, new sensory information isn't being passed through to your memory. Stephen Krashen calls this your affective filter. It’s the emotional state when people aren't responsive to learning and storing new information.

When people feel alienated from their environment and anxious about their lack of understanding passage of information through the neural pathways from the amygdala to higher cognitive centers of the brain, is apparently reduced. The prefrontal cortex, where information is processed, associated, stored for later retrieval and executive functioning, is essentially off-line.

One implication of this is that your comfort level has a significant impact on information transmission and storage in your brain. The factors which affect your comfort level include your perceived self-confidence, sense of trust, and positive feelings for others. This is partly why being in a supportive work or school environment directly contributes to a state of mind which is conducive to successful learning, remembering, and higher-order thinking.

The highest-level executive thinking, making connections, those"aha" moments of insight and creative innovation are most likely to occur in an atmosphere of what Alfie Kohn calls exuberant discovery, where students of all ages embrace each day with curiosity and optimism.

In the context of Design Thinking the idea of approaching problems with the mind of a novice; open and curious, is the direct parallel. This is part of the reason DT has such a playful component to brainstorming and rapid prototyping. Reducing stress thru playfulness helps keep the pathway to the most creative part of your brain open.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Heart and Mind of the Matter

Let's Dance
A recent discussion on LinkedIn asking to define the meaning of Design Thinking in two words garnered over 500 replies which ranged from buzz word to near religion. The variety in both interpretation and passion prompted me to apply some Design Thinking to understanding what was behind it all and I've come to a startlingly simple conclusion; In two words, Design Thinking is Problem Solving. More specifically, Design Thinking is an extremely effective approach to solving almost any type of problem. Here's why;

Let's start with the Merriam Webster definition of Problem:

Full Definition of PROBLEM
     a : a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution
     b : a proposition in mathematics or physics stating something to be done

     a : an intricate unsettled question
     b : a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation
     c : difficulty in understanding or accepting <I have a problem with your saying that>

By definition, problems are associated with;
  • having questions
  • testing hypothesis
  • complexity
  • difficulty understanding
  • difficulty accepting someone else's position
  • emotional distress
If you accept Webster's definition of Problem, the next step is to ask; What might be done in response? Obtaining a solution to a problem could require dealing with any or all of the elements by;
  • finding answers (by asking more questions)
  • conducting experiments (rapid prototyping)
  • breaking the problem down to its essential parts
  • trying multiple ways of learning and expression (visual, verbal, quantitative...)
  • being empathic and understanding other's points of view
Interestingly, the phases and methods of Design Thinking are directed at exactly these elements;

There are a few things about DT which may not seem intuitive at first. For example; asking more questions in order to find answers may seem like a waste of time, or how accounting for the emotional aspects of a situation helps find a better "technical" solution,  but if we stick to the definition of problem a DT based approach fits the bill perfectly.

Which beings us to one of the deepest questions about Design Thinking; 

Why do so many people seem to have such a problem understanding it?

I suspect the answer to that lays in the fundamental nature of the way humans think.

In the next post, we'll explore the interplay between learning and emotion and how stress affects creativity.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Points of View

You've heard that the Design Thinking process begins with Empathic Inquiry. in this posting we're going to explore why. It has to do with the outcome of the inquiry, which is called Point of View.

POV is more than understanding the story, its seeing the world from someone else's perspective. POV means you understand not only the other person's biases and beliefs at the same time yo are aware of how their perceptual filters influence their view of the world. The Heinz Kohut said empathy is "...what allows an individual to know another's experience without losing one's objectivity."

Have you ever found yourself in a conversation and realized that the differences of opinion we so great that you may as well have been speaking different languages? It's partly the result of the way the human brain(s) work.

You have three "brains" Each is constantly working, but they perform different functions.

The neocortex is where conscious, rational, thinking occurs. It is also where the creativity and planning for the future happens.

The Limbic Brain is the seat of your feelings and emotions.

