IDEO's Barbara Beskind on wealth, time, fantasy & design

It's not every day you get to peek into a designer's notebook -- not to mention one whose personal history is as broad and as deep as Barbara Beskind's. A look through Barbara's notebooks is like exploring a greenhouse of colorful and fast-growing plants. It's little wonder she works at IDEO.

Oh, Barbara is 90 years old.

Her design work started when she was 8 years old, designing toys for friends during the Great Depression. She went on to work with World War II and Vietnam veterans as an occupational therapist, going overseas to Germany for two years. The 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary, she said, was the scariest time of her career. Eventually she founded an independent occupational therapy clinic -- the first in the US. These facts of her life were covered by The Wall Street Journal this past April.

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Knight Foundation and d.school enter into new collaboration

What has been will be again,what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

 - Ecclesiastes 1:9

Think back to what you did with your last “ah-ha” moment. Who did you share it with, and where is the record of it now? Do you remember? Odds are, you probably don’t.

Rarely do those breakthrough moments in the shower, over dinner or on the drive home get captured and shared. We may have a process for innovating, but we almost never maintain a process for recording what we learn as we go about that work. Journals can be unreliable and difficult to share. Social media tends to present a version of ourselves, often only what we think is our best possible face. On top of that, the individuals and teams that generate these moments — these insights — don’t think they are valuable outside of their immediate sphere (if even there).

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When 'Big D' meets 'little d': An equation for innovation

This quarter, I’m teaching a class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business with my friend and colleague, Sarah Soule. We’re collaborating with six pioneers in our local foodshed to design disruptive solutions to strategic business challenges they face. Teaching design thinking to a room full of MBA students can be like teaching a clowder of house cats how to swim. But it has created an opportunity for us to think creatively about how we might frame design thinking in ways that are more intuitive to an audience of generally hyper-analytical, solution-oriented people. Now, I have a Stanford MBA myself. So I understand the irony in revealing that I had previously developed an “equation for innovation”. I use it as a construct for understanding how we might help teams more frequently design solutions with greater disruptive potential (see figure 1, below) through work we are doing at the FEED Collaborative, which I co-founded.

innovation-curve-matt-rothe Figure 1: The Innovation Curve

Only until now, having tested its application with some success in our class this quarter, has it occurred to me to share this equation publicly:

matt-rothe-equation

This is an equation where,

In = Innovative capacity of people/teams/organizations

pt = practice (cumulative sum of the team)

et = team empathy (as a function of team dynamics and motivation)

es = self empathy (as a function of self awareness and reflection)

eu = user empathy (as a function of engagement, observation and immersion)

tc = team composition (as a function of diversity in experience and personality)

io = number of original ideas generated

id = number of divergent additions on original ideas

pt(ioŸid) = pt(et+tc)

de = domain expertise

db = domain perceived need/solution bias

dc = domain contribution quotient (de/db)

and assuming the sum of es + et + eu is positively correlated to insightful inference of people’s needs.

Having an equation to work with has allowed us to answer this question: “Given the composition of folks in my classroom, under my mentorship, or in my employ, where might we need to focus our educational or managerial efforts?”  Put otherwise, having an equation of this type provides a diagnostic tool for understanding where teams need support in order to maximize their innovative potential.

In the case of our MBAs, for example, we’ve focused more heavily on their domain contribution quotient, dc, assuming many of them will continue to be leaders, experts, and problem solvers in their respective fields after graduation. This led us to demonstrate, in ways that we never have before as a teaching team, that the relationship between building empathy for users and building context around their problems through the collection of data is two things simultaneously: it is synergistic and a valuable management tool for deriving important insights. These insights can be around anything from products and customers to company culture and the competitive landscape.

We have, in this way, opened the door to an intriguing exploration of what can happen at the intersection of big data and design thinking, or, as we’ve been thinking about it, “when 'Big D' meets 'little d'”.  Having an equation for innovation, it turns out, allows us to not only build the innovative capacity of teams, but our own innovative capacity as teachers and managers as well.

