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Design Thinking: Doing It Right

Twenty years ago, a now famous experiment in psychology showed participants a video of basketball players, and instructed them to count how many times the players passed the ball.


Less than a minute into the video, a woman wearing a full-body gorilla suit walks between the players and across the court. Most participants didn’t even notice it. They were counting the number of passes.


The experiment showed how easy it is to miss something obvious.

We Think We’re Perceptive, but …

Best-in-class construction companies are always on the lookout for creative ways to do things better. So, what are your options to solve a problem?


You could assign one person to review it. They may, however, have blinders on, because of their personal work experiences or pet peeves they hold about how things should be done.


You could task a project team to delve into the matter. The problem is, they may channel only the views of the strongest personalities on the team and, as a result, tuck away good ideas. It’s just human nature to label many ideas unworkable.


“People are very limited in what they’re able to perceive in their visual world when they’re focused on one thing,” says Leigh Thompson, professor of management and organizations at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “Coupled with the fact that people believe themselves to be in the 99th percentile with regard to their perceptive abilities, that’s a dangerous combination.”


This is where Design Thinking can help.


Design Thinking is a way to use creativity as a business tool. It involves observing a problem, reframing it, designing solutions, and testing them in hopes of improving a product or service experience.


As reported by Kellogg Insight, Thompson and David Schonthal, a clinical associate professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Kellogg and an IDEO senior director, recently published a paper, “The Social Psychology of Design Thinking” (California Management Review).


Thompson and Schonthal are experts on Design Thinking. This management process can be helpful because people tend to get tunnel vision when working on a problem.


“People’s intuitions are often incorrect and, moreover, it is often difficult for people to revise their thinking,” says the abstract to Thompson and Schonthal’s paper.


So, Thompson and Schonthal have outlined how to get the most out of the Design Thinking process.

How to Do Design Thinking

Here are four points to note:


1. Study your job sites. “Design thinkers must get out from behind their desks and observe a problem ‘in the wild,’” says Schonthal. You don’t want to rely on people to self-report their habits. Get out and see them. Visit with them. Watch what they do. Get the firsthand account to inform your problem-solving efforts. No blinders that way.


2. Look at a problem from multiple vantage points. Economist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize for his research on cognitive framing, revealed that people make very different decisions depending on how those decisions are framed. So try asking different questions. “[Try] on different lenses to determine the best approach to finding a solution,” says Kellogg Insight. Don’t tell your staff what you’re working on to avoid creating bias. This will help keep critical thinking at bay.


3. Slim down your brainstorming groups. The principles of brainstorming encourage the rapid listing of ideas, no matter how outlandish, while avoiding criticism. However, your brainstorming team will violate those rules. It’s just too easy to become critical and veto ideas. So, form small brainstorming groups. Fewer people means less criticism—less chance for the group to toss out a golden idea without realizing it.


4. Use “How might we …?” questions. This trick helps to overcome fear of failure. No one wants to fail when assigned a task to improve something, but failure has to be expected to get good results. Expecting failure keeps more ideas in play. “How might we …?” questions push past others’ qualms and objections.


“I don’t know if this exoskeleton is going to work. It’s awkward to wear.”


“Alright. How might we … ?”


The question works to mentally prototype something. It encourages the team to keep playing with an idea, which could be the idea that leads to the breakthrough you want.

Solutions Out of Nowhere

The essence of great Design Thinking is realized when solutions come seemingly out of nowhere. That’s what you want to aim for.


“Once you see a beautiful design, it seems obvious,” Thompson says. “But it’s really, really hard to figure out, ‘Now how does this get created to begin with?’”

Mark L. Johnson writes for the wall and ceiling industry. He can be reached via

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