It’s Okay to Panic: Design Thinking in the Real World

If you’re a design thinking practitioner, and you’ve been at it more than 6 months or so, you will inevitably encounter a moment in which you start to panic.

You’re guiding a workshop, and the participants start to fight with one another and tear holes in each other’s ideas, despite your encouraging pleas to “Use yes, and! Use yes, and!”

You’re giving a presentation on how design thinking can be used to break through the organizational silos that stymy good ideas, promote action over discussion, and prevent innovation, in an organization that actively struggles with all 3, and encounter not objections but…dead silence.

You’re trying to explain to a project manager why a new program should seek feedback from stakeholders during the design process, and you get the question “Why do we need to ask them? They’ll do what we tell them to do.”

Yeah, I’ve been there. And I want you to know that if you’ve ever encountered anything remotely similar in your efforts to get your organization to think about things just a little bit differently, and were met with resistance, eye-rolling, or worse, plain indifference, it’s okay to panic.

And then dust yourself off, and keep pushing forward anyway, because you are awesome, and being terrified means you’re doing this design thinking thing right.

Changing the way an organization encounters challenges, problem solves, or ideates is hard work, and doesn’t happen overnight. I’ve been doing design thinking for the last 7ish years, and many days I feel like one of those tugboats trying to dislodge that massive cargo ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal last spring, impossibly overwhelmed. But I’ve also achieved major breakthroughs- I’ve gotten senior executives to align on ideas that they dismissed just a couple of months earlier, greenlights for projects that previously would have met roadblocks, and investments in items that that previously were unbudgeted.

I’ve also had panic attacks in bathrooms during workshops that weren’t going in the direction they were supposed to, or while frantically developing alternative exercises on the spot when conversations started going off the rails. But always, nothing turned out to be as bad as it seemed at the time, and all of it contributed to the body of learning experiences that make me a more effective, capable, design thinking practitioner.

Feeling panic at some point is frankly terrifying, but not for the reasons you think. It’s because you’re pushing yourself and your team, group, or organization past your own limits. You’re moving from ‘what is’ to ‘what if’, and the unknown is scary as hell. You will make mistakes. You will do things “wrong”. You will replay conversations in your head over and over again just to flagellate yourself for saying the wrong thing (or maybe that’s just me).

But you will learn from these experiences, and you will start to see some successes. Groups engaging with one another that never spoke to each other before. Teams soliciting feedback on a new solution to gauge impact, whereas before they’d just launch it and hope for the best. Managers creating stakeholder maps, execs inquiring about customer journeys, your manager’s manager asking you about “empathy”- this is how you know minds are changing.

So hang in there. I see you. And I know that you’re panicking because you care, and want to add value. I want you to know that you are. And that even a tiny tugboat can dislodge the mightiest container ship, one tug at a time.



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