This is the beauty of qualitative math: good answers always lead to better questions.

Make your users your addiction

Kim Jacobson (foreground) and Guido Kovalksys review a strategic visualization created for Kim's project, the iZone. (Photo by Emi Kolawole) How do you apply design thinking? It's a question I am often asked as editor-in-residence at the d.school. Recently, I helped read applications for the Knight News Challenge, which addressed this important question: How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation? Shortly after, I wrote my take on the applications and design thinking. Here's part of what I had to say:

If I were to offer any advice to those seeking to apply design thinking to their work, it would be this: Don’t wait for your users to come to you; go find them. Make them your addiction and the source of the energy behind your work.

I saw the power of exactly this principle last week in "Stanford 2025," the public presentation of the @Stanford project. The immersive experience was the result of a year-long effort of a multidisciplinary design team of students, faculty and staff. Their challenge was to design potential futures for the undergraduate, on-campus experience. The project was hyper-focused on its users, which allowed the designers to produce an outcome so creative it took me days of reflection to peel back the layers and see just how deep they'd gone.

The final presentation included an interactive journey to the far future -- the year 2100 -- to look back on a potential near future -- the period around 2025 -- to see how Stanford might evolve the undergraduate experience. It was an incredible piece of work that stayed true to the principles inherent in design thinking. Rather than just predicting possible changes, the end result provokes people to design their own futures of higher education.

The "Stanford 2025" presentation is a clear marker that the academic year is coming quickly to a close. Applications for next year's fellows program are due in a little over a week (May 16).  I now have a few projects that are beginning to produce that familiar churn in my stomach, one fueled by nervousness, fear of failure, regret for time spent other than working and an insecurity about what to do next.

This is "the uncomfortable" we so often mention at the d.school, the chaotic emotions that you learn to embrace. It's a time to turn back to your users -- in my case, the fellows -- and dig deep to discover them again and again.

The fellows meet their challenge cartographer

"How can we work in chaos in a way that feels secure," Stine Degnegaard asked the fellows during a studio session this week. Stine, a Copenhagen-based visual strategist, is visiting the d.school to collaborate with the fellows and help visually capture their work. On Wednesday, she offered them an introduction to co-creation methodology in multi-stakeholder initiatives.

Stine, also a partner and co-founder of the advisory firm INITIATIVES, has developed visual guides to help identify opportunities for strategic co-creation. She offered these resources to the fellows, helping them map their projects' journeys. The tools aid in breaking down complex problems into smaller, actionable initiatives, as the process identifies previously unknown users or collaborators in a project space. Stine's methods were especially useful for the fellows, who seek to affect large, complex arenas such as the federal government, K12 education and the law.

Strategic visualization is a fluid process, one organizations can flow into and out of throughout a project's lifespan, as it evolves. The visual representation of complex systems helps identify unforeseen problems and clarify existing tensions. It also ensures an iterative process that allows teams to go backwards and forwards in time, providing a spatial representation of their challenge to enable dynamic perspectives, as opposed to linear ones.

On Thursday, I sat in on a session Stine had with Kim Jacobson on her project, the iZone. Kim's challenge has a number of facets, but among the most challenging has been to visualize and conceptualize the iZone itself.

When asked how it felt to talk about the iZone and see it manifest visually, a huge smile broke across Kim's face.

"I need to tell lots of different pieces of this story to different people, and I am hoping this will help clarify the different aspects of it," Kim said. The process, she continued, has helped her break down the complexity of the work that she and her team are doing into something they and others can understand. She's been trying to articulate to people that, when it comes to the iZone, they are on a journey together, as opposed to joining something that already exists. The visualizations made that make sense, she said.

Stine works with Caitria shortly after the Wednesday workshop with the fellows. (Emi Kolawole)

Stine also worked with Melissa Pelochino on her project, #2minPD -- a short-form video method for teachers to record and share professional development training. Melissa's goal is to transform teachers' professional development into a generative and community-building endeavor. When reviewing Stine's visualizations, she, too, was pleased to see her process -- and her challenges -- mapped out.

