Magazine Features

The five principles of design thinking

What makes success possible tends to be invisible to the eye and intangible to the touch. When those factors do appear, they seem to be the things least worthy of our attention. But according to
Dr. Gary W. Oster, editor of the Journal of Transformative Innovation, and author of The Light Prize: Perspectives on Christian Innovation, they are actually essential to the best and most effective use of our precious hours.


1. Empathize:

Focus on the needs of others.

Oster remembers the day when he began to focus on the needs of others. “I worked for technology companies before I became a teacher. I was always amazed that there would be, say, 15 companies in our market, but one would always seem to effortlessly move ahead, do better financially, and employ happier workers. Did they have more money?  No. Did they have better conditions? Most of the time, their conditions were poorer. I kept thinking, why is my team not as happy as those guys over there?

“I wanted to study how to have a bunch of people who were energized, had good ideas, and were willing to work together to make those ideas happen. I soon learned that everything that I thought should be against them being successful weren’t the real issues at all. I learned that people want to spend their lives working on different things that are meaningful. They want to look back 20 years from now and say, ‘I did this; I did that; and I’m happy that I spent my time doing those things.’”

Adopting a new perspective for Oster started simply and humbly. “I first tried innovation on my own. I sat down and looked at my daily calendar. I said to myself, Where are you spending your time? If something was really a higher priority, then I should be spending much more of my time on it. That realization caused me to change my personal schedule. I also sat down with other people and apologized. I said, ‘Hey, look, I’ve been doing this whole thing incorrectly. I know that I’m wrong.  I’ve been doing things traditionally that have probably been a pain in the neck to you.’”

Starting with an apology would probably be a big hurdle for most people, but for Oster, it was a breakthrough. “It was like losing 50 pounds in a single exercise. I realized that I’m not responsible for everything. I’ve got this whole team that has all of these capabilities. I felt so relieved. I started to go through all of my stuff routinely and say ‘wait a minute, Joe is just as capable of doing this as I am.’ I came to realize that there were a lot of people who are just as smart or even smarter than me working on my team.”

Today, Oster shares many assignments with his team and they are excited. “It’s like a promotion for everybody. Yes, we still have to do the day–to–day grind. But I’m also giving them the authority to take action. When I do that, people start showing all of their abilities. It’s stunning. I’m seeing things from them that I never expected.”

2. Define:

Create a “how might we …?” question to steer the creative process.

Experimentation is an acquired mindset, rather than an inclination. “The reason for that is fear. We’ve already been conditioned to know what is a ‘right’ answer and a ‘wrong’ answer,” says Oster. “The fact of the matter is, you have to truly define for yourself what a right answer looks like—and it may not look like what everybody else is doing.”

As an adjunct professor in Michigan, Oster realized that his teaching was highly representative of firms that have been around for a long time but weren’t necessarily successful today. Becoming experimental helped to bring positive change to his relationships with students and faculty. “Rather than everybody operating as lone rangers, we began asking, ‘What can we do together? What can be exceptional that we can work on together? Indeed, they developed a point of view that asked, ‘How might we do this better?’”

3. Ideate:

Brainstorm with others to come up with possible answers.

“When I’m talking to students, I basically ask ‘what’s bugging you?’ ‘What drives you nuts in your life?’ At first, they will say, ‘nothing, everything is fine.’ Then I say, ‘Really? That’s amazing because I have a fairly long list of things that bug me in my life.’

“Then they start thinking about it and they come up with ideas. Ultimately, I say, ‘Pick one of those problems. Actually, the simplest one.’ Then I ask, ‘What could you do today without any money and without spending a lot of time, to change that?’ It takes them a few minutes to come up with some ideas.

“And then I say, ‘OK, do it. Try it for a couple of days and see what happens.’ As soon as I do that, and they actually follow through on it, they say, ‘Tell me more about this innovation stuff.’”

This is a alternative strategy when one considers how stressful classrooms can be when students are forced to compete with each other rather than collaborate.

“It’s actually painful. Nobody ever got promoted because they gave all their ideas away,” says Oster. “It takes a little while for them to get used to the idea and that’s a big hurdle to get over. Schools are still set up exactly the way they were 100 years ago. One of the things I’m so happy about at Regent is that we’re able to analyze our orthodoxies. We can freely ask questions such as, ‘what can we do that can be done differently?’”

Oster is quick to point out that brainstorming sessions can also come with lightning and thunder. As such, do they always make for good collaborations? “I get really nervous when I don’t see the storms,” he says. “I want people to actually bring passion with their ideas. If there’s no creative friction, there’s no change; there’s no success. I want to walk by a conference room, see people really getting into it—and they’re not being personal—and then they go to lunch together. That’s what we need—excitement and positive energy!”

4. Prototype:

Using the best idea, create a quick, inexpensive model of the concept.

Oster believes that the biggest and best ideas start small. “We spend so much time talking about what we’re going to do and how much it’s going to cost. But the people who are truly innovative speedily test something that’s small and inexpensive. If it doesn’t work, they discard it and move on to something else. So, experimentation is really crucial to the process.”

He calls it creating a “low–fidelity” product that will help determine the feasibility of the concept. Sketching, scribbling, role playing, and building a model are ways of quickly visualizing the solution in 3D so feedback from all stakeholders is possible.

“There was a pastor who wanted to move a piano over to the other side of the sanctuary,” said Oster. “But the congregation rejected the idea. However, during the course of a year, he moved the piano incrementally by one inch. Today, it’s on the other side of the room.”

5. Test:

Use feedback to quickly make adjustments to the developing prototype.

Oster says the final phase in the process involves testing the prototype with the target audience and then using their feedback to quickly make adjustments to the prototype. Asking questions such as, “What works?” “What doesn’t work?” are key.

Oster believes that kind of interplay happens when confident managers invite others to criticize their ideas. “We can all do this without truly offending each other. It’s an attitude of experimentation. If it fails. So what? But if it succeeds, we move the needle a little further.”

Starting the dialogue

Oster says starting a dialogue about innovation can be as easy as making an appointment. “It just takes a person to pick up a phone and say, ‘May I stop over and talk?’ Sitting and having a cup of coffee, and asking questions such as ‘What bugs you?’ or ‘What have you done in your ministry that is really exciting and fun?’ What I’ve discovered about people in The Salvation Army is that they have an incredible number of abilities that are not necessarily being used in the workplace.

“When I read what William and Catherine Booth had to say, I was shocked by how direct, precise, and profound their words were. They could have easily written a book just on innovation. Their ideas are being played out right now in Silicon Valley. Their phrasing was slightly different to fit their era, but the things that they said are absolutely as important today as they were when they said them back then.”

by Warren L. Maye

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