The Reptilian, or Primitive Brain controls your basic bodily functions and acts to keep you life and safe.

Your consciousness is constantly influenced by the operation of these three brain areas, like a three ring circus.

Stressful events release hormones which shift deeper into the brain, suppressing concentration, short-term memory, rational thought and inhibitions. If you've ever been in an argument, you've seen the results of that first hand. In addition, individual reactions to stress vary. Some folks have a longer fuse than others, but one thing you can be sure of is that unmitigated stress is the enemy of creative thought. If your goal is to foster creativity, it's important to regulate the stress level so that the Primitive Brain doesn't take over and shut down the non-linear, what-if, thinking.

Design Thinking calls for being aware of what is happening on all three levels. But there is a aspect to it which may not be obvious; If you are working with someone or a group which prefers using their Limbic or Reptilian Brains they may need more help when Brainstorming or understanding the latent (unexpressed) emotional factors in the situation.

There are ways to get a hint at someone's preferred brain mode by observation of two of their natural attitudes regarding time and person when they are under stress. I call this their Preferred Stress Quadrant; The axis are Me <-> Them and Now <-> Then.

People who tend to concentrate on their immediate self prefer the Me/Now Quadrant. They are probably less comfortable with ambiguity and "Blue Sky" activities. 

At the other extreme are the people who think about the future and others. They are more comfortable in the Them/Then quadrant and are likely better at What if? thinking and brainstorming. 

Note that these conditions exist on continuums and the balance is constantly shifting. Since Design Thinking visits all four quadrants, it would be good to have an understanding of this, as it can be an indication of what to expect as you move thru the phases.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dancing with Ambiguity

Melani Allen's webpage; Dealing with ambiguity and developing resilience describes ambiguous situations as;

New - Having unfamiliar cues or precedents
Complex - Having a great number of cues and/or stakeholder interests
Insoluble - Ones that can’t be solved in the usual ways.

The last one particularly brought to mind the answer to the question of what types of problems Design Thinking works best on; WICKED.

In order to really "solve" a problem you need to understand enough about it to develop a solution which does more good than harm. The trouble is, most of the time we don't know everything we need to know and there is some sort of limit to the time and money that can be expended figuring things out.

The other huge issue is that other people are usually involved in the situation, so not only do we have to consider the factors which are related to inanimate stuff, but we also have humans in the mix. This can be particularly difficult if the available pool of "soft skills" is limited.

As a designer - or Design Thinker - your primary tasks are to learn and act to effect a change. The things you have to learn vary depending on the circumstances, but generally fall into one of two broad catagories; Things that have to do with animate (people) or inanimate objects (stuff).

Moreover, if you intend to get others involved in the process, its very important to know what their skills and attitude are in regard to ambiguity and effecting change.

Melanie lists a handful important traits with a common root;
  • The ability to choose and act without knowing everything. (Just enough to try)
  • The ability to change plans, tasks and activities quickly and smoothly. (Plans B to Z)
  • The ability to tolerate and be comfortable with risk and uncertainty. (Learning... to fail)
The question is; How can you know who does or doesn't have these skills? (Including yourself.)

Up Next; The Power of Points of View

Design Thinking as Learning and Teaching

The Microsoft Education Success Profile web page has a list of traits a successful Primary and Middle School teacher should have. Its pretty impressive, but it also points out that teaching and Design Thinking have a lot of core skills in common.

They are all here; Empathy, Bias Towards Action, Fluid & Flexible Thinking, Persistence, Challenging assumptions. Prototyping is even here if you consider that nearly every day a teacher starts a new exercise.

