Archive for the ‘Design Thinking’ Category

“Breakthrough in the Shower” by Sean Stanwick


Anyone who is waiting for a predictable process for breakthrough innovation (similar to TQM or BPR) may find the illustration above instructive.

Fresh insight depends on favorable ingredients and conditions – more like improvising with a recipe than a formula. By contrast, incremental improvements in the design of products and services suit predictable steps and outcomes.

What are some conditions that spawn eureka moments? What is the recipe?

There’s a lot we can learn about how innovation happens by paying attention to everyday situations. For example, my colleague Sean captured his recent insight in the shower by the illustration above; Tye Farrow reports he has new ideas while gardening; I rely on walking to work for fresh perspective.

What do these three activities – showering, gardening and walking – have in common?:

– SUSPENSION of MULTI-TASKING: they allow us to clear our heads

– PERMISSION to WANDER: escape from self-imposed pressure of conflicting priorities

– SPACE to WONDER: they give us the choice to think of nothing

We will be delving further into recipe/cooking/innovation/design similarities in future posts.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Liquid Arrow

Tight or loose management – which is the best way for firms to thrive in a chaotic business world?

Wrong question…old school question.

Instead of a tight or loose?* either/or question, we should be asking: Which aspects of our business require us to adhere to rules, and where do we need room to move within boundaries?

To begin this conversation, we must examine our assumptions about the true nature of work today.

Let’s list some of the givens of our current business environment (along with how we need to respond):

– it is unpredictable (therefore we must create a flexible way forward)

– it depends on messy human relationships (so we need to nurture cooperative interactions)

– it depends on discretionary effort (so it’s vital to understand what motivates people to do their best work)

– there’s a yearning for meaningful work (so it’s vital to define the firm’s purpose, as well as each project’s purpose beyond meeting schedule, budget and scope)

When tight management is applied to the wrong aspects of the business, initiative and progress are stifled. Likewise, misapplied loose management results in wasted time and effort. “Loose” does not mean sloppy, haphazard and uncaring. In any case, striving for a uniformly tight mechanical system of  management goes against human nature and leads to endless frustration.

Let the conversation begin! Which aspects of your business are tight-appropriate and in what ways do you need more room to move?

– Sharon VanderKaay

* I first encountered the concept of tight/loose management in Tom Peters’ and Robert H. Waterman Jr.’s 1982 book, In Search of Excellence – and yet we still wrestle with this issue.

How much capital can you eventually attract by offering free samples of your thinking?

Do you believe it ultimately pays to be generous?

As members of a civil society, designers have many altruistic reasons to engage in providing pro bono services for nonprofit organizations. However in times of financial constraint there will be those who resist participation in this movement. How can designers even consider working for free when profits from their regular project fees have declined so sharply?

In order to continuously expand the field of motivated pro bono design participants, it’s crucial to recognize the full range of potential business benefits. In what ways is pro bono also good promo?


First let’s consider the nature of services that are needed by nonprofit organizations. Two individuals in particular are calling attention to the value of design as a powerful force for change and for feeding the soul. John Cary profiles forty impressive examples of design projects in The Power of Pro Bono; John Peterson founded Public Architecture around the idea of asking architecture and design firms to pledge a minimum of 1 percent of their time to doing pro bono work.


There is also an enormous opportunity for designers to bring their holistic thinking and imagination to complex problems – whether or not these services result in a built design. Designers are accustomed to envisioning a way through messy situations and working around obstacles that nonprofits wrestle with on a daily basis.

Now let’s think about the business case for each firm to contribute 1% or more. Consider how the nature of work and ways of pursuing new projects have changed in recent years. Whereas yesterday’s firm focused narrowly on selling design, today we also sell the quality of our interaction with clients and team members. This means a shift away from the tradition of designing for to designing with clients and other stakeholders.


Rather than attempt to promote outstanding collaborative skills with words and marketing promises, why not showcase these capabilities in real life? And isn’t it a far better thing to expand human networks naturally by working toward a common cause than through cold calls, interviews with strangers and related alien forms of promotion? In addition to giving back to society, pro bono really can be bono promo for business.

– Tye Farrow and Sharon VanderKaay

What if a garage was much more than a lifeless, single purpose structure?

What if it was envisioned as an international tourist attraction, a place for social events and a lively asset for the neighborhood? What if it incorporated a sculptural staircase, a plaza, gardens and works of art?

