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#Firestarters 2: Design Thinking In Planning – The Event

Might Design Thinking, instrumental in bringing human-centred design principles to innovation processes, change the practice of planning? Is it relevant? These were the questions tackled in the latest Firestarters event – part of the series I'm curating for Google to facilitate different thinking and debate around some of the more interesting and challenging issues facing the practice of planning. So Wednesday evening saw some of the great and the good in UK planning gather at Google HQ to engage in some open space debate stimulated by a couple of truly thought provoking talks by Tom Hulme, Design Director at IDEO, and John Willshire, Chief Innovation Officer at PHD.

The intention with these events was always to link the discussions together rather than have a series of isolated debates, and so the topic of Design Thinking picked up nicely on some of the themes that came out from the talks by Mark Earls, and Stuart Eccles and the ensuing conversations at the first event on Agile Planning.

Tom's excellent talk focused on Design Thinking as an approach, or philosophy, rather than a defined process. Central to this was the idea of moving away from convergent thinking focused on making choices and instead towards creating as many choices as possible – an idea which IMO is a truly interesting one for planners (instead of a single response to a brief, a response which opens up lots of possibilties and options for clients) and one which was picked up in a conversation afterwards hosted by Michael.

Tom hulme
Divergent thinking, said Tom, does not restrict creativity and can bring in a flow of new concepts to a business which can then be optimised in a continous and often concurrent cycle. He outlined 8 key principles around design thinking:

  1. Challenge the question – easy to say, less easy to do. The 'Keep The Change' Bank Of America initiative that led over 12 million customers to save more than $3 billion was used as an example of an idea that arose from challenging the brief. For an interesting take on this, check out James' write up
  2. Be user-centred – the importance of actual experience in developing understanding and empathy, and the hazards of introducing ideas out of context (in a focus group for example)
  3. Look to the extremes – the behaviour of extreme users is often where the interesting insights and ideas lie
  4. The collision of messaging and experiences – experiences themselves hold strong messages so it's not one or the other, it's both. Sneakerpedia is one example of this combined approach
  5. Be holistic – the interdependencies within a business are important in delivering solutions that work, so they can't be ignored. The marketing model is no longer distinct from the business model. Tom's OpenIDEO for example, was a great way to bring the IDEO way to life, and tangibly demonstrate what they stand for. As part of this, he talked about the IDEO business visualisation model (I've included a short film below of him talking this through at a recent HackFwd talk) and the open document he's created as a resource for strart-ups and which has had hundreds of contributions
  6. Value diversity – lovely example here of what Steve Jobs learned voluntarily joining a Caligraphy class at college (a story explained in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address which I urge you to watch if you haven't)
  7. Launch to learn – the act of building stuff helps us to understand the details of what doesn't work, Zynga's Ghetto Testing approach, and a provocative thought here about whether prototyping might become redundant because it's so cheap to launch, emphasising a point also made by Mark Earls about 'lighting lots of fires'.
  8. Stay in beta – we all hear it said, how many really do it? Wonderful example here of the Clover Food Lab which goes out of it's way to make a feature of the fact that the whole business is a constant prototype.

And finally, a great snippet, picked up by Simon in his excellent write up: “Looking at why people really hate stuff is wonderful inspiration to come up with new ideas”. Here's the IDEO business model visualisation:

HackFwd: Visualize Your Business Model in 15 Minutes Flat from IDEO on Vimeo.

John's talk followed on nicely but took a different angle, focusing on how (to quote a Bad Religion song, which John managed to do liberally through the talk) "the process of belief is an elixir when you're weak", and how process can be a port in a storm of uncertainty. The potential of Design Thinking is certainly not as a new process to adopt. That, said John, is something we don't need. Process tends to average things out – whilst it can make bad work good, it can also make great work good. To illustrate this he used a great analogy (John is exceptionally good at his analogies) of how the audio range of popular music is often compressed to make it more immediately appealing for radio airplay for example (as per the visual below). And he referenced research on the effectiveness of campaigns from the IPA databank on those that used pre-testing as a process, and those that didn't (guess which were more effective).


