Design for Learning by Doing

T.S. Eliot once wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” As I enter the beginning of my last quarter on 655 Knight Way, I’ve been reminded of Eliot’s words on the duality of hope and longing through my last posts on resilience. At the heart of resilience is the ability to embrace failure and learn from mistakes, a skill which requires practice as well as a balanced view of the world as a spectrum of shades between success and failure — concepts that are fundamental to design thinking.

The teaching methodology at the mimics the design thinking thesis that: “The only way to do it is TO DO IT.” Each of the experiential courses that I’ve had the privilege to take at the intentionally force students into uncomfortable situations so as to encourage moving quickly (before you think you’re ready), comfort with ambiguity, and rapid iterative prototyping. This is in support of when learning is at its highest for us humans:

  • When we try something new
  • When we fail
  • When we take ownership of the process

It’s that 3rd one which is most difficult to do, as a manager not yet ready to hand over the reins, or as a budding leader not yet confident in your own abilities. Yet this is often where the magic happens — both for the manager to see something innovative come to fruition, and for the budding leader to realize that doing is the best practice to form an attitude which follows behavior.

Design thinking is synonymous with resilience and serves to build it. Just as there are times when it’s better to give up, design thinking is not right for every occasion. Sometimes optimization is best, such as for descriptive or predictive purposes when dealing with repeatable processes (e.g. chemical processes or machine-driven manufacturing). But when your purpose is prescriptive as when dealing with stochastic processes (e.g. human-centric), design thinking rules.

Often in the business world, we believe that a problem is a problem — with a unitary solution that can and should be optimized, and we seek principles (often scientific) to justify our decisions and our biases post-facto. More often than not, our problems are actually dilemmas — tradeoffs that need to be continually managed. As Naseem Taleb described in Antifragile, most of the frameworks and processes adopted by corporations came as a result of retroactively explaining successful innovations. Those which were theorized in advance, per the scientific method, are continually refined over time. In this respect, optimization is like the belief in intelligent design — an omniscient creator responsible for a single outcome and all of its unexpected ramifications in advance. Whereas design thinking is evolution — a continual meta-process of rapid experimentation and learning where that which works becomes sticky and has built in resilience over time.

Just as how “doing” is the best way to realize that outcomes are rarely a bipolar distribution of success/failure, “doing” is also the best way to realize that we humans are always in a spectrum between hope and longing, between the future and the past. As C.S. Lewis wrote: “the present is the point at which time touches eternity.” To build resilience, embrace the principles of design thinking. Focus on doing in the present.

This article was originally published on Apr 3, 2017.