Innovation often begins by rethinking the traditional limits of a category. Expectations for public parking structures in North America have been set very low – somewhere between boring and disgusting.

The story of how Robert Wennett developed his site at 1111 Lincoln Road in Miami should be taught in every business school and design thinking course. Wennett and his architects Herzog & de Meuron re-imagined a category that had previously been limited by conventional boundaries and revenue generation models.

Moreover, this project was about concern for creating enduring value. Quoted in UK’s Guardian the developer said, “This was about a moment in time in my life,” says Wennett. “For 20 years, I did things that were all about being commercial. Now I wanted to do something about legacy. About what I would leave.”

Maybe a call for “out of the garage thinking” should replace uninspiring “out of the box” cliches.

Are there naysayers for this innovation? Of course!

photo by joevare

– Sharon VanderKaay

Generations of architectural project managers have diligently applied tools and techniques that achieved some remarkable results, yet failed to meet budget, schedule and other targets. Traditionally, it was safe to assume that imposing tighter controls within a more mechanistic system was the best way to prevent these failures. Now there is growing awareness of the perils of pretending your real project exists in a closed, predictable, static environment.

Last year the world-renowned Project Management Institute presented their Book of the Year award to Managing Complex Projects, A New Model. Author Kathleen B. Hass recognizes that large projects have inherent dynamic qualities that we must work with – rather than attempt to fight against. “As projects get bigger and more complex, we tend to ‘do more of the same’ applying ever greater degrees of rigor in the way of methods, reviews and tests, resulting in higher costs, and not necessarily returning value,” says Hass. “What we do is explore the nature of complexity theory as it applies to projects.”

In other words, experienced project managers are realizing that the stakes are too high for us to rely on false assumptions and old mindsets to maximize project success. Below is a chart that captures our understanding of how complexity theory applies to large design and construction projects.

This is a huge topic that requires ongoing analysis. However it may be of interest to construction project managers that, nearly ten years ago, a group of leading software developers gathered to write an Agile Manifesto that identified what really matters in terms of rapid, results-driven software project delivery. Maybe a group of design and construction project managers will one day write a manifesto aimed at removing similar barriers.

Sharon VanderKaay

“When Matisse created an image it was often only a starting point,” The Economist explains in their review of “Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917” at the Art Institute of Chicago. For instance, sophisticated technical analysis of one of the artist’s masterpieces reveals that “the canvas was wiped clean more than two dozen times before he was satisfied.” In contrast to popular notions that such works leap fully formed into reality, these revelations about Matisse’s way of working will come as no big surprise to many artists and designers. This process of learning from what we create with our hands – in the form of sketches, models and prototypes – is the basis for interaction and discovery that results in better decisions.

Donald A. Schon and Michael Schrage have each contributed illuminating perspectives regarding the hands-on iterative process. Schon has written about “design as a reflective conversation” and Schrage writes that “Quick and dirty prototypes can turn clients into partners.”

The slide show above captures aspects of our thinking-doing-thinking process.

-Sharon VanderKaay

What happens when we place as much emphasis on the quality of our interactions as the quality of our products? And to take this notion a step further, what would we expect an all-time best design experience to look like?

To begin this investigation, let’s ask ourselves what kind of interaction is at the opposite end of the spectrum from a Fountainhead-inspired journey of clashing wills? What’s the alternative for innovators who find themselves struggling to defend their ideas in a seemingly hostile or indifferent world? How might clients and other stakeholders actually enjoy—rather than endure—their roles as responsible contributors to the built environment?

In our way of thinking, the opposite end of the interactive spectrum from clashing agendas is a transformational experience. These experiences enrich the lives of everyone at the planning table; they raise our spirits and expand our horizons. In contrast to traditional interventions that aim for buy in, we’ve seen the benefits of a mutual quest to raise the bar to new heights. This mutual quest banishes the assumption that the designer must carry on a valiant, one-sided campaign to address quality of life design issues.

Wrestling with the impact of a project together with stakeholders instills a sense of joint stewardship. Wise use of project resources and opportunities becomes a shared responsibility with the architect, rather than pursuing “us versus them” interests. Reliance on fancy presentations or charismatic persuaders is less important than knowing how to tap into the innate human desire to do something extraordinary.

By focusing on quality of interactions, designers can be catalysts for breakthroughs—experienced as transformational, aha! moments—in design and planning. These revelations and great leaps forward are built on a shared, expansive definition of each project’s purpose, opportunities and constraints.

