“How might we improve?” vs. “Wouldn’t it be cool if?”

“How might we improve?” vs. “Wouldn’t it be cool if?”

Tim BrownTonight I finished Tim Brown’s book, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation (Tim Brown is the current CEO of design giant IDEO).

In the book he discusses his way of framing a design problem, “How might we . . .” Often the problem statement also includes the verb improve, as in “how might we improve the experience of buying a car?” or “how might we improve the quality of schools in rural districts?” (these type of questions will hereafter be referred to as HMWI questions)

The value of of HMWI questions, according to Brown, is they have “enough flexibility to release the imagination of the [design] team, while providing enough specificity to ground its ideas in the lives of their intended beneficiaries” (pp. 217-218). In other words, they don’t predefine the solution the designer team should come up with, and they also keep the design team focused on the value proposition the innovation is intended to create (particularly the value proposition for real people like you and me).

The thought occurred to me that there might be a contrast between a HMWI question, and a twin question I hear a lot, Wouldn’t It Be Cool If . . . (WIBCI). “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could wear a computer in your clothing?” “Wouldn’t be cool if your eyes could change color based on your mood?”

At the risk of oversimplifying, I wonder if the type of innovation sparked by a WIBCI question more easily loses sight of the endgame the one asking the question originally had in mind, than does a HMWI question. Certainly someone asking a WIBCI question is trying to do something important, and I’m sure many useful parts of modern society started with WIBCI questions. But read the words in each of these two question very slowly. Maybe even read them aloud. Doesn’t How Might We Improve feel better to you? Doesn’t it seem that starting with Wouldn’t It Be Cool If is more likely to run afoul of innovation for its own sake, rather than innovation designed to actually help someone?

What do you think?

Living and Passion; Creating and Inspiration

Before I get to the post, I’d like you to watch this video. Don’t worry. It’s short. And I think it sets the tone for what follows. I’d love to embed the video, but the computer is smarter than me right now. So you can watch it here.

One of the things I can count on when talking with Clint is his insistence on asking me two questions. What would I do with my life if money were not a concern? and What do I most need to accomplish my greatest passion? These are both tough for me to answer. But here’s an attempt.

What would I do with my life?
I’m lucky to have a job that gives me a lot of freedom, both in what I do and how I do it. But, shooting for the moon, I would love to spread a certain philosophy to everyone, in every line of work, through every venue possible, throughout the world. That philosophy is, what if we all saw our purpose as how to best help others discover the joy and wonder that exists in the world? And, how can we best help others express the passion and enthusiasm they feel about their discoveries?

Along with this philosophy I believe there is a creative spirit that can accompany our attempts to help others. We’re constantly creating. It’s part of being human, and every conviction I hold tells me our creativity is a divine heritage we’re given as children of God. No matter our expertise, no matter our jobs, no matter our interests, we can approach even the most mundane activities with a creative spirit that elevates our actions to the miraculous.

People need to believe what I described above. If people believe this their lives will be infused with a passion and a commitment that will carry them through any trial, any discouragement.

What do I need?
I need help in spreading this message. I need help in organizing any effort to get it out in meaningful, personalized, inspirational ways. I need you, and any contribution you have to make. Does this mean spreading the word in your circles of influence? Why not? Does it mean discussing this exciting, enthusiastic philosophy, both with me or with anyone else you know? Why not? Does it mean joining institutions, companies, societies, or other organizations who want to spread this message? Why not? Does it mean creating these organizations ourselves if we find a niche? Why not? And personally, this is what I am looking to do. I don’t know what that means. I don’t even know what I don’t know to get something like that off the ground. But I’m ready to try. If you believe you have anything to contribute, big or small, I’d love your comments.

What do you believe you have to give?

What are we?

Here’s a couple of questions for your Tuesday morning:

Are we anything more than the sum of our experiences?

If we were really good at measurement, and could quantify absolutely everything observable about you, would we then perfectly understand you?

Harlem Children’s Zone

Harlem Children’s Zone

Geoffrey Canada, social activistI just listened to an episode of NPR’s This American Life, that told the story of Harlem’s Children Zone. Founded by Geoffrey Canada, HCZ has the stated goal to eliminate poverty in Harlem for all children. Not a reasonable percentage – but all of them.

He starts with “Baby College,” where he teaches parents of infants and toddlers to say encouraging things to their children, and to not hit them.

He has developed a system of charter schools taking children from pre-K to high school graduation.

