Posted July 8th 2010 at 1:02 pm by
in Collaborating like a Designer

Fostering a Community of Risk-Taking

“Take a risk. Change does not happen without taking some chances. Designers are comfortable with the notion that they might be wrong, but still they experiment and try new approaches.”

~ Garr Reynolds, from How to Become a Better Manager… by Thinking Like a Designer by Jimmy Guterman, MIT Sloan Management Review 2009

Doing something new inherently feels risky.  Whether creating a new community collaboration or designing a new medical device, it can be frightening to lay ideas and reputations on the line. What will all the constituents think of the new proposition? How can we get buy-in from all the necessary stakeholders? Within the world of design there are specific techniques to make risk-taking feel more safe and comfortable for everyone involved. Below are several suggestions.

Involve many constituents early and often.

Engage both higher-ups and the people in the trenches. Seek out stakeholders with extreme points of view, and make sure to observe and understand whoever will be living day-to-day with the end result of your project.

Set aside a space or time when a team of constituents can voice opinions or generate ideas without judgment.

For instance, explicitly state that there will be no judgment during a one-hour meeting. State the focus of the meeting and what you want to get out of it. During the time, record each thought or idea in a way that allows the entire group to view it. When time has elapsed, sort through the generated thoughts as a group. This technique helps each person feel they have a voice while simultaneously opening up their ears to listen to others. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to come to an agreement or focus in on a best course of action after the time is through.

Try out ideas early using rapid prototyping techniques.

Use cheap materials, skits, or play-acting to test out products, systems, services, or interactions that you are designing without spending much time or money. The photos below show several rapid prototypes of a phototherapy device Design that Matters is currently creating to help treat newborn infant jaundice in Southeast Asia. The goal of phototherapy is to project strong, blue light on as much of the infant’s skin surface as possible. The top two photos show to-scale prototypes of a highly portable device that could be set near the infant in many orientations. Foam, blue post-its, and a couple of bendable metal rods were used. Using this prototype, we were able to hold the device in our arms and also set it on a table with a baby doll to see whether it offered a comforting, safe environment for the baby. The answer was no, it did not. When placed on a table, it seems like the infant will roll off to one side or another. The bottom two photos show miniature iterations of an overhead lighting device. Paper, foam, and tiny metal tubing were used. With these prototypes we were able to explore whether an overhead lighting unit could be minimalist enough to allow easy access and visibility to the infant. The answer was yes.

Prototyping MontagePrototypes created by Will Harris from Design that Matters. Photos by Elizabeth Johansen.

Prototyping is not just for exploring physical objects.  Services, systems, and interactions can be prototyped. Paper Prototyping by Carolyn Snyder is a great resource for prototyping user interfaces.

Iterate iterate iterate.

The more you iterate on your thoughts and ideas, the better. You will have achieved a more refined and focused end-result while cultivating the kind of personal trust and buy-in from your constituents that you need to move your project forward.

Elizabeth Johansen is the Director of Product Development at Design that Matters, creating new products and services for the poor in developing countries. Elizabeth’s passion to create a positive social impact through design have led her to facilitate more than 20 design thinking workshops and speaking engagements. Prior to DtM, Elizabeth worked for 8 years as a product designer at IDEO.

2 responses to “Fostering a Community of Risk-Taking”

  1. Jordi Sanchez-Cuenca says:

    Thanks Elisabeth for this interesting post.

    I’d like to make a comment in regards to involving constituents and gathering them to voice opinions and ideas. This activity you are describing enters into the practice of participatory design and decision-making, which entails a whole lot of issues that should be taken into account. If I understood well, you delineate participation as a means to make more adequate choices, a dynamic that can be understood through Habermas’ discourse ethics and communicative rationality. However, we should avoid limiting participation to a simple instrumental means. This is because participation, if well oriented, can become the process through which injustices are questioned and sorted out; secondly, participation can be the ground for reproducing unbalanced power relations, as Foucault repeatedly warned. Indeed, through gathering people, choices can become even more inadequate than by leaving decisions to professionals alone, because the power of speech of some is often imposed on the final choice, implicitly or explicitly. So, it is advisable to design participatory processes as a strategic mix of bilateral and multilateral communication. Through bilateral communication, the professional can exchange knowledge with the less powerful without the intimidation or domination of the more powerful. Then, the professional, in the role of facilitator/mediator, can gather all and stimulate group decisions in a more balanced manner.

  2. Alexa Mills says:

    Jordi this is a great question that has really inspired me to think of this post in a new way. If people enter into a collaboration but not all people involved are on equal footing (like if they have differences in power or knowledge) then can it be a genuine collaboration? In my experience university-community partnerships often suffer from this dynamic. The two parties may not have the same understanding of what kinds of knowledge are valuable to the collaboration and what kinds of results are possible. It could take years to build the trust necessary for a genuine collaboration. Elizabeth, you talked about the need for input from higher-ups, other staff, and the person you’re designing for. Do you have ways to deal with different perspectives coming from different, perhaps unequal, parties?