Inflexible methodologies tend to bind us, not free us, and agencies can be uniquely good at packaging this up ("a process is something to sell in lieu of real work"). All of which leads to the point (explained eloquently in his analogy and post on Adam Smith And The State of Modern Marketing, which I encourage you to read) that often the approach and the sell is industrial, yet the actual work is increasingly agricultural. Phil has done a great write up of John's talk (with pictures!) over here.

In a lively open space session afterwards Francesco (who does super-smart stuff at the super-smart Face Group) hosted a conversation around designing for customer collaboration and real-time feedback. Some interesting points came out around a discussion about designing for openness and loss of control, how agencies often see this as an admission of inadequacy, and how agility can die at the hands of execution. Notably these points circulated around a number of needs: for 'soft' processes in order to deal with the stream of feedback and gather inputs from many different directions in real-time; to shorten the feedback loop to launch and iterate as soon as possible; to structure budgets in order to support iteration; for 'rough boundaries' in order to allow for flexibility; for strong strategic vision and a sense of shared experience to focus and signpost participation well; and to capture feedback in a structured fashion, to cluster and filter with experts in order to make the most of the richness of data.

Stuart hosted a group that built a lot of the themes from his talk at the first Firestarters event. There's much common ground between design thinking, agile principles, and the notion of the lean agency, particularly around the idea of designing consumer experiences through recombining, building and iterating in order to understand, and experimenting in small ways. Experimentation is the only route to innovation, and there is real financial support for innovation through things like the government R & D tax credits but incorpating feedback loops is challenging. One of my favourite soundbites of the evening was the "audacity of zero" – suggesting how easy it is to think you're doing a great job, and what a comfortable place it is, when you have no feedback.

And finally Martin hosted a lively and productive discussion around whether HOW you do what you do now as important (if not more) as WHAT you’re trying to do (nimbly expounded in this post he's authored). The discussion centred around how often it's about identifying short-term solutions, meaning that its easy to be drawn back into the comfortable, easy stuff that we know. Whereas perhaps the real question, and the right answer is more complex, involving bigger issues such as structure, people, reorganisation which is often longer-term and far from easy. The conversation also focused on how testing can act to reduce risk (so howabout a 30% plan instead of a fixed plan?) and a rebalancing between thinking and trying in favour of the latter. What would happen if a client asked for a how solution rather than a what solution? Might it help reframe the answer from brand advice to business advice?

If you're interested, Hugh Garry put together a good Storify of the event which is a great account of an excellent evening. My thanks go to Google for being brilliant hosts, and of-course to all who came and participated, particularly the presenters and conversation hosts. With two such events now under our belts, our next one in September and another one due at the end of the year, my sense is that we are (in our own way) building some kind of momentum. The challenge is, I think, to keep building on the ideas and discussions that have been shared so far, and somehow to make the ideas and output as tangible as possible. As James has eloquently said, it ain't what you find out, it's what you do with the knowledge. I have some ideas, but as usual contributions, feedback and thoughts around the thinking captured here (and the themes for the next one) are more than welcome. News on the next event up on here soon.

4 responses to “#Firestarters 2: Design Thinking In Planning – The Event”

  1. Martin Thomas Avatar
    Martin Thomas

    I’m even more annoyed now that I missed the session – but thanks for the brilliantly comprehensive cribsheet

  2. Martin Thomas Avatar
    Martin Thomas

    I’m even more annoyed now that I missed the session – but thanks for the brilliantly comprehensive cribsheet

  3. Holycow Avatar

    Brilliant analysis Neil – many thanks for writing it up and pulling it all together. Sounded like a fantastic session. I am poorer for not having attended so thank you for this insight into the evening.

  4. Holycow Avatar

    Brilliant analysis Neil – many thanks for writing it up and pulling it all together. Sounded like a fantastic session. I am poorer for not having attended so thank you for this insight into the evening.

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