Combine this with community programs, outreach, social activism, he  does it all.

And it seems to be working.

(He even got the best of Stephen Colbert!)

Canada’s approach isn’t without controversy. Basically he has decided that he will help the children in Harlem but his programs will only indirectly help their parents. Contrary to many social programs, he is not assuming that he needs to raise families out of poverty before he can improve the children’s circumstances. Instead he assumes that giving the children a chance – even as they experience poverty now – will eliminate hardships for the generation that follows.

Part of me wonders if there isn’t a lesson in that. Does meaningful change require hard choices? If you are unwilling to take risks, even risks that might tear your heart out, are you also closing the door to the reward you’re hoping for?

Read up a little on Harlem Children’s Zone, then let us know what you think.


On Taking Feedback

This blog post is brought to you by the letters J, A, S, O, and N.

There is an old screenwriter’s rule-of-thumb:

  • If someone reading your script tells you it has a problem, they’re probably right.
  • If they try to tell you exactly what’s wrong, they’re right half the time.
  • If they try to tell you how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong.

Think about it – even the most casual consumer of stories has literally spent thousands of hours listening to them – in the movies, on television, or even sitting around the living room with Mom and Dad. All of us are experts at listening to stories, so when we hear a story that doesn’t work our expertise let’s us know. But fewer of us are experts at analyzing stories, and even fewer are expert at creating them. So our success at giving advice is those areas is more hit-and-miss. Not that we aren’t capable – just that we haven’t paid the price to learn how.

So the wise screenwriter listens with both ears to people’s reactions to a script, but ignores most suggestions on how to fix the problem, instead relying on his or her instincts.

Do these screenwriting tips translate into taking feedback in other areas of life?

Whose need comes first?

A small company in Utah recently went through a few rounds of layoffs. I bet you can repeat along with me how they announced it to employees.

  • It’s nothing personal, but . . .
  • Well, in these tough times sometimes you just have to . . .
  • The reality of 21st century business means we can’t be loyal for loyalty’s sake . . .

I’m sure you’ve heard it before. And I don’t want to come across as hard on them. Of course, sometimes these things are unavoidable.

But a friend of mine, between the second and third rounds of downsizing, decided he wanted to leave on his own terms. He found a great opportunity, and tendered his resignation.

Can you predict how the company reacted?

  • How could you?!?!?!
  • What ever happened to loyalty?!?!?!
  • You have no idea how tough it will be for us to deal with this!!!!
  • Is it really ethical to leave in this economic climate?!?!?

Again, so I don’t come across harsher than I intend, I’m sure they did consider my friend an invaluable asset, and were legitimately scared about what they would do without him. But yes, you read it right. When the company was the one being affected, out came the language of honor, dependability, and fidelity. When they were affecting others, the language was that of formality, neutrality, and everyone-for-themselves. It seems like a law of modern business.

But is it a law that we want to drive our economy? What is it that should drive our economy? Let me postulate that it isn’t the business need, but the human need that should be given priority. After all, weren’t the employees let go also counting on company loyalty? Won’t it be tough for them to deal with being laid off? And (dare I say it?) shouldn’t we think deeply about how ethical it is to let employees go in this economic climate?

This approach to business relations is not only evident in the employer/employee relationship. I’ve also noticed it in the field I’m most familiar with – education. Many schools, including the most prestigious universities, are starting to see themselves as little more than training institutes for big business (Businesses need well-trained employees, don’t they?). But we don’t ask about the consequences for the educational system, or ultimately the students who are being short-changed for life while they are being trained for jobs that might not exist when they graduate. I’ve even heard administrators who are reluctant to try innovative educational practices for fear of how their business partners would react (won’t it make it harder for them to select the most qualified employees?), rather than considering whether the innovation will help students develop into kinder, gentler, more compassionate people.

I want to live in a world where businesses value their employees not because of what those employees can do, but because of who those employees are. I believe that if employees trusted corporations to take care of them, they would take care of the corporation. After all, that’s what good relationships are about, aren’t they? Taking care of each other?

But I also believe there are virtues and behaviors that should be admired for their own merits, and not only when they are instrumental in achieving other, business-driven ends. Treating people right is just the right thing to do, even when it isn’t measurable by the latest Six Sigma Whatever. Aren’t we really interested in developing people who are capable of discovering and expressing the passion, wonder, and joy of the world? Shouldn’t we be?

Of course, it’s almost heresy to suggest this, isn’t it?

What do you think?