In the d.school’s early days, a group of us were sitting around debating our scaling philosophies. The conversation heated up after Michael Dearing, a faculty member and venture capitalist, asked a brilliant question. It went something like: “What is our goal? Is it more like Catholicism, where the aim is to replicate preordained design beliefs and practices? Or is it more like Buddhism, where an underlying mindset guides why people do certain things—but the specifics of what they do can vary wildly from person to person and place to place?”
Dearing’s question sparked a conversation about “flexing” design thinking to fit particular people and places—as well as the dangers of changing or watering it down so much that it doesn’t work or, even if it does, it ought to be called something else. His question still haunts the d.school. Certain elements do pop up in every flavor of design thinking that we apply, including empathy (understanding human emotions, goals, and needs that a design ought to address) and rapid prototyping (developing quick and cheap solutions and updating them rapidly in response to users’ actions and suggestions). Yet d.school professors have become more “Buddhist” over the years. We’ve learned, for example, that bankers are less confident in their creativity than Girl Scouts and thus require more coaching, cajoling, precise instructions, and emotional support—and so we teach them differently. We’ve also learned to “flex” our methods for other cultures because most were developed in the United States.
In the fall of 2010, Sutton, along with the d.school’s Perry Klebahn, led a teaching team that helped twenty-four middle managers from Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower to learn and spread design thinking. The managers traveled to Palo Alto, where they spent the day observing and doing interviews at the Stanford Blood Bank. They then used the insights gleaned there to generate ideas and prototypes for improving the “blood donation experience.” The first day ended with the d.school’s usual debriefing practice: “I like, I wish.” Klebahn asked the group to talk about what worked (“I liked when Perry jumped in to help us interview that nervous donor”) and what was lacking or ought to be changed (“I wish Bob had spent more time helping our team”). But the debriefing was a flop. The usually rambunctious Singaporeans squirmed and stared at the floor as everyone suffered through one painful silence after another. Eventually, the teaching team declared defeat and headed for the solace of a nearby bar.
It was teammate Yusuke Miyashita who saved the day. A gifted designer, Miyashita had been born and raised in Japan. He explained that, unlike the Westerners that “I like, I wish” had been developed with, Asians were less comfortable with openly expressing strong individual opinions in a freewheeling fashion. They worried about embarrassing themselves and criticizing Stanford faculty, whom they saw as authority figures. Miyashita suggested a small change: ask each manager to first jot down “I like” and “I wish” statements on Post-its, and then ask each one to read them aloud. Klebahn tried it the next day. The managers laughed and teased each other as they each read thoughtful, and often blunt, comments. This small change resulted in, as Miyashita put it, a reversal of social pressure, so that silence became more embarrassing than speaking out, and not criticizing the teaching team felt like defying authority. These twenty-four managers (who call themselves “the Alphas”) have since taught design thinking to many of their colleagues in Singapore. “Yusuke’s flex” is part of their bag of tricks—whether they realize it or not. Sutton watched them use it effectively, for example, during a workshop that they ran for sixty employees of Singapore’s main library.
“Yusuke’s flex” is reminiscent of so many other scaling stories because Dearing’s “Catholicism-Buddhism” continuum plays a starring role. Every time we describe this continuum to people who are knee-deep in their own scaling efforts, they smile, nod, and tell us that it captures one of the most important challenges they are up against. We’ve heard this from Budweiser distributors, team leaders at Twitter, hospital administrators in Cincinnati, middle managers at JetBlue, senior executives from General Electric, California high school principals, the chief justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court, and on and on. In every case, managing the tension between replicating tried-and-true practices and modifying them (or inventing new ones) to fit local conditions weighs on decision makers, shapes key events, and leads to success or failure.
By Bob Sutton
This is the second of two posts about how biz school professor Huggy Rao and I were inspired by our experiences in the d.school’s early years to write “Scaling Up Excellence.” Our book will be published in early February. This post is an excerpt from Chapter 2, which is titled “Buddhism versus Catholicism: Choosing a Path.” The chapter stars many d.school stalwarts, notably Michael Dearing. The book ships on February 4th. If you pre-order a copy now (see www.scalingupexcellence.com), you get a few goodies including a sneak peek of the preface and first chapter, our rollicking interview with David Kelley about scaling up IDEO and the d.school, and a wall calendar our publisher will mail you with tips for making 2014 “the year of subtraction.”