How might we design a more beautiful world?
Updated: Jan 5, 2022
The story we want to tell
We all have a story to tell. Unfortunately, sometimes the story we want to tell doesn't match the real story. I suppose that is how fiction originated. But when it comes to real-life storytelling, less than the real story is fake and sooner or later leads to failure. While I love starting posts with a story or metaphor that relates to the topic at hand, this morning, it just wasn't there. I intended to write a blog talking about the how might we statements of design thinking. Namely, what is missing from writings and teachings in the design thinking community? The intent isn't to judge or point out flaws but to provide a different or more inclusive perspective. Perhaps it comes from my knack for strategy and ability to see what's missing. Or maybe it's synthesizing all my interests and readings over the years. 🤷♀️I'm not sure exactly, but my intention was clear. - write a blog on how might we statements. Offer a different (hopefully more inclusive) perspective. Then as I was getting ready, I decided to listen to Adele on my Apple Music. And so here we are. This blog may get a little sappy, but if I can make you think differently about designing the future of work and our world, then I will have succeeded.
"How might we" basics
To be sure we are all on the same page, let's review some basics around the how we might statement of design thinking. The how might we statement is part of Step 2 of design thinking - the define phase. It comes after Step 1 of design thinking - the empathy phase. So in Step 1, designers interview, observe, walk in the shoes of their users from a beginner's mindset—the goal is to experience life from their point of view and understand their needs. Step 2 synthesizes all the information that was discovered in Step 1 and prioritizes it to a core problem. In this step, the core problem is then flipped into a question starting with "how might we." While there are many reasons for turning it into a question, I'll share my favorite.
Most importantly, designing is about creativity. Whether you're creating a new product, service, employee experience, or supply chain, it's about creating an innovation that meets the user's needs. While the brain is complex, let's keep it simple. Creativity is a right-brain function where inspiration, imagination, and possibility reside. The left brain is where our memory is, what we've learned, and the process of logic. What, when, or where questions engage the left brain searching for answers from past experiences. Albeit not a great place to go if you're looking for fresh ideas for innovation. Why questions also start us in the right brain. Precisely, the reason so many researchers use the five why method as it uncovers every possible cause a person can "think of." Keyword - think vs. imagine—left-brain vs. right-brain. It helps us understand why problems exist and thus also dives into what exists or what's missing. "How," on the other hand, is an expansive question. How is a question that opens our creative mind up to possibilities?
By all means, left-brain dominance can hijack the question and begin to grind away at it logically. But that is a mistake. True innovators ask the question to (God, the Muse, the Universe, or some outside force) and let the answer come to them. Thomas Edison was known to ask himself questions before going to sleep, only to find the answer would come to him as he woke up. Likewise, most of us have experienced a brilliant idea or insight while taking a shower, going for a hike, or doing other random self-care activities. Whether intentionally or not, when our logical brain has the opportunity to relax, our creative brain can step in with unique ideas. Starting with "How might we?" is a doorway for the imagination to unfold.
Good question, bad timing
So let's be direct - "how might we" questions are good questions. Great questions, actually, for the task of innovation. It's not a matter of being a bad question but one of bad timing. An example: tuning into (empathy - phase 1) you discover your partner's desire for a great steak dinner and then consult with your friends or family to decide "how might we" meet your partner's need for a great steak dinner. Everyone pulls together, buying all the fixings to grill a big juicy steak at home. Only to find out your partner didn't want the hassle of preparing all the sides, eating dinner at home in the middle of a renovation, or cleaning up the dirty dishes after. Not to mention they wanted quality time alone with you and not a group of family or friends for a change. You empathized, you found the need, but you left them out of the creative part. You returned to your creative group (family or friends) and asked the "how might we" question in a vacuum. We've likely all done some version of this in our lives. I know I have.
Just as it wasn't about the steak, it's not about the product, the service, the change initiatives, or fill in the blank that needs innovating. Products, services, change initiatives - all fail. And fail at pretty high rates because they focus on the thing. The innovation. The new shiny product, the next level service, the technology that will move the needle for the organization. It's not for lack of asking good "how might we" questions but a matter of bad timing of when and to whom you ask them. We ask the question of the design team, excluding the user from the opportunity to co-create a better world with you.
We focus on what we can innovate externally versus what we unleash internally.
Innovation becomes what we want to happen to or for people. Rather than what we want to happen with people—a shared experience. The point being, empathy included, innovation has focused on one thing - profit. And sadly, most often, profit over people. But they are not mutually exclusive.
Making a more beautiful world
To make a more beautiful world together, it's essential to move the "how might we" question back to the beginning of the process. It's what I call leading by design. However, it can certainly include any user (customer, partner, or employee) in the imagining. We not only allow them to let their voices be heard by sharing their lived experience in the empathy phase. We enable open hearts and minds to imagine the vision we have for a better world. By asking, "how might we create a better world" together. Not "we" (our company) for them (employee, customers, etc.) but capital "WE." As in humanity. When we unleash humanity's creative hearts and minds, we allow for greater connection, collaboration, purpose, and more, whether the world we are building is an organization, a new product line, or a work culture.
Empathy allows people to share their lived experience. Creativity allows people to express their wholeself and to fully live.
If we could rewrite the story
First, the world can be a beautiful place when we make the "WE" universal and not us vs. them. For we as humans, our purpose is the same - we are here to make the world a better place. While how we do that looks different for each of us, our desires are the same - to be loved and accepted as the unique individual we are. To live as that unique individual (gifts, talents, fears, doubts, flaws, and all). To grow into the best version of ourselves and to offer that in service to the world. It's how we leave the world better than we found it.
To illustrate the difference of asking the "how might WE" questions to the beginning, I'll close with two scenarios from 2021 to illustrate.
Example 1 - Facebook: What if, before the whistleblower's testimony, Facebook had taken some time to self-reflect on their mission of connecting people. What if Facebook had noticed the issues that were starting to crop up with the mental health issues of their young users or the political division of their adult users. And rather than ignoring them to continue to crank the dial on profits they asked
How might we help young users develop a healthy self-image?
How might we help (all ages) develop healthy and respectful relationships?
How might we help create healthy political dialog?
Example 2 - Better.com: What if the CEO of Better decided to hold that Zoom call with the employees and rather than telling them that they were laid off, he was authentic and transparent. The story could have been written differently
"I've called you here today to talk about some difficulties the company is facing due to the pandemic and the uncertainty happening in the world. In order to ride out this storm it will take tremendously cost cutting and creativity. Cost cutting to the tune of $XXX,XXX. The fastest way to that number would be to cut 900 employees but that's not the intention of this call. We are a family and each and every one of us has poured blood, sweat, and tears into our work, serving our customers, and this company. Instead, I believe there is tremendous untapped potential in each and every one of you and I want to begin the dialog that I want you to continue with your direct manager until we right the ship. The dialog begins with this question - how might we cut costs and creatively innovate? How can we not only survive but thrive long into the future?"
My what a different story history could have told.
What story do you want to tell?
Perhaps you're not ready to change the world. Perhaps you'd be happy just to meet your sales goals for the quarter, create a better connection between your department and a support department, or improve your company hiring process. Regardless of the change you want to see, it all begins with WE.