The d.school’s flagship class, Design Thinking Bootcamp, consistently draws students from every school and program to work together on team-based approaches to real-world challenges. Want a glimpse of what it’s like? Justin Ferrell, the Director of Digital, Mobile and New Product Design for the Washington Post, is on campus for a one-year long Knight journalism fellowship. He shares his experiences as a Bootcamp student, and distills a few principles he plans to apply to his work.
The chance to study at the d.school is the reason I applied for a journalism fellowship here, and having read design thinking books by Tim Brown and Roger Martin — and being a professional designer myself — I thought I’d come to Stanford to “polish” my practical team-building style with some high-brow academic theory.
For sure I had a lot to learn — just not what I thought. Design thinking is anything but a theory. The d.school’s officially called the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, but Workshop might be a better moniker. Instructors preach a “bias toward action” and students physically tackle real-world problems (sometimes with chainsaws and glue guns). As a design director at The Washington Post, I tackle problems too. But there’s a big leap between doing your best within your opportunity and reframing that opportunity entirely.
That’s what I call the d.school SMACK! — which hit me the first week of class. No doubt it shakes you up, especially if you’re an industry pro who’s worked very hard for very long, moreso if you’re proud of your insular achievements. The upside is, if you endure the SMACK! and turn loose your assumptions, the d.school instructors teach you HOW to reframe. Your bruised ego heals. And you begin to see problems, no matter where they are, as innately solvable. One of the great benefits of design thinking is, the need (or problem, if you prefer) is never a bridge too far: the process applies if you apply yourself to the process.
1. I KNOW, YEAH, DIVERSITY — WAIT, WHAT?
I’ve had many official titles at The Post, but as the industry’s come under extreme duress, I’ve made organizational change my unofficial job. As often as possible, I’ve brought together distinctly-skilled journalists throughout the newsroom to create stories with more impact than they could make on their own. As storytelling evolves, I’ve recruited (mostly) data programmers and front-end designers to build ever more sophisticated experiences. I love breaking down conventional work models and enabling talented people to empower each other, and I’m constantly drawing org charts on paper scraps and passing them to my boss.
So I know all about building innovative, diverse tea– SMACK!
The first Bootcamp team design project grouped me with three complete strangers: an English MBA, an Indian engineer and a Taiwanese programmer. We were given a complex assignment we knew nothing about:
Redesign the Muslim-American Philanthropy Experience. Um, ok.
I’d always thought my journalism teams were diverse, but we were like clones compared to this. My d.school group had greater functional diversity than I’m used to, and we also had tremendous perspective diversity, which meant it took awhile for us to learn to communicate.
These terms come from the fascinating research of Lu Hong and Scott E. Page from the University of Michigan, who published their findings in a paper titled “Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers.” That chief finding is astounding, and my experience in Bootcamp supports it: When it comes to teams, diversity can be more important than individual talent.
So how do you work with people you’ve never met? Take chances with folks who don’t know you? Share expertise without driving the outcome?
And help each other along?
2. THERE IS NO HIERARCHY WITHIN THE TEAM
I’ve worked in journalism for 15 years. I earned a degree from a prestigious school, I started at a very small newspaper in an entry-level job, and I’ve worked my way up (with much help) to a leadership position at The Washington Post. Over the years, I’ve won several awards and have had the good fortune to work on many big news events and important projects — some of them impacting national security! At Stanford, I’m at least 10 years older than most of the graduate students. And though all of them are intimidatingly smart (and most are equally friendly), you’re saying that I have no group authority?
In media organizations, this is where things often fall apart. Journalists like to get work done. They care very much about the work they do. And they have strong ideas about how best to do it. This ambition is what makes excellent reporters, photographers and editors, and therefore is not something a manager wants to discourage. But by suspending hierarchy, and making it known and accepted within the group, its members are freed to own their personal expertise.
I wasn’t about to tell the MBA student how to run a business, but I had ideas to challenge her thinking. I couldn’t project manage like the mechanical engineer, but I could help us feel okay about staying in a step the group hadn’t comfortably completed. None of my partners were free-thinking designers, but they knew how to keep me from plunging down tangential rabbit holes. Suspended hierarchy is a gift. So how do you decide what to do?
3. ASK PEOPLE
Empathy is actually the first “official” step in the design thinking process (Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test), so think of the team building as step zero. But like everything in the process, each step is additive: if you’re able to form a diverse group, suspend your respective authority within the group and openly share and welcome ideas, then you’ve learned to drop some ego and listen. You recognize that the difficulty of those steps personally is well worth it to the project, which you hope will fill a societal need (and is therefore more important than your own). Those two steps are required to be able to nakedly seek “ordinary” opinions, to really hear what people say and discover insights without bias.
The empathy step is not about listening to people and doing what they say. It’s about listening to them to find out what they need. That insight emerges at the intersection of your team’s individual and collective expertise and the information (verbal and otherwise) that you glean from your interviews.You’ll have a chance later to find out if you’re right, when you test. And if need be, you can do it again!
My group discovered that some Muslim Americans need an avenue to openly share their perspectives with non-Muslim Americans. We created an educational prototype, just one solution among the 20 our class proposed. There’s no one answer to Redesign the Muslim-American Philanthropy Experience, or to Save Journalism, or to Solve World Hunger or whatever problem you take on. What Bootcamp taught me foremost is this: if we get together and do it, we’ll end up solving problems collectively.