For that matter, maybe we need more teachers to run for public office, start new businesses or take over existing ones that are struggling. These skills are a recipe for success almost anywhere;

  • Creativity: Generates many new and unique ideas; makes connections among previously unrelated notions; is unafraid to use unorthodox methods; is seen as original and value-added in brainstorming settings.
  • Drive for results: Pursues everything with energy, drive, and a need to finish; does not give up before finishing, even in the face of resistance or setbacks; steadfastly pushes self and others for results.
  • Functional/technical skills: Possesses required functional and technical knowledge and skills to do his or her job at a high level of accomplishment; demonstrates active interest and ability to enhance and apply new functional skills.
  • Integrity and trust: Is widely trusted; is seen as a direct, truthful individual; presents truthful information in an appropriate and helpful manner; keeps confidences; admits mistakes; doesn’t misrepresent himself or herself for personal gain.
  • Interpersonal skills: Is warm and easy to approach; builds constructive and effective relationships; uses diplomacy and tact to diffuse tense situations; has a style and charm that immediately puts others at ease and disarms hostility.
  • Learning on the fly: Learns quickly when facing new problems; analyzes both successes and failures for clues to improvement; experiments and will try anything to find solutions; enjoys the challenge of unfamiliar tasks.
  • Listening: Practices attentive and active listening; has the patience to hear people out; can accurately restate the opinions of others even when he or she disagrees.
  • Managing and measuring work: Clearly assigns responsibility for tasks and decisions; sets clear objectives and measures; monitors process, progress, and results; designs feedback loops into work.
  • Motivating others: Creates a climate in which people want to do their best; can assess each person’s strengths and use them to get the best out of him or her; promotes confidence and optimistic attitudes; is someone people like working for and with.
  • Personal learning and development: Is personally committed to and actively works to continuously improve himself or herself; recognizes the need to change personal, interpersonal, and managerial behavior; actively seeks feedback.
  • Planning: Accurately determines the length and difficulty of tasks and projects; sets clear, realistic, and measurable goals; sets priorities and time parameters to accomplish tasks and projects; anticipates roadblocks and develops contingencies to redirect tasks so momentum is not lost.
  • Time management: Uses his or her time effectively and efficiently; concentrates his or her efforts on the most important priorities; adeptly handles several tasks at once.
  • Valuing diversity: Manages all kinds and classes of people equitably; supports equal and fair treatment and opportunity for all; fosters a climate of inclusion, where diverse thoughts are freely shared and integrated.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Cosmic Disruptive Design Thinking

Clayton Christensen is the smartest (and humblest) Legend You've Never Met.

He holds a B.A. with highest honors in economics from Brigham Young University, a Master of Philosophy in applied econometrics from Oxford, was a Rhodes Scholar, has a MBA with high distinction and a Doctor of Business Administration from Harvard. While at Oxford, Christensen, who's 6 foot 8, was also the starting center for the men's basketball team. In 2011, Forbes called him "one of the most influential business theorists of the last 50 years." He is best known for the theory of and series of books on Disruptive Innovation, which explores how and why businesses fail.

At its core, Disruptive Innovation asserts that businesses are created to fill needs )"do a job") and in order to survive they must adapt to constantly changing conditions or they will be displaced by more efficient delivery systems. 

Considered on a theoretical level Disruptive Innovation seems like pretty dry stuff. What is really interesting about Clay is that he is also a deeply spiritual individual with a very human-centered side - which takes us to the subject of this blog posting; Those who follow this blog will recall my previous posting about the influence of Rene Descartes, who laid the foundation for the modern method of Scientific Inquiry, which is probably how you and your children were taught to learn and solve problems.

If we take a step back and consider Scientific Inquiry in the context of Disruptive Innovation, an interesting question arises; Science and Religion as competing businesses models - will one Disruptively Innovate the other out of existence?

The Cosmic Battle of the Artists and Engineers

If you change the context of the question to consider essential elements of human nature, a fascinating point of commonality emerges; How do you deal with ambiguity?

It doesn't matter what the nature is of what you don't know. 
What matters is what you -  or your client - does in response to not knowing.

The Human Response to Ambiguity

Ambiguous choices are different from risky decisions. With an ambiguous choice you know neither the outcome nor the probability of success. "Psychologists would say ambiguity is the discomfort  you feel from knowing there is something you don't know and wish you did," says Colin Camerer, an economist at the California Institute of Technology.

