Hacking your innovation mindset

Hacking your innovation mindset
The Stanford d.school strives to help people become everyday innovators. Learn how they help their students build the creative confidence to tackle real-life problems in innovative ways.

Like most business students, Josefina was eager to hone her problem-solving skills and bring them back to the firm she left behind in Barcelona. High on her list of things to do before completing her degree was to experience a class at the d.school, a multi-disciplinary institute at Stanford that aims to help people develop their creative potential by practicing design.

Just thirty minutes into her d.school course, Josefina was given the challenge of redesigning the experience of introducing oneself in a new social context. She grew frustrated by a task that felt too fuzzy in comparison to the well-defined problems that she had grown to expect in school. The task required her to have a conversation with a classmate she didn’t know, try to understand his perspective, and design a solution for him. One week later she found herself working with a team of classmates from diverse disciplines to explore an even more ambiguous, real-world challenge — how to empower future women leaders.

Traditional schooling has conditioned students like Josefina to expect well-defined problems that have a single correct answer. In the real world, however, problems are more nuanced and multifaceted. As educators, our goal is to make our students future-ready: to give them both the creative confidence to embrace the challenges they encounter and the skills to tackle them. What students discover in our d.school class, “Design Thinking Studio: Hacking Your Innovation Mindset”, is the need to develop design abilities that help them navigate the ambiguity of a complex world.

Here are three design abilities we teach in our course that we believe are relevant to creating a culture of innovation in the workplace.

1. Learn to navigate ambiguity. Design thinking is about being a problem finder, not just a problem solver. We want our students to have a sense of agency that allows them to challenge the status quo. An important part of this is being able to navigate ambiguity. Being at ease with ambiguity requires practice and reflection. Starting with broadly scoped projects, students learn to zoom in and out to find opportunities for innovation. One of the many tools they learn is the “Why-How Ladder.” For example, they might begin with a problem statement like “How might we help more girls pursue STEM careers?” and then ask “Why is that important?” This question helps one to think of the bigger picture. Conversely, the question “How might we accomplish that?” helps to narrow the scope of the problem. As they acquire new strategies to navigate ambiguous problems they learn to see ambiguity as an abundance of opportunities rather than as a paralyzing force.

2. Practice mindful observation. As part of a series of daily exercises, we asked our students to pause and take a breath every time they walked through a door. This simple exercise, inspired by Jan Chozen Bays’ book Mindfulness on the Go, highlights how often we navigate the world without noticing the physical and mental spaces we enter and leave behind. Mindfulness encourages one to step back and pause, become more self-aware, and become better able to understand the perspectives of others. By practicing this, students learn behaviors that distinguish innovators, such as actively noticing your surroundings. According to a study by Harvard professor Clay Christensen and colleagues, observing and being able to notice what others miss is a key behavior of innovative entrepreneurs.

3. Experiment with your ideas. Experimenting is most commonly associated with scientists. While the methodologies used by a scientist will be specific to their area of inquiry, the underlying mindset is ultimately about making hypotheses or educated guesses, trying different approaches, and learning both from what works and doesn’t work. For a scientist, the goal of an experiment is to explain how things are; for a designer, it is about inventing how things could be. When our students work on a design challenge, we require that they come up with many ideas in a short amount of time, make the ideas tangible and test them in real-world settings to get feedback from other people.

How do we know we have been successful in helping students learn these design abilities? Prior to the start of the course, we gave the students a questionnaire to assess students’ creative agency, which is defined as the individual’s capacity to effect change in themselves and their situations to support successful creative problem-solving. We then gave them the same questionnaire at the end of the term. Their responses captured the shift in their confidence regarding their design abilities over time.

As seen in the graph below, which plots answers to one of the questions, the class as a whole showed an increase in confidence in their ability to show unfinished work to others. Doing so is necessary to obtain feedback from people with different perspectives — colleagues, stakeholders, and experts — in order to learn what works and what doesn’t, and iterate. Waiting to share a polished final solution often results in unnecessary and costly investments of time and resources.

Pre- and post-survey responses to the creative agency questionnaire

After finishing the course, Josefina returned to her firm in Barcelona with an increased ability to navigate ambiguity, be present and mindful, and be more experimental. Our goal is that every student who leaves our course will embrace these mindsets and be able to contribute to building an innovative, future-ready 21st century work culture.