Design thinking is helping designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs solve problems more successfully and develop better products. Here’s how conflict resolvers can use one of design thinking’s most powerful steps to achieve better outcomes.
A group of Stanford students traveled to Myanmar for an irrigation project. Why an irrigation project? Because farmers there were having problems getting their crops watered, of course. What a generous thing for these Stanford students to do.
Except that irrigation was the solution to a problem the farmers didn’t have.
Fortunately, the Stanford engineering students did something smart before getting too carried away with shovels and backhoes: They spent time with the farmers to deeply understand the crop-watering problem from the farmers’ frame of reference.
The students were taught to use a problem-solving approach called “design thinking.” Design thinking is user-centric. Instead of looking at a problem diagnostically from the outside in, design thinking invites designers to immerse themselves in the experience of the person who has the problem, trying to see it from the inside out.
The first step in design thinking is empathizing — trying to fully understand the experience of the user for whom you are designing.
When the Stanford students did this, they discovered that watering crops wasn’t the farmers’ real problem. Lighting was. There was no electric power to their small homes. It took a great deal of their time and income to manage their needs for light without electric available, and to deal with the fumes that kerosene lanterns and candles released into their homes.
So instead of traveling 15,000 miles roundtrip and solving the wrong problem, the Stanford students were able to deliver something truly amazing and useful instead: They developed affordable, solar-powered LED task lights that have since provided light to millions of people in 42 countries.
A good question for the toolbox
How do you know that you’ve arrived at the real problem that needs solving? How do you know you are deeply understanding the problem from the inside out?
One way, says Stanford engineering professor Bernard Roth, is with this question: “If you solve this problem, what would it do for you?”
In conflict resolution terms, we’d say this question helps get at interests, the underlying needs and wants that often remain unstated in a conflict. But it does more than get at interests — it also helps us get clearer on the problem that, when solved, will really make the difference.
So, when a department head calls me and says, “My team needs team building,” I can’t help but think to myself, “Then why are you calling a mediator?” I can ask, “What problem is team building solving for you?” then, “And when you solve that problem, what will it do for you?” Very quickly we may see together that team-building activities will not magically resolve the conflict that is eating away at the team’s morale.
And when a client says to me, “I need your help dealing with a very passive-aggressive person,” I can ask, “If he becomes less passive-aggressive, what would it do for you?” I might hear in response, “He will stop saying he agrees with me then going and doing something entirely different.”
I learn that the problem she’s really trying to solve is how to ensure that agreements are carried out. Somehow, miraculously making him less passive-aggressive (if he really is to begin with) might achieve that, but it might not. Other possibilities begin to reveal themselves, all worth exploring: Ways to make confirm someone is truly agreeing to something. Ways to uncover doubts or disagreements so they can be discussed. Ways to build buy-in to an idea.