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Hacking old habits to effect organizational change

Alejandro Escamilla / Unsplash

Alejandro Escamilla / Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I took a voice and public speaking workshop at the Berkeley Rep School of Theater, and the first thing the instructor told us was that she was not there to teach us anything new. Rather, she was there to help us un-learn some ingrained life-long habits we all bring with us when we go on stage.

The same can be said of practicing design thinking, a human-centered process for innovation. Some of the key mindsets of design thinking rely on un-learning old ways of working. To successfully integrate design thinking into your museum—whether it’s for a small, one-off project or an institution-wide initiative—you must hack your old habits.

Retraining oneself around old ways of working is one small way to seed design thinking into daily operations, and the two practices I’ve listed below provide a jumpstart.

Resist the urge to jump to solutions.

In the design thinking process, you don’t even start thinking about solutions (i.e. platforms, devices, programming languages, operating systems, user interfaces, visual designs) until you are literally half-way through the process. This is probably the hardest part of the design thinking process for new practitioners to master, and it takes ongoing practice and discipline to retrain oneself.

This temptation to immediately jump to solutions is something I see in every museum I work with. Museum digital/web/technology staff members have been hired based on their expertise and experience, and their colleagues come to them with pressing and real problems. It is only natural, then, that when kicking-off a new project—from redesigning a member publication to developing a mobile site for families—the first instinct of most team members is to jump to the implementation details. You want to solve that problem, now!

But instead of pushing through problems by jumping to solutions, try stepping back and starting with the user needs, and then move through the design thinking process to reframe the problem. The insights that emerge during this process often lead to a redefinition of the original problem, which means that what you invest your time and resources in prototyping, testing, and implementing is often quite different from what you set out to do.

Stop before it’s perfect.

In the design thinking process, we build rough, scrappy, messy prototypes and test them. The prototypes are not supposed to be good, “right” or perfect. Yet our instincts in the museum sector as visual professionals with extensive academic training is to work on stuff until it’s really damn good.

I was working with a museum that wanted to re-think its traditional wall labels, and we were prototyping new approaches to and conceptualizations of labels. The team was building a rough prototype for testing, and got completely stuck on the contents of the placeholder content.  I had to remind them that it was really, truly OK if the contents of the prototyped label were not vetted and curatorially approved for 15-minute tests with visitors in a busy gallery.

Once I reminded them of this, it was as if a weight had been lifted. They were “freed” from their constraint and quickly created a prototype that yielded incredibly rich feedback despite its lack of perfection. Not a single visitor complained that the text was not perfect and publication-worthy.

Conclusion

As anyone who has tried to effect change inside an organization knows,  it’s easy to fall back on old habits when faced with pressing challenges. Retraining how you approach problems requires an ongoing commitment.

A great resource is Design Thinking Action Pact from the Stanford d.school. It contains assignments that were created for Stanford Executive Education students to complete after an on-site workshop, but anyone can download and complete the assignments independently. Each assignments targets a different “design thinking muscle,” so this is an excellent resource for further learning—and unlearning.

 

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