Tight, mechanically-inspired processes are woefully self-limiting when compared to designing transformational experiences that appeal to hearts and minds. It should also be noted that this level of engagement goes far beyond faux-facilitation methods that skim the surface of obvious options.

Designers sell themselves short when they describe their fundamental role as problem solvers. For one thing, research by Ronald Lippitt indicates that “listing and solving problems depresses groups.” Also, the term problem solving creates the impression that designers engage primarily in reductive thinking.

Designing shared transformational experiences is where exceptional value is created. The above chart illustrates the shift from transactional to transformational design.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Over the past few months we’ve been attempting to capture our design thinking process in some sort of graphic. Part of the reason for setting out to create this diagram was my reaction to Roger Martin’s depiction of “The Knowledge Funnel” in his book “The Design of Business.” Although I’m a huge fan of Martin and his two latest books, the funnel seems a mismatch with his views on expanding possibilities via integrative thinking.

So I started sketching how we actually move through our design process, searching beyond easy answers, leading to co-created solutions. The diagram that emerged looked more like a liquid arrow.

In the back of my mind, I’ve been wondering since I first saw the funnel if I was the only person who had reservations about it. But recently, in Paula Thornton’s post “Design Thinking in Stereo: Martin and Brown,” she also questions the funnel saying “For me, the funnel detracts from the original concepts, as the funnel forces something that was once fluid and unidirectional into a very linear concept.”

So I was inspired by Paula’s thoughts to post our current snapshot above for your feedback.

-Sharon VanderKaay

Richard Sommer and Alan Dilani

When salons were popular in France over 300 years ago they filled a need for people who were trying to make sense of confusing times. Three magic ingredients – diverse perspectives, a spirit of inquiry and social rapport – added up to fertile ground for sparking breakthrough thinking. Unlike a lecture format, which conveys pre-packaged information, these conversations addressed what we now call “wicked problems.”

Wicked problems are messy and full of ambiguity with no simple, right or wrong answers. To understand wicked problems calls for wrestling with questions that can be overwhelming to an individual. So what could be more appropriate for thinking together about today’s perplexities and opportunities than a return to the salon?

The rise of social media indicates a massive global yearning to wrestle with tough questions by making human connections. The salon format can be thought of as an offline version of social media conversations – full of emotion, doubt, and the willingness to share lessons learned related to a complex issue.

Recently we experimented with such a gathering of the minds which drew health care architects, media, engineers, academics, government representatives, programmers and students together to talk about the relationship between design for health and economic well being. The evening’s central question: At a time when health care design quality is threatened by “good enough” standards, how can we influence decision makers to believe we can all do better than that?

Our guests included Alan Dilani from Stockholm who was in Toronto to talk about the global shift away from expensive sick care to prosperous health care.

Richard Sommer, dean of the U of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, commented that the teaching of health design has been neglected over the past 20 years. He said his school is planning to emphasize this educational specialty as fundamental for a resilient and prosperous society.

Recognizing that merely pushing such a complex design agenda rarely leads to action, the salon provides a venue for pulling ideas from a diverse group. This open-ended spirit of inquiry seems like a good way to ignite changes in thinking AND doing.

-Sharon VanderKaay

Functional, efficient, light and bright hospital design is pretty much the norm for new construction today. There’s solid evidence that links design with reduced need for medication and shorter hospital stays. This proof is vital, but there is also a need to explore unproven intangible design qualities.

Before funds are invested in new hospital construction, it’s worthwhile to articulate the kind of space people seek when they’re at their most vulnerable due to illness. Is it enough to simply choose from the current healthcare design influences of corporate office, chic hotel or upscale health spa? Or should the design aim to address spiritual needs?

Dissatisfaction with proven norms can lead to breakthroughs. A spark of innovation is ignited when someone says: “We can do better than that!”

Credit Valley Hospital was not afraid to wade into emotional conversations when they set out to define their vision several years ago. That level of commitment, combined with their willingness to break from conventional “healing environment” rhetoric, has made all the difference. Here’s how their inspiring words guided this hospital’s memorable design:

– Sharon VanderKaay

  • About The Nature of Innovation

    We see our collaboration with clients and colleagues as providing a living lab for enriching the creative process. Farrow’s built work has been internationally recognized for leadership in human-centric design. This is where we come to discuss our ideas as they hatch and our experiences as they happen.
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