Everything was set for rolling out a communication dashboard under the corporate website for people managers. Details were designed, and a budget was assigned. The internal communication team was hopeful that a dynamic website as a data repository could address many communication-related issues for people managers during the mergers. The communication team contacted the change management team to evaluate the roll-out plan. That day, my colleague, whom I learned a lot from, shared the story with me. He asked my opinion about the so-called “mini communication project.” I smiled and answered if he is thinking what I was thinking, and he said yes.

We were both thinking about the problem, not the solution. We were not sure if the problem was well defined. Long story short, a design thinking process revealed a more profound problem, far more multi-dimensional than a simple need for a data repository website. In fact, without the process, the dashboard – with all the dedicated time, expenses, and resources – was doomed to be another archived corporate page that people rarely visit.

Probably you have seen this infamous quote of Albert Einstein on problem-solving:

“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”

The quote is invaluable to me. I began this series by discussing why design thinking is not a method change but a mindset change. One crucial mindset shift for change management is asking whether we are solving the right problem. We should stop and think twice. We usually take the problem definition for granted and jump right into solution development mode.

After talking about the “empathy” phase in my previous article, today I am going to talk about the “define” and “ideation” phases so we can address the dilemma of problem or solution.

What Do We Mean by “Problem Definition”?

To clarify the “definition process” in Design Thinking, I use the single-loop and double-loop learning concepts of Chris Argyris.

During the change management process, we often ask how we can do our work to get a better result for a change initiative. In a change strategy, we have our eyes on the results. In a better scenario, we refine the strategy, tools, and techniques to get the desired results. This loop is called single-loop learning. We constantly ask if we are doing things right.

On the other hand, in double-loop learning, we ask if we are doing the right things. The question helps us refine our change strategy and tactics by re-defining our assumptions. How to define our assumptions? Through the empathizing process.

Therefore, problem definition results from analysis and synthesis of the valuable data we gathered through the empathizing process. How to create the change strategy and plans that work? Through the “ideation” phase. The ideation phase is where we generate solutions.

Ideation Phase

One of the most common practices of the ideation phase is brainstorming. The critical difference between the brainstorming and the ideation phase is the problem definition. Many brainstorming sessions fail and the ideas remain on the sticky notes because there is no apparent problem definition strategy nor action strategy.

To have a successful brainstorming process, we should consider two dimensions to address appropriately: idea and action.

Some reasons why brainstorming fails regarding the idea dimension:

  • Freeriding: when people participate in brainstorming sessions without putting much effort into generating ideas.
  • Social anxiety: when people do not feel safe to speak up and create ideas.
  • Groupthink: when people try to stick to the general team ideas to avoid discomfort and tension.
  • Production block: when some cause blocks the process of idea generation and blocks people from speaking up.
  • Insufficient diversity of participants: when the group is not diverse enough, and the homogeneity of the people results in less creative ideas.
  • Inadequate idea capture methods: when there is no proper method to energize and motivate people to generate ideas, or there is no method to capture data generated.

Some reasons why brainstorming fails regarding the action dimension:

  • Wrong problem statement
  • No transition from “business as usual.”
  • Premature adoption of the first “right idea.”
  • Premature evaluation
  • No follow-ups
  • No real plan for implementation

During the ideation phase, our job is to cluster and assemble the ideas generated in brainstorming into an integrated form while guided by the criteria we developed in empathize and define stages.

There are many other tools for the ideation process. Here I focused on brainstorming since it is the most common practice of idea generation, and unfortunately, design thinking is often mistaken with a simple brainstorming session.

For now, let me remind you of the two common characteristics of all the Design Thinking models:

  • Iteration: we need to iterate and course-correct through the learning loops
  • Divergence-Convergence: especially during the ideation process, the divergent solutions and tactics might look overwhelming. One way to converge is Prioritization. Prioritization is an essential process in each change initiative, and they are usually based on, but not limited to:
    • Strategic priorities / Sponsor approval
    • Level of risk associated with each problem
    • Level of urgency
    • Level of infrastructure / availably of resources

I will continue to add to the illustration above and complete the entire Design Thinking process in my following articles.

To your personal and professional growth,

Dr. BehNaz Gholami