insights & research

Change Making, Design Thinking, Simplexity, and Innovation

By Min Basadur

A decade ago, I received a phone call from a former client named Barry. He called to ask if I remembered leading a creative problem solving session he had participated in with a group of about 10 others. Now living in New York City and working on an advanced degree at the Pratt Institute of Design, he told me the session had helped a group of designers move forward on a city project and said it had made a major impact on him. “Designers think they are pretty good problem solvers, but the process you used taught us how to problem-solve way beyond what we thought we knew,” he said.

“Designers seem to have their own special way of solving problems but can’t put it into words. The process we used helped make design thinking more explicit and took it to a higher level”. 

Barry’s observation about the relationship between Simplexity Thinking and Design Thinking led me to consider other ways the process could be described.  Some time ago, psychologist William J.J. Gordon suggested that inventing and learning are opposite forces that feed each other in turn.  Inventing is characterized as a process of breaking old connections.  Learning is characterized as a process of making new connections stick. When we invent, we “make the familiar strange” (by breaking old connections which compromise current understanding).  This permits us to view old phenomena in new ways, although this can be uncomfortable at first. When we learn, we “make the strange familiar” (by making new connections between new (and thus strange) phenomena and our current understanding.  This permits us to view new phenomena more comfortably.

In the circular depiction below, the problem solving process is viewed through this perspective.  On the left side, new “paradigms” (ways of thinking and doing) become established.  New processes are learned and become well-known and comfortable habits.  On the right side, such old established paradigms are broken.  New processes that produce better quality or new goods or services are invented to replace previous processes.  When an old familiar paradigm such as a well-established business process is broken, the new one replacing it feels very strange and uncomfortable to everyone affected.  They are experiencing a process of unlearning, breaking connections with past understanding and letting go of old habits and beliefs.  As time goes on, the new process becomes less strange, and more familiar.  This is a learning process – making new connections and adopting new habits and beliefs.

 This cyclical process can also be viewed as representing the ‘operating’ versus ‘inventing’ sides of the modern business world. As new ‘inventing,’ or pattern breaking activity occurs, old and familiar processes are transformed into new and unknown activity.  As we travel around the ongoing circle, those new patterns are converted into new familiar processes, and readied for additional transformation.

However we name or describe this ongoing process, it is the basis of adaptability and innovation, and must be adopted as an everyday part of organizational life.

For individuals, internalizing the two-sided process of innovation will result in a new circular pattern of thinking and behavior that will be evident as different, effective and innovative.  The process will develop skills in seeking new opportunities for change (no matter how disruptive they may seem at first) defining and clearly understanding those opportunities, allowing new ideas to emerge and flow through the necessary steps of evaluation, analysis, testing and optimization until new solutions (products, services, or procedures) are created and step-by-step plans for implementation are developed and undertaken.

This process is not about coping with change. It is about making change.  There is a huge difference. Change making is real leadership in our new world. It is the game changer. Change is not something to be feared and imposed on people; change should be the result of proactive involvement of people in making new and valuable things happen to keep in the forefront, ahead of the rest. The beautiful thing is that our research has clearly demonstrated that when people are involved in creating change, they become motivated in all of their work (Basadur, 1992; Graen, 2014).

Organizations that recognize the value of breaking old and outdated paradigms and replacing them with new and better ones, and actually know how to do so are what I describe as ‘thinking organizations’. A thinking organization can both unlearn and invent. It is proficient in efficiency thinking (perfecting current routines), adaptability thinking (breaking old routines and creating brand new ones) and flexibility thinking (operating effectively when there are no routines to follow in ambiguous, unexpected circumstances).  Thinking organizations engage the innovative abilities and creative aptitudes of all of their employees.

Unfortunately, few organizations have the skills or expertise to do this, often because they lack a framework for sustained and disciplined creative thinking. By adopting a structured innovation process, organizations can learn to think creatively in a collective, synchronized way, not only to improve the routine work but also for the non-routine to create the game changers.

As with Barry, I’d love to hear about your experiences with design thinking, change making and problem solving.  What process or framework do you use to break patterns and be more disruptive? How does your organization measure up in regards to efficiency, flexibility and adaptability?

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