The power of analogs

A Fellows Studio session held at the d.school with the program's 2013-2014 cohort. Every day I’m more impressed with the fellows in this program. I’m also learning more about the value of their individual perspectives. Here’s the quandary: We’ve all been brought here for our deep industry expertise, but we’ve also been asked to let that expertise go for a bit.

A key principle of design thinking is to adopt the inquisitive “mindset of a child.” But how does one back up to ask basic questions when steeped in the knowledge of what works in their field and what doesn’t?

We were assigned to read Tina Seelig’s book “inGenius” as part of our fellows orientation. Tina is the Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. We then had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with her discussing her philosophy of innovation. Tina developed the “innovation engine”, which is comprised of Attitude, Imagination and Knowledge surrounded by Culture, Resources and Habitat.

The Innovation Engine, developed by Tina Seelig.

The engine is similar to the design thinking process map, but Tina’s discussion on the role of knowledge struck me as important, particularly as we grapple with how much of our industry knowledge to call upon daily. Tina talks about how “knowledge provides the fuel for your imagination.”

I have often thought that data was a missing ingredient in design thinking and have incorporated Edward deBono’s “Six Thinking Hats” in our process at Fidelity – particularly asking people to don the “white hat” during problem identification. This is the hat dedicated to facts and figures. Often data, when carefully and objectively studied, highlights problems. Sometimes it raises questions. Why, for instance, are contributions for one of Fidelity’s 401k clients dramatically higher in certain geographies? Why do people with similar jobs but different clients contribute to their plans as differently as they do? The data do not answer these questions but point us to where we should study more deeply.

Tina addresses the tension between the need for knowledge and the “beginner’s mind.” She argues that innovations are often generated by people new to a field, but experienced in related fields. They apply the expertise gained in a parallel world in unexpected ways. They bring “unorthodox views that are not inhibited by industry doctrine.”

The fellows attend a seminar with Tina Seelig, the executive director of the Stanford Ventures Program and author of "inGenius" during orientation at the d.school in September. (Emi Kolawole)

This brings me back to my cohort of fellows. We convened for a studio led by Susie Wise a couple of weeks ago. Susie is the K12 Lab Network Director at the d.school. She talked to us about the power of analogs, and then led us through an exercise.

We stood in a circle of white boards, and each fellow was assigned their own. We generated ideas around our projects on our assigned boards then went around the circle and added ideas based on our own experience to each others’ boards, suggesting analogous examples to study around our users’ needs.

So, for example, my project focuses on ways to influence people to save money. One person suggested I could go talk to people who have participated in or led successful recycling programs. It’s an idea that may have occurred to me, but that I wouldn't necessarily have followed up on. The power of the parallels was magnified by the collaboration with the group of interdisciplinary fellows. There is also a great sense that we care about the relationship between our problems more than just our own.

I thought I knew design thinking when I got here, but every day I learn more from experts like Tina and Susie. More importantly, I am struck by the the way this group of fellows was constructed. The most important insights come from each other, the tight bonds we are forming, and the opportunity to peek under one another’s white hats.