This ‘Design Thinking’ Thing Seems Worth Copying From Business Schools

Photo: Wei Yan/Masterfile/Corbis

The New Year is nearly one week old now, and maybe some of the resolutions you made last Friday in the haze of a cheap-Champagne hangover are starting to seem a little less sensible. Green juice, running outside in the freezing cold, Dry January — why? Why do any of this? Why does any of this even matter? 

These, as it turns out, are exactly the questions you should be asking, according to the principles of design thinking, writes Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times. The concept itself is nothing new, exactly. It’s been around since the 1960s, and in the last ten years or so it’s been mostly adopted by business schools, CEOs, and entrepreneurs as a way to create new products that consumers actually want or need. Applying these principles to one’s own dumb life, on the other hand, is indeed a newer idea. At first glance, the five-step process sort of just seems like a lesson in advanced list-making, but the difference is made in steps one and two. 

Parker-Pope writes:

Step 1 is to “empathize” — learn what the real issues are that need to be solved. Next, “define the problem” — a surprisingly tough task. The third step is to “ideate” — brainstorm, make lists, write down ideas and generate possible solutions. Step 4 is to build a prototype or create a plan. The final step is to test the idea and seek feedback from others.

So then these are the key questions: Why am I really trying to solve this problem, and what would happen if it were solved? Sometimes the answers end up revealing that you’ve been going at the problem all wrong. “For instance, Stanford students went to Myanmar to work on an irrigation project,” Parker-Pope writes. “The first two steps of design thinking — empathize and define the problem — meant that the students spent time with the farmers to understand their problems with watering crops. In doing so, they discovered that the farmers’ real problem was not irrigation but light.”

In your own life, these questions can help you figure out what’s really bugging you about the way you live your life now, and can subsequently help you come up with habit changes that will pointedly address that problem. A perennial resolution of mine, for example, is to stop being late for everything. I’ve tried paper calendars and fancy apps alike with only middling success. Gradually, I realized that it wasn’t that I forgot appointments — it was really just those last few minutes of rounding up my stuff before getting out the door that was making me late. I put a little box by the door to place my keys and a hook to place my bag, and voilà — now I am only sometimes late. (Progress is progress.) 

Parker-Pope’s personal example, admittedly, is much more impressive: She claims to have lost 25 pounds thanks to design thinking. Call it whatever you like, but the heart of the idea makes sense: To change a habit, it helps to understand the real problem you’re trying to fix.

Let’s Talk About This ‘Design Thinking’ Thing