As for Stine, the work has been an opportunity to test her own methods and work. "I am very humbled in having met with the fellows," she said. "I haven't seen a hub for potential like this before."

She has found that the fellows, in diving into their process over the past nine months, have learned an immense amount about the ecosystems they seek to change. Rather than their own heads, Stine said, the fellows have "globes full of so much knowledge" to draw from. This means they are quick with answers to her questions -- answers she was able to use to visualize the nature of the fellows' strategy and challenges today.

The next step, Stine says, is "to focus -- and if not to kill your darlings, to prioritize them."

"What is the one message you want each person to take away," she challenged the fellows to ask themselves. "What is it you want to communicate?"

"You have so much to offer, and you are so needed. So how do you break all of this information into something that is digestible and gets [your stakeholders] longing for more?"

The strategic visualizations are a stage in that process, a map from their challenge cartographer to help navigate complex worlds.

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The Copenhagen Interpretation of design thinking

If you love physics as much as I do, you can’t help but see connections between physical phenomena and your everyday experience.  There are times when I find myself visualizing free body diagrams when walking on boats or riding my bike. Lately, I’ve been noticing a remarkable amount of overlap between two things that appear to have nothing in common: quantum mechanics and design thinking.  More specifically, I’ve noted parallels between the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics and the latter steps of design thinking.

(Graphic by Taylor Cone)

The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics tells us that before we conduct a measurement to determine the location of a particle (say, an electron) in a quantum mechanical system, any location is possible. The particle could be anywhere. In essence, the particle simultaneously exists everywhere and nowhere. It exists everywhere in the sense that there is theoretically a nonzero probability that it could be anywhere in the universe (physicists say the particle exists in a superposition of all possible states), and it exists nowhere in the sense that, until we make a measurement, we are unable to say it actually exists in any one place.

All we can state beforehand is the probability of it being recorded in any location when we actually do measure the particle (this probability can be calculated using the particle’s wave function, a mathematical tool used to describe particles in these circumstances of uncertainty).  When we take the measurement, we collapse the wave function of the particle, causing it to appear in one physical place.

(Graphic by Taylor Cone)

Here’s another way to say this: before the “measurement” is made to determine where the particle is, all possible locations of the particle – and therefore all possible futures – are options for us.  Anything is possible (no matter how improbable) in this pre-measurement phase. When the measurement is taken and the wavefunction of all possible futures is collapsed, we end up with one world in which we’re moving forward.

A key point about the Copenhagen Interpretation is that, as far as we can tell, the world that ends up becoming our reality does so completely by chance. In other words, we have no power over which possible future becomes our actual future (aside from whatever accidental or unintended effect our measurement has on the system).

So how does this relate to design thinking?

Think about those moments when you’re being generative in design thinking; namely, ideation and prototyping. The primary goal of these steps is to imagine as many solutions to whatever problem you’re tackling – in other words, to imagine as many potential future worlds as you possibly can.  In the language of physics, you could say that during these steps you are establishing the wavefunction of the possible solutions to your design challenge.

When you move on to testing, iteration, and implementation, you begin to “collapse the wavefunction.” You move from the realm of infinite possibility of future world paths to a single future created by you in concert with those who give you feedback. When you finalize your product, you have collapsed its wavefunction and committed to one of the many possible futures you had been exploring.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics asserts that one future world is chosen purely by chance from an infinite set of options, prohibiting us from knowing anything about alternatives. This is what separates design thinking from quantum mechanics. Allow me to introduce the Copenhagen Interpretation of design thinking, in which design thinking is viewed not just as a method for innovating our future, but as one that enables us to step into a number of possible futures, compare our options, and commit to the best path forward.

Computer science pioneer Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”  Quantum mechanics prohibits accomplishing the former with complete certainty. Design thinking gives us an opportunity to all but circumvent the fundamental laws of our universe by allowing us to do the latter. This means we can optimize our collective path through the infinity of possible worlds by peeking into them before we are called on to choose one.

You can follow Taylor on Twitter at @Taycone.