Ambiguity is accompanied by activation of the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex, two areas of the brain that are involved in the processing of emotions. In particular, the amygdala has been found to be closely associated with fear.

A correlation between aversion to ambiguous decisions and activation of emotional parts of the brain makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, Camerer says. "Freezing in the face of danger is an old, emotional response which probably was evolutionarily adaptive in our ancestral past." In the modern human brain, this translates into a reluctance to bet on or against an event if it seems at all ambiguous.

Both Science and Religion attempt to resolve the existential discomfort humans feel when confronted with ambiguity. This isn't their only purpose, but it is an area of significant overlap. What is very different, at least on the surface, are the rules and tools which are allowed. Science wants "hard facts" religion embraces feelings. Science is about what we observe outside ourselves and others Religion is about what goes on inside and this is where I think things are about to change.

Over the past few years Science's ability to literally look inside our heads and observe in real time what is happening neuro-chemically in the brain has pulled back the curtain on all sorts of human behavior. At the same time genetic science has begin to illuminate the characteristics of the neurons - which is like understanding the sensitivity of an analog circuit - so we can predict more accurately how the system will respond to an input (stimulus).

What comes next are longitudinal studies which will help to inform questions like; How long does it take to learn and integrate a change in human behavior? What are the limits of response, which influence the range of behaviors someone is capable of? What is learned or learnable and where are the limits of the system as currently "defined" by individual DNA?  In the Nature vs. Nurture Debate; Are how soft or hard are the boundaries, both in surface and location?

Perhaps the the core difference between preferring a faith based or scientific approach to problem solving is the result of how comfortable someone feels with the discomfort of ambiguity.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Design Thinking Piaget

I was recently struck by the similarities between Piaget's theory of Cognitive Development and the elements of Design Thinking, both in the context of the processes and the traits needed by the Design Thinker.

For now, I'm calling this the Developmental Stages of Creativity. It may be helpful to review Piaget's Theory of Cognition and become familiar with the phases of Design Thinking before considering this material.

Developmental Stages of Creativity

4Individual-reflexiveYoung Adult
YouthConcrete operational
  • Stage 0 – Guided primarily by the client's beliefs about the safety of their environment (i.e. comforting, safe and secure vs. hurtful, neglecting and abusive). Being in a "safe" environment  contributes to tolerance of ambiguity, which is a core aspect of the early stages of Design Thinking. Conversely, negative experiences lead to fear of the unknown. (A hint about this may be found in the designer's comfort with the process of "brainstorming." which can generate significant ambiguity.)
  • Part 1 – Relative fluidity of thought. Knowledge is obtained through experiences, stories, images, contact with other people and use of rapid prototyping and sketches.
  • Part 2 – Discovery of pre-exisitng firm rules or "limits"). The "Deep Dive".
  •  (Note: Use of metaphors and symbolic language in this stage may lead to misunderstandings or conflicts between stakeholders.)
  • Part 3 – Discovery of existing authorities or standards. (Note; Some stakeholders may want to ignore core or "guiding" principles, or other's POVs, in an effort to reduce conflicts arising from inconsistencies. Stopping here could result in failing to "solve the problem".)
  • Part 4 – Challenging of core assumptions, which leads to exploration and discovery of new interrelationships and the need to resolve conflicts within those as well.
  • Part 5 – Discovering the interrelationships and conflicts resulting from inherited assumptions. Conflicts are resolved by deeper understanding of the complexities and multidimensional, interdependent factors which cannot be understood or explained simply.
  • Part 6 –  Understanding and integrating other's points of view and responding to them fluidly and flexibly with a broad range of tools and skills.

If you ever find yourself, or your clients, stuck in your problem solving process, it may be helpful to consider everyone's stage of creative and emotional development and move towards an activity that can help move thru the blockage.