The flare inside the focus

"Yes, and..." is more than a phrase. Here, it's the sound of the beating heart. Tha-thump, yes, and ... tha-thump, yes, and ... tha-thump, yes, and ...

It's stamped on d.school bags and t-shirts. It's used in casual and not-so-casual conversation over lunch, coffee and in meetings among faculty and staff. If someone says something even remotely harebrained, someone else pops in with a "yes, and" to get a few grins and chuckles. It lightens the mood and, for design thinkers trained in the d.school style, it's a bit of a secret handshake.

The phrase is also a formal tool in the design thinking process. When a team member provides an idea during a brainstorm, rather than shoot it down as is custom in meeting rooms around the world, you reply with "yes, and". Then you tack on your own idea, building on the one that came before.

Let's say you propose workers at restaurants wear buttons. I would say, "Yes, and ... what if they wear 37 of them!"

The process is the act of coveting another person's idea so much that you want to build on it. It works wonderfully when you are in full, clear brainstorm mode -- full-on "flare," as you might say here. And, no, not this kind of flare:

[youtube id="U5YClmS3umk" mode="normal" align="center"]

We're talking about this kind of flare:

Focus and flare (d.school)

If this diagram looks familiar, you might have experienced it before. It's the design thinking process translated into the various periods when a team should go broad or narrow in their mindset.  When the time spent brainstorming is well-defined (i.e. a set of instructors tells you to start), it's relatively easy to let "yes, and" fuel your team's progress. Post-Its are flying, you are nearly getting high off  that new Sharpie smell, and the sky's far from the limit.

But what about when brainstorming isn't well defined? What happens when — as just happened to me — you and your team are busy storyboarding a video when a team member upends your flow and proposes to focus on an entirely different user? The suggestion entails more interviews, more raw footage and more of the one resource in the shortest supply: time.

Suddenly, as if a stiff breeze hit a house of cards, all five stages of the process collapse in on you, and you're left asking yourself those old, gnawing questions: What am I doing here? How could this possibly work? Why don't I just go off into a corner, cut the video that's due in 46 -- no, wait -- 45 hours and end this solution-by-committee nonsense?

You begin to convince yourself you can do it better alone: It's not the time for flaring.

Or is it?

We are in the last hours of our second design project in the d.school's Bootcamp class. Our projects are due at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow. We need a 2-minute video and a final brief describing our project. The video will be presented to a panel of judges, including individuals from outside of the d.school. The pressure is on. It's time to focus.

On Tuesday, I was elbow deep in video editing while nursing a cold. I'd gone to an early-morning team meeting preceded by an even earlier flight the day before. It was 2 p.m. and I was running on the ever-so-West Coast kale smoothie I had for breakfast. I'd agreed to meet with a team member who was a font of ideas for edits and changes to the video I was cutting.

And I snapped.

I'm not proud of it. I felt terrible the rest of the day. I was in the library -- away from the d.school -- in front of a video editing suite, using software I wasn't familiar with while fielding feedback on a project I just wanted to finish so I could go home and rest. But that was when I should have flared -- opened myself up to my team member's new ideas and rough cut them in, rather than try to preserve the little work I had done that I felt comfortable with.

There's that word again: comfort.

This was the time when I should have said to myself: You're so lucky to be getting this person's feedback.

On Wednesday, thankfully, I was given another chance. This time, my team gathered to put together the video storyboard more or less from scratch. After our two other team members had left, me and the one team member I'd snapped at the day before brainstormed through the end of the video, crafting what may be our final interview. We then conducted the interview, which ended up being one of the best our team had done since we started the project.

The old me wanted nothing more than to run back to the edit suite and chop video. It's what I did for years before arriving at the d.school --  it's my comfort zone.

But instead, I flared. I opened up to the possibility that what I thought was doable with the most efficient workflow wouldn't necessarily lead to the best solution for our user.

So, to the concept of "focus then flare," I say, "yes, and ... flare inside the focus."

During those periods of team focus, there's an opportunity to flare within -- a chance to try to shed the old you, to grow and cherish the gift of other people's epiphanies.

Have you struggled with old habits while trying to pursue design thinking? Let me know in the comments.