What If You Pushed Aside Doubt?

The ethos "There is no such thing as failure" is not new, but when was the last time you, or your team, actually practiced it?

Sure, embracing it too tightly can mean business demise, but what if you held on to the concept just a little?

What if the next time you had an ideation or design session you didn't allow doubt or potentiality of failure into the room just for that hour or so? What would you find?

Maybe nothing, or maybe something really amazing. [1, 2]

Why not try and find out?

1. Tsaousides, T. (2017, December 17). Why Fear of Failure Can Keep You Stuck. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com

2. Kalb, I. (2013, June 1). Could Fear of Failure Limit Your Success. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com

Don't Forget to Fail

Many a business person has been inspired by the story of Spanx founder, Sara Blakely [1]. After-all, she IS a self-made billionaire whose passion and perseverance have chiseled out one of the most successful businesses of our time. Who could deny being inspired by that?

Personally, I know many friends and colleagues who have worked to learn from and mimic her actions in an effort to foster their own business success (myself included). However, after reading a recent interview with Ms. Blakely [2], I realized there was one foundational milestone that many of us have been overlooking in this quest.


In the interview, Sara Blakely tells us that, "When I was growing up my father would ask me, 'What have you failed at this week?' His lesson was that trying was just as important as the outcome. Not trying something was failure."

The effect of this practice? Blakely tells us "It allowed me to be freer in trying things in life and to embrace failure as part of a growing process."; a mindset that allowed her to try to make a business out of pantyhose with the legs cut off, instead of stopping before she got started due to a fear of failure. 

I believe it is this mindset which is the cornerstone to all the other steps along her journey, yet so many of us overlook it. Instead, we define failure as an unfavorable outcome to some event, and look to avoid it at all costs.

Our main method of avoidance? Not trying at all.

The irony is that this avoidance tactic is not only not helpful, but it is the surest way to stifle any innovation.

1.  Wikipedia. Sara Blakely. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org

2. Schreiber, G. Sara Blakely: The Spanx Billionaire Who Thrived On Failure. Retrieved from http://real-leaders.com

Using Design Thinking to Improve Brainstorming

A few weeks ago, I came upon an article from my alma mater, entitled ‘Thirty Ideas Are Better Than One’. Given that Design Thinking and idea generation was on my brain, I had to know more.

I began reading and when I got to the line, "30 ideas are always better than one", I paused. I asked myself, “Are more ideas really always better”? I thought back to the many brainstorm sessions I'd been in. Most of them generated amazing ideas in large quantities, but many of those ideas were lost along the way. 

As I considered the results of these sessions, I realized the answer to my question was "More ideas are usually better, but knowing how to prioritize and validate those ideas is where the real magic happens". Allow me to explain further. 

"Brainstorming" is a term most of us know and love. It’s an older term, “popularized by Alex Faickney Obsborn in the 1953 book Applied Imagination”. [1] Given that it’s a fairly inexpensive and effective way to generate cross-functional ideas (if you have the right players in the game, of course), teams like the one referenced in the article often utilize the exercise.

There is no doubt that brainstorming is a solid method for idea generation. It's a technique heavily utilized by most if not all of the major players in the innovation and design industry [2], and it's something we employ often at Design Think Labs. 

Despite knowing that brainstorming can help teams produce more ideas and fast, it’s important to realize that doing so is only half the battle. Many times teams go into brainstorming sessions and come up with a slew of ideas only to have the work get lost when the team leaves the room. 


There are two key reasons. Either the problem statement was not clearly identified at the beginning of the session leading to unfocused, ineffective ideas [3], or the ideas themselves are good but so numerous that teams have no idea where to begin. In this second case, the team freezes. Instead of chopping away at making the ideas a reality, they choose to look elsewhere for innovation. [4, 5]

One method for combating these problems is to call in Design Thinking. The Design Thinking process isn’t revolutionary, nor is it inaccessible. In fact, user-centered design practitioners have been utilizing it since the industry's inception. However, the method isn’t only for design practitioners, and once it's learned can be used time and again to solve problems like these. 

Using the method solves the brainstorming problems in several ways. 

First, when using Design Thinking as a framing of and extension to brainstorming, one's brainstorming efforts are inherently fusing the human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. [6, 7]

Brainstorming when your teams’ brains are primed in this way, means the ideas you produce, even those that seem way “out there”, are anchored at the intersections of user needs, business needs, and technical possibilities. Sure, the ideas may and should push the boundaries in these three regards, but because they are rooted at this meeting point, they’re sure to have a level of context necessary to at the very least add value and understanding to your outcome.

To take this point further, we know that Design Thinking allows a team to define the right problem, ask the right questions, and, when ideas are created, to choose the best answers. [8] Knowing this we can confidently say that framing any idea generating brainstorming session with Design Thinking will sit your team and the ideas your team generates at the golden intersection necessary for innovation. [9]

After you've used Design Thinking to solve the issue of ineffective idea generation through brainstorming, you'll need to know what to DO with all the new, effective ideas. Thinking like a designer solves this as well. Inherent in the Design Thinking process is a framework for selecting the best ideas to test, then testing those ideas quickly to see which ones hold promise. [10]

By framing brainstorming which so easily allows us to generate ideas, with the Design Thinking methodology which inherently ties our foci to the intersection of user needs, business needs, and technical feasibility, the problems which surface far too often as a result of brainstorming, cess. This means at the end of the sessions the team is left with a slew of effective ideas and a roadmap defining what to DO with those ideas. 

