January 7, 2021

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Design”? How about Design Thinking (DT)? I never really considered it until I was thrust into the world of Design Thinking a couple of years ago.

Our work at BMNT focuses on accelerating innovation in the national security space. It is a world that routinely used Design Thinking and other methodologies to help teams unpack a problem domain, in order to seek, find, and create a way forward. Now, over more than 40 engagements later, where we worked with more than 500 participants across the naval warfare development community, I have not only come to appreciate DT’s principles, but have become an amateur researcher attempting to codify what makes it work in the recalcitrant national security environment, where creativity and risk do not seem to be a part of the lexicon. I’m especially intrigued by how to leverage it for the complex engineering environment I work in.

Design Thinking is a methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It’s extremely useful in tackling complex problems that are ill-defined or unknown. If there is one industry sector that is constrained by thinking, it’s Defense. They are stymied by the Red Queen Effect—where the commercial world is racing forward posing greater and greater challenges to this industry that moves at a place, at some point, may be too slow to keep us safe. I feel that there is an urgent need to broaden Defense’s repertoire of strategies for addressing the complex and open-ended challenges they face.

The world of design is not new. It harks back to the '50s and '60s when industrial design was coming into its own. and was made larger than life by the design firm IDEO. It’s a methodology and toolset that has provided structure and language to what many designers intuitively do — which is empathize and seek out learning, seek out differences, interrogate those differences to sort out the possibilities --new designs, new concepts — for a messy and complex world.

Defense finds itself in a world where uncertainty reigns, where the world is becoming increasingly complex given the rise of near-peer powers who are just as capable of developing their own technologies and capabilities. Yet, Defense also finds itself to be an increasingly byzantine and inflexible system where the same approaches are applied to the same problems, not admitting that the solutions aren’t working. We can’t seem to get out of our own way.

As I gained experience, my eyes opened to the mounting benefits of DT’s concepts — which orient us toward embracing diverse thinking, collaboration, and feeding off each other’s observations. We live and work in a world of interlocking systems, where many of the problems we face are dynamic, multifaceted, and inherently human. The application of Design Thinking is sorely needed.

What are some of the reasons that make it special?

1. Empathy

Design Thinking not only espouses empathy, it gives empathy a central role. DT’s iconic 5 or 6 stage process (depending on whose graphic you come across), starts with Empathize. Empathizing is not about asking people what they feel, what they want or merely getting into the user’s shoes. It includes observing and putting oneself into the user’s (or all system stakeholders’) shoes. It’s about getting to know the problem, isolating its root from symptoms. So often we are faced with symptoms of the problem domain — not truly understanding its dimensions and accompanying complexities. As we get a team of folks to articulate the problem — brainstorm and list whatever they can think of -- then group them and discuss the ensuing landscape of data (often on stickies), we come to better understand what the issues are. Oftentimes this phase uncovers “the elephant in the room,” and by making that elephant transparent, we can then deal with it. We find that teams are settling for incremental thinking, and so then embark on taking them on a journey to think more ambitiously.

This aspect of user-centric empathizing is supremely important in this world of defense acquisition where the engineering team rarely interacts with the end-users in their environment — yet need to implement requirements that are overly specific. It behooves engineering teams to reach out and talk to users, managers and other stakeholders to not only better understand the requirements but also get a better sense of the design space.

The graphic below from Stanford’s d-school itemizes the different phases; Empathize/Define is really about immersion into the problem domain. DT usually refers to Human Centric, and defense systems often equate that to human-centered interfaces. Oftentimes folks index on the end-users. But, it’s more than that. It’s about designing for every interacting individual to the system - even if they might be interacting through machines (if you will — since AI is eating the world today).

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Source: Stanford d-school with some adaptations

2. The DVF Framework

Design Thinking introduces 3 lenses to use when examining a problem domain: Desirability, Feasibility, and Viability. This framework, while simple, is powerful since it quickly helps one ascertain where to apply effort. DTers start with Desirability, but always assess the other factors, which I sometimes think of as lenses that frame the constraints to the design. Constraints are not bad; they often force more innovation and creativity.

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DVF Framework

The DVF Framework asks us to balance what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It reminds us not to index too much on one domain; it helps us clarify constraints to any solution we might consider. For example, if a solution is not viable — if it is either too expensive or does not have the right champion, then the design team can properly adjust their approach to take these issues into account, and reconsider their approach to achieve a desired outcome.

3) Iteration and 4) Diversity

Design thinking is known for its Diverge/Converge, Diverge/Converge spirals. We take teams through this sequence in an iterative fashion to explore and surface differences that inform and educate. We help teams to take their time in probing the problem space, to iterate and consider alternatives. Oftentimes we use a minimal viable product (which can be as simple as a sketch on a sheet of paper or a set of questions that stimulate a user’s imagination) to elicit deeper insights.

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The diverge sequence not only allows for differing observations, opinions and thinking, it encourages it. In structuring an engagement, we actively help the leader source a diverse group from their team. We use this sequence to force diverse thinking. We employ stickies and other techniques that ameliorate the hierarchical structure that characterizes the Defense environment. This is important in that rank does not necessarily align with knowledge about a problem domain, nor does it ensure a creative solution. The Defense environment can be quite homogenous. Without forcing divergence, the thinking and creativity within an engagement will beget merely incremental solutions.

5) Possibility Thinking

A foundational value of design thinking is to think — about possibilities. Instead of noting what we cannot do, or how could we achieve something, we ask How Might We create XX, YY, and ZZ. The How Might We Question originated from Proctor & Gamble in the '70s. It forces teams to think audaciously. I distinctly recall during one of our workshops we encountered the need to list out the risks to a project. Instead of merely thinking about mitigations, we took the opportunity to ask How Might We questions and helped the team uplevel their thinking and confidence around creating an impactful solution.

The world of Design Thinking has opened my eyes to how we feed off of each other creativity and differences. It has shown how a facilitated discussion around a topic can challenge the status quo and beget great solutions. Our team has no shortage of opportunities to apply these principles to our work. Our next challenge is not just to apply and use it with the Navy teams, but to truly scale its utilization.