Ambiguity / Collaboration / Culture / Design / Design Thinking / Facilitated Workshops / innovation / Mindset / Psychology / strategy / Transformation

The Designer’s Mindset – The Force Mechanism of Change

HorseThe psychology of how we pivot and the mechanics of how we do so.

Horses for courses

It seemed like an interesting insight into the equestrian world rather than a life lesson, when Tim Beecher explained to me how racehorses take a jump. It was the very start of my career and the famed Irish horseman was building out the next phase of his world renowned Loughnatoosa (“Lok-na-too-sa”) equestrian center and I got to visit. Ireland is famous for its horse industry and though Beecher’s renown is for show-jumping, he also trains race horses for major Irish and international racing stables, teaching them how to size up and take jumps.

“We teach the race horses to think differently when they see a hurdle coming.”

“Race horses are flat-track bullies,” he told me. Once the barrier stalls open, off they race. But introduce a jump into the mix and suddenly the process becomes more complex. A show-jumping horse earns its pedigree not through speed around the circuit but in the flawless execution of taking jumps. “These are two different mindsets,” Tim explained. “We teach the race horses to think differently when they see a hurdle coming.” I was fascinated. The process wasn’t all that difficult in and of itself; the horse and rider needed to see the jump approaching and then think in the opposable way – slow down and launch into a longer and higher stride, land precisely and then smoothly accelerate again. In this sequence, the horse changed mindset and personality from race-horse to jump-horse and back to race-horse. Often times the best race-horses in the world aren’t necessarily the fastest, they’re the ones with the ability to pivot between mindsets as needed. This story has always stuck with me.


Thinking fast and slow – at the same time

Organizations are not dissimilar. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahnemann addressed similar psychology in how humans make decisions and switch between mindsets to achieve the best performance for their organizations. Gartner, too, addresses the topic in their white paper on Systems of Differentiation inside a business, determining which business capabilities in turn are foundational, drive differentiation and innovation. Like the two brains running in Kahnemann’s thesis, Gartner identifies three different ‘speeds’ at play inside the business at the same time, a phenomenon they call pace-layering.

The ability to pivot to a different mindset at the critical moment is the transformation element.

The common factor in these examples is that different speeds exist in complex processes and the ability to pivot to a different mindset at the critical moment is the transformation element. Tim Beecher and Daniel Kahnemann explicitly point this out. While Simon Sinek (and others) wonderfully extoll the virtues of ‘Why‘ and many methodologies exist to show us ‘How‘, there isn’t generally much guidance to suggest specifically ‘What‘ to do or ‘When‘ to do it.

What’ is generally driven by context and experience. ‘ When’ depends on who’s involved and what’s at stake.

‘What’ is generally driven by context and experience and ‘When’ depends on who’s involved and what’s at stake. In a complex and pace-layered organization there are – by definition – multiple inflection points in play between pace, culture and opposing mindsets that are needed to handle the transitions. The organization and business functions in our near future will necessarily be in a state of dynamic evolution or they will be made quickly redundant. That is observed in statistics that show that over 40% of today’s workforce in the United States is contingent, meaning those jobs are not expected to last. The gig economy is real and coming.

Over 40% of today’s workforce in the United States is contingent, meaning those jobs are not expected to last.

These statistics in and of themselves should elicit an emotional response as people consider which of ‘hierarchies of needs’ is under the most immediate threat. Feeling panicky? Don’t. Understand the psychology of how we pivot and transform either as complex organizations or as individuals and then understand the mechanics of how to do so.

It seems that business functions within a system don’t handle opposing mindsets and the transition of pace that well. This is both the problem and the opportunity that the application of design discipline provides to business and organizational challenges.


How to do it

First: don’t fear change or risk. They happen.

Second: do have a framework for how to handle them when they do. A framework is a flexible supporting structure capable of handling undefined challenges. You can’t plan for these things because plans are prescriptions projected onto known challenges.

Third: most importantly, know how your brain is going to respond. It’s going to scream the house down first and only after that has happened, can you begin to adjust your mindset to design solutions for the challenges you face.

Mindset diagram

The most important thing to recognize about changing mindsets at key moments is that it is learned behavior. A deliberate ‘reset’ is required to help you observe, understand and consider new and open-ended opportunities. We need force mechanisms to handle transition processes, to take those jumps and then accelerate down the straights.

The ability to change mindsets at key moments is a learned behavior.

To facilitate transformation within organizations at pivotal moments, design strategy helps handle the ambiguity, exploration, experimentation and testing required to forge new channels. Making transformation outcomes operational requires:

  • Emotional engagement (empathy and growth mindset)
  • Co-design and co-creation (‘learn by doing’ with your key partners and stakeholders)
  • Platform for Scale (testing for feasibility and viability)

Engaging your growth mindset and learning by doing can be uncomfortable but both processes provide guardrails and techniques for navigating through uncertainty. The design thinking discipline and its associated techniques provide just the framework needed to help explore undefined challenges. Here are some key characteristics of design thinking that enable  the necessary change of pace or mindset required to enable a pivot:

  1. Engage a skilled Catalyst to facilitate your transformation.
  2. Build a diverse team that represents different perspectives within the space. The participants are known as ‘radical collaborators’.
  3. Be radically transparent – growth does not occur without tension, but the design framework provides safe guardrails for facilitation between opposing perspectives.
  4. Carry out ethnographic, participatory and evaluative research with the radical collaborators to observe prevailing conditions, gaps and unmet needs and to enable critical thinking.
  5. Learn about specific needs until everyone understands them. This allows for clear definition of the challenges to be addressed.
  6. Build minimum viable prototypes together that prove that emerging concepts are feasible.
  7. Test with customers and stakeholders to see if the emergent concepts are viable.

Context, personalities, experience and reality provide the constraints that will help us prevent scope creep.


Embrace uncertainty

Humans handle change and transformation emotionally because that is how our brains are wired. Because of the rapid pace of change occurring in our world right now, our immediate future will be filled with ambiguity. It is possible to move beyond blocking factors by embracing uncertainty – a counter intuitive psychological feat – but ultimately the one that allows us to evolve with more freedom and more potential.

‘Think different’ with confidence

The design mindset and design thinking frameworks allow us to provide both the motivation and the mechanics to “think different” with confidence.


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Over the last few years I’m grateful for the friendship, goodwill and great coaching of a host of people as I’ve come to explore design strategy as applied to business. In particular, I’m indebted to Justin Lokitz, Sergio Correa de J. Medina, Shannon Lucas, Sarbjeet Johal, Parker Lee, Doug Austrom, Laura Morley and many others. There are a lot of great people out there in our crazy times!

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