design thinking

How design thinking helps to mix disciplines – and why that matters

By dim-sum - July 7, 2020

You could call me a cocktail of ethnicities. My mother’s parents met in a German labour camp during the war, my grandfather employed from the Netherlands and my grandmother from Ukraine (the Soviet Union back then). My father was born in Sumatra, Indonesia (Dutch East Indies at the time). My grandfather and grandmother on my father’s side were a mix of Moluccan, Javanese, Portuguese and Dutch roots.

My resume looks like it belongs to different people. From HR and social sciences, I went to work on editorial boards, then to marketing within publishers, next to a mix of both (branded content) and then to set up a company in sustainable accessories and eventually to establish dim-sum, in which I apply design thinking to combine research and creative strategy with coaching.

Would my roots have anything to do with my unusual career? I don’t know, I do know I have always found it interesting that apparently different disciplines often have much in common. In addition, I think complex questions need new perspectives and a mix of disciplines to find the answer. (That’s also why I brought together the Sum Collective).

I also like that there is so much overlap and complement in apparently completely different disciplines such as research, strategy and coaching. That gives me confidence that in the future not only disciplines but also people will be able to see the added value of other perspectives. Because that is the key to a better world.

Design thinking in creative strategy

That is why combining creative strategy with coaching is not such a crazy idea. For me, this started with the discovery of design thinking, years ago: a people-centred approach to innovation, which uses the designer’s toolkit to integrate people’s needs, the capabilities of technology and the requirements for business success.

Ha! Design thinking not only gave a name to my approach to my work, but it also provided a clear focus in my work as a creative strategist.

For a large part, I already lived the mindset of design thinking: understanding people’s needs was the starting point in all my work, I value collaboration, dare to take risks. Empathy and a curious, questioning yet optimistic and holistic view are in my nature.

Other essential elements of design thinking haven’t always come easy. Allowing myself to make mistakes, sharing work that is not yet as good as it can be or asking for help are all goals I’m still working on. Discovering a method that values ​​”not knowing” was a confirmation of what I already knew intuitively, which helped me to be more confident.

5 stages of design thinking

Following the 5 stages of design thinking proved to be a helpful grid for every question I came across as a creative strategist, no matter how complex:

1. Learn from people

2. Look for patterns

3. Only then define the question to be answered

4. Creatively explore different solutions and learn from these experiments

5. Implement the chosen solution, based on the idea that you are in an endless learning process

While conducting interviews and facilitating co-creation sessions during these five stages, I increasingly noticed certain behaviour and emotions, from which I knew held important information for the question we were dealing with at the time. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Like that co-creation session where one of the participants was so openly cynical, that others no longer dared to share their ideas. I could see it happening and got up all my courage to take him aside. He saw no problem with any of this, I didn’t know what else to say. Result: a disgruntled participant, an insecure facilitator (me) and a nagging feeling that the result of the workshop could have been better. I decided to learn more about behaviour and emotions and enrolled in a coaching course.

Design thinking and coaching

So, I started out thinking I had to park a lot of what I had learned as a creative strategist, to immerse myself in the new expertise of coaching. Already on the first training day, I realized this was not the case at all. Coaching also turned out to be all about people, empathy, creativity, communication, curiosity, collaboration and learning.

The similarities between coaching and design thinking were clear from the start and I increasingly felt that they could complement each other very well.

As a coach I facilitate the change process of people achieving self-chosen goals, as a strategist, I more or less do the same. Although my role as a creative strategist is more advisory, I strongly support working with the people who ultimately determine the success of a strategy. Switching between these two roles keeps me on my toes.

I’ve become a better strategist thanks to coaching, because I understand the emotions behind behaviour better, which leads to valuable insights. My work as a creative strategist makes me a better coach because it gives me a deeper understanding of the context of coaching questions.

Parallels between design thinking and coaching

Out of the eight similarities between design thinking and coaching that strike me most, the importance of solid processes, a good learning climate and clear communication have long been acknowledged. I’d like to make a case for the remaining five similarities since they are of great value to organizations today: empathy, creativity, collaboration, curiosity and emotional intelligence (EI). I will explain why below. Disclaimer: In the spirit of design thinking, I’ll never finish learning.  So this list is nowhere near complete! Please feel free to add your parallels. I’m very curious about other experiences and perspectives.

1. Empathy

Empathy is a requirement for connection and trust: both of great importance to collaborating well and crucial if you want people to share valuable insights with you. These insights can often be found in the (less visible) values ​​and emotions behind people’s (visible) behaviour. Without these valuable insights, progress in coaching and a valuable strategy cannot be established.

Example: for a client, we examined how young people in a particular region listen to music. The client’s campaign was aimed at young people listening to music with friends. We found that young people listen to music or podcasts largely as an individual matter; almost all the time and anywhere. Mainly to create peace of mind, because in many cases, silence created unrest. Listening to music with friends was only a small part of their music consumption.   

2.   Creativity

Change is central in both coaching and design thinking: breaking free from old ways of thinking, changing habits and breaking patterns. That in itself is the essence of creativity, for only by breaking patterns, something new can be created. My work in the creative sector (editing magazines, copywriting, coming up with concepts etc) helps me to have an eye for the less well-travelled paths from a to b, in my role as a strategist as well as in my role as a coach. Moreover, there is a strong link between emotional intelligence (EI, see also # 5) and creativity: in short, it means that you can think more creatively if you can regulate your emotions better. As Einstein put it so beautifully: “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”

3.    Collaboration

The success of a strategy is determined by the people who execute the strategy, so the strongest strategies are co-created with them. Coaching also works best if you work together, from equality. In both cases, you facilitate change and build on each other’s ideas. The latter is also clearly stated to EI: to be able to do this you must have the emotional intelligence to see the value of other people’s ideas and to be able to integrate them into your own thinking. This becomes more difficult if personal emotional issues are holding you back.

4.    Curiosity

Even though it sounds a bit pretentious, I’ll repeat it anyway: I believe the world would be a better place if people saw the added value of the other person’s perspective. I see it happen a lot during coaching as well as during strategy processes, with others and with myself: a new perspective can create space, to think freely about what’s possible. The feeling of ‘ah, that works, too!’ This is necessary to overcome hurdles and break through patterns (see also # 2). If you stay curious, you are unlikely to miss insights that can be of value. It helps to not let judgments get in the way and thus give plenty of space to what is there. Important in any process of change, because connection – without judgment, with empathy – ensures trust. Nice side effect: if people see the value of curiosity because it benefits them in the process of change, it is something that will benefit them for a long time after.

5.    Emotional Intelligence

What if we could all recognize emotions from ourselves and others, use this information to guide thinking and behaviour, and manage those emotions to achieve a specific goal? Then we would all be emotionally intelligent. The good news: you can increase your EI! Harvard research shows that you can improve your self-awareness, empathy and social skills through these 3 actions: recognizing your emotions, asking for feedback and … reading literature (!). Reading stories from other perspectives increases our empathic abilities.

Other research (also from Harvard) shows that the best way to learn EI within organizations is to start with self-inquiry and in-depth conversations with colleagues and coaches (I’m not making this up, it’s what it says!). Only then do training courses prove effective.

The beauty of empathy is that it creates an open mind, making it easier to have conversations with each other. A conversation will inspire and/or surprise and because of that positive experience, you will be more likely to start conversations so that you… yes, you catch the drift. Speaking of; get in touch if you feel like starting a conversation with dim-sum!

By dim-sum - July 7, 2020

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