In the weeks before my fellowship officially started, Jeremy and I sat down and mapped out what we needed to figure out to establish the Governance Collaboratory this year. The list is long: What is the scope of governance problems the collaboratory will address? Would individuals or teams of innovators enter our program? What would his/her/their profiles look like — activists, government reformers, technologists, all of the above? How would we create a design team to work with our local innovators? Would the design team involve students? What would the curriculum look like? What other resources would the program include to support our innovators? After that, onto the details of how the collab would be structured, funded, and staffed.
Where to start? The natural first step for me was to get smart on the space quickly by understanding relevant models: fellowship and EIR programs, incubators and accelerators, consultancies such as IDEO.org, and d.school courses at Stanford using students to address development issues. My parallel task was to develop a work plan to get us from a whiteboard full of questions to an up and running organization in 12 months, since we hoped to launch our first cohort during the next academic year.
Just an hour into my official first day as a d.fellow, our approach was completely upended. The morning started with a discussion with David Kelley. Matt, Nadia, and I wanted to get his thoughts on how we should think about the projects we’d be spending the bulk of our fellowships on. He said something I’ll be repeating for a long time, which highlighted the ways in which my analytically oriented mind and management consulting training was leading me astray.
“Don’t do what’s in your head right now,” was the first thing David said. “Anything you’re thinking about now is completely cliché.” David proceeded to draw a map on the whiteboard, illustrating hops from one cluster of ideas to the next. “You need to make a few jumps from where you are right now to get to the stuff that’s really innovative.”
Jeremy and I, both having interest in design thinking from a distance but no formal training, had instinctively conceived of a way to solve the problem we were interested in – tackle governance challenges with design thinking and technology – by setting up an incubator. Our framing was flawed. Without understanding our user’s needs, we were in no position to identify what we’d ultimately establish. If we started the design process with a solution, we’d be crippling our own ability to innovate. So we reframed: we are seeking to use design thinking and the resources of Silicon Valley to address governance in developing countries.
My instinct to “understand the space” by talking to people running related organizations was also problematic. While it would be helpful to dig into how others had addressed the questions we were asking, this too would constrain our ability to think outside the box. Ignorance, it turns out, can be the innovator’s bliss. It’s better for us to not understand what else is out there until after we’d reached the ideation stage of the design process.
I had another epiphany during that first week, or rather Nadia hit me over the head with the obvious. I had left Jeremy and my early brainstorming sessions concerned with the breadth of interconnected questions we needed to answer. Given the potential solution space we’d opened ourselves up to, which questions we answered first would constrain options in other areas. So where to start?
“Start by talking to potential innovators, the people you’d want to bring into your program,” Nadia said to me. Of course. We are employing the human centered design process ourselves, after all.