It's true. Thinking like a designer takes your brainstorms to a whole new level.

So I ask you this: Are more ideas always better than one?

I think by now you know the answer. 

1. Wikipedia. Brainstorming. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org

2. IDEO. Effective Brainstorming Techniques. Retrieved from https://www.ideou.com.

3. Perspective on problem definition - "It is important to spend time agreeing on the problem to be solved. A whole round of divergence and convergence on the problem statement can be done before giving people a chance to suggest solutions." - Markman, A. (2017, May 18). Your Team Is Brainstorming All Wrong. Retrieved from https://hbr.org

4. "Without that rigor, organizations miss opportunities, waste resources, and end up pursuing innovation initiatives that aren’t aligned with their strategies." - Spradlin, D. (2012, September). Are You Solving the Right Problem?. Retrieved from https://hbr.org

5. "The paradox of choice isn’t just for shoppers" - Wikipedia. The Paradox of Choice. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org

6. “which IDEO calls design thinking, brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.” - IDEO. Design Thinking. Retrieved from https://www.ideou.com.

7. “a method of meeting people’s needs and desires in a technologically feasible and strategically viable way." - Brown, T. (2008, June). Design Thinking. Retried from 

8. “Within these steps, problems can be framed, the right questions can be asked, more ideas can be created, and the best answers can be chosen." - Cohen, R. (2014, March 31). Design Thinking: A Unified Framework For Innovation. Retrieve from https://www.forbes.com

9. Bole, K. (2012, December 4). Design Science: UCSF Project Applies Innovative Thinking to Research. Retrieved from https://www.ucsf.edu

10. “There are some problems that are not solvable. You might not find a technology that’s going to solve a particular problem, but what you want to do is discover that quickly. So, the design thinking methodology doesn’t necessarily generate better ideas than competing methodologies. It’s just that this methodology allows you to test your ideas quickly to see which ones hold promise.” - Fyffe, S. & Lee, K. (2016, January 19). How Design Thinking Improves the Creative Process. Retrieved from https://www.gsb.stanford.edu

Choosing a Great Design Thinking Partner

So you’re looking for someone to guide you and your team through the Design Thinking process. There are thousands of consultants out there, offering various takes on the process and personal spins for a range of budgets. How do you choose?

You can go the traditional route: budget first, align dollars available with a vendor, and pray it works out. 

For others who want to hire a true design thinking partner, here are a few key things to consider: 

  • A Flexible Approach. Design Thinking is a loose construct. It’s a general framework to get from idea to customer validation, with many steps in between. Any design thinking practitioner who follows the process by the book doesn’t have enough field experience to know otherwise. Look for people who are flexible and comfortable in deviating from the “proscribed” textbook steps. They are the ones who will catch you when you inevitably fail at something. 
  • Customized, 360-Thinking. Yes, the design thinking process steps will be similar, but every business is different. There are a lot of designers out there unable to think in business terms. Yet, you’re hiring them to help you come up with solutions for your business. Look for practitioners who understand your business and team needs. People who can process what design thinking as a method means for your team, business, and industry. They’re the ones who’ll be able to customize the process to you.
  • Full Process Approach. Design Thinking can’t be done in a vacuum, and it can’t be done in a 1-day “workshop.” Sure, you can learn the basics in a 90 min class. If you’d like to do that, here’s a link. It’s free. For teams who want to use design thinking to solve real-world business problems, look for practitioners who offer longer training timelines. Think about it. A core advantage of design thinking as a method is to better understand your customers needs so you can design better solutions. To understand your customer needs, your team needs to get out of your office to connect with these customers. For that you need time. A month is minimum when it comes to really learning the design thinking method through practice. Customize your budget to that. 
  • Listening Skills. The experts you’re hiring are “experts.” Be careful of those who believe their own hype. True design thinking practitioners know that this is a growth process; you’re always learning new things and making the best decisions given present facts. The good ones know to listen to your needs, and adapt the process based on what they hear. Remember, it’s a malleable process as long as you give it enough time to take root. 
  • Real-World Experience. As with any academic theory, Design Thinking sounds like an easy, smooth process to sail through. It’s hardly ever lives up to that in the real-world. Things often go wrong, interviews can’t be scheduled, prototypes break down, ideation sessions veer into crazy debates, and so on. Lots of things can go wrong. Experienced practitioners who have not only taught the method to others, but have actually practiced it themselves in a business context can steer the design thinking ship to calmer waters. 
  • Great communicators. As surprising as this may be, a lot of design thinking practitioners are not great communicators. They may be great designers themselves, yet have trouble concisely explaining abstract concepts to non-designers. As trainers for your team, they need to be able to communicate not only the “how,” but also the “why” of design thinking. Furthermore, at some point, you’ll need to sell (or re-sell) your progress to upper management. It really helps to have your design thinking guides there with you to offer support either behind-the-scenes, or in the room alongside you. 

As you’re looking for vendors keep the above checklist in mind, and adjust your budget accordingly. It’s easy to get lost in snazzy bios and shiny past-client lists as you sift through available options. Don’t lose sight of what really matters. You’re looking for a partner, someone to guide and support you and your team through the process and catch you when you fall through the cracks.