Design thinking: Even experts need a beginner’s mind


Our work is driven by ideas. We come up with new ideas for products, services, brands, businesses, and experiences, and then we bring them to life. In this ideation-to-design cycle – where designers seek first to understand, and then to generate ideas and solutions – teams begin like a sponge, absorbing diverse inputs, observations, and insights.

In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”
Zen Master

It reminds me of a theme we practice in yoga called Beginner’s Mind, where students are taught to be open to new possibilities. If you start out encumbered by “can’ts” and “don’ts”, the potential for uncovering new ideas is significantly reduced.

Ideation sessions and Design Thinking workshops, which occur throughout our creative process, use Beginner's Mind practices we've developed to ensure that even the most experienced team members, at any stage in the life of a project, are open to fresh thinking.

Here are four general principles we draw on to make sure that our Design Thinking and ideation activities make room for the Beginner's Mind mindset.

Step 1: Generate without judgement

Ideation sessions occur throughout a project lifecycle depending on the team’s needs. And those who attend don't need to have any specific knowledge about the task, they just need to be open and humble.

Imagine a room of designers, engineers and researchers, where everyone is given the same problem to “solve". Depending on the session focus, ideas could encompass device forms, screen architectures, or business service descriptions.

When I first started here, a colleague advised that these were pretty quiet affairs. He was right. They do have a culture about them. Silent sketching and not a lot of conversation is the norm. Which is fine. The idea here is to generate ideas—not to critique or choose. It’s about quantity first. Quality comes later.

Step 2: Clean the castle

In my experience, ideas seem to come in three “waves” over the course of a project: obvious solutions, nearly impossibly blue-sky ideas, and then those in the sweet spot. They don't all necessarily arrive in every session. In fact, they tend to arrive over weeks, as a team starts to grasp technical requirements and user criteria.

That's why early concept phase activities shouldn’t be rushed. Rather than simply being told the “requirements," our free-flowing design thinking sessions let teams naturally absorb and understand the dynamics of the user experience before challenging conventions.

Initial sessions are often ideal for identifying and moving past more obvious ideas. Capturing the quick fixes, clear upgrades, or features that match a competitive offer helps clear the way for new ideas ahead. Be wary of calling ideas 'solutions' too soon.

Step 3: Look up and out

Once past the obvious ideas, the goal is to push up and out into the solution space by thinking bigger and broader about the opportunity. For projects without a specific user mandate or technology that transforms the user experience, this is REALLY difficult.

This is the stage where we prompt groups to push for the impossible. Here, outrageous ideas are the idea. And while very few concepts make it out of this stage, the activity is critical for opening up the group’s design thinking for even more provocative models.

Step 4: Synthesise

By this point, where initial ideas may have been explored and tested, the team is in a groove. Thinking more like a user and aware of what is possible and required, it's now easier to combine earlier ideas into truly novel approaches. This is the sweet spot.

If you've refrained from judgement to this point, congratulations, you have a rich suite of ideas to combine, refine, and evolve. But this step is challenging for another reason: consolidated ideas must be evaluated to spot the promising and retire the weak.

Because even when it's your job to have ideas, ultimately, divergent thinking ends. And you need a way to choose winners. We find that talking through ideas as a group is a perfect way to channel the critical thinking teams need to sort and rank the good, bad, technically infeasible, and so on.

8 tips for tapping into the beginner’s mind

Here are eight tips you can embrace yourself and also pose to your teams, to help activate Design Thinking in your ideation sessions.

  1. Be humble. Admit you are neither the “user” or an expert on their behaviour. Open your thinking by adopting a receptive, learning mindset.
  2. Focus on the user. Build a foundation of understanding with your target user. What are their motivators? What are their stumbling blocks?
  3. Free your mind. Sketch quickly and quietly without evaluating if ideas “work.” Allow yourself to get into a judgement-free sketching flow.
  4. Reserve judgement. Discuss ideas with the aim to understand them not judge them. Refrain from giving them a label. Let others tell you what's what.
  5. Welcome feedback. Share your work, seek perspectives, and welcome criticism. The ideal solution path is likely wider than your thoughts alone.
  6. Let go. Don't protect ideas that seem safe because they seem familiar. Don't over-protect your own ideas if fresher thinking is afoot.
  7. Be experimental. Storyboard ideas to see where “what if” thinking can take you. Be visual. And be specific. No broad brushstrokes allowed.
  8. Step back. Take time to consider the flow of ideas over the life of the project. Look for “aha” moments that suggest you've found a sweet spot.

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