A lesson from the dog park: the fertile ground of design thinking

Dog park image

A lesson from the dog park: the fertile ground of design thinking

Inspiration from the Dog Park

My friend LeeAnn has a huge heart. So much that she’s adopted 5 rescue dogs: 4 chihuahuas and 1 Italian greyhound. Last weekend we loaded up my car and took all 5 dogs to her neighborhood dog park. It’s a rare treat for her dogs because it requires more than one human to manage it.

Her neighborhood dog park has two designated off leash areas: one for small dogs (30 pounds and under), and one for large dogs. When we arrived, we were dismayed to see a Husky and a German Shepherd in the small dog area. LeeAnn, understandably concerned for the safety of her tiny dogs in an off-leash area with dogs over 10 times their weight, politely asked the guardians of the large dogs to go to their designated area. They were not happy with her request. The reason: the large dog park area was devoid of grass. It was a large plot of unappealing dirt. whereas the small dog area still had plenty of grass for running, throwing balls and frisbees. Eventually the large dog guardians complied, but not without objection.

I’m a cat mom, so I had little understanding of the politics and logistics of dog parks. LeeAnn explained that the big dogs tear up the grass much faster because of their size, which leaves them with a patch of dirt. Which then means their humans want to bring the big dogs to the small dog area instead. However, if the big dogs are allowed to come into the small dog area, they risk hurting the smaller dogs, and soon neither area will have any grass.

Design Thinking

This situation reminded me of my own work in design thinking. Design thinking is a set of tools that help organizations uncover new possibilities. These tools operate on the assumption of abundance. They help people move past their existing patterns, ways of thinking, and invisible (yet very real) self-imposed constraints.

Traditional problem solving is insufficient. It operates on the assumption of scarcity. Usually, it starts with a vague definition of the problem and a linear, narrow approach to a solution. Often, it’s the highest paid person in the room who defines the problem and prescribes a solution. They delegate fixing it to their staff. However, the staff often don’t understand or even agree with the definition of the problem. And since they weren’t a part of creating the solution, they’re rarely bought in. This leads to missed opportunities and disengaged employees.

Traditional problem solving is like the large dog area of LeeAnn’s neighborhood dog park. It might work OK for a while, but eventually the overbearing nature of it will kill all the grass until you have no fertile area left for solving problems. You can try to go over to the small dog area of the park with your traditional problem solving, but soon you’ll have a second patch of dirt. Whereas design thinking is like fertilizer for your organization’s problem solving abilities. With it, not only will you maintain the grass you’ve been given, but you’ll find new plots of land to grow more and more!

A Big Problem, Not Solved

Let’s take a tangible example: a fictitious but realistic application of traditional problem solving. Superior Software company has a big problem: they can’t hire qualified software engineers fast enough to meet the demands of their customers. Their customers are getting tired of the excuses of why new features take so long to launch and why bugs don’t get identified or fixed much sooner. The VP of Engineering tells her HR department they’re not getting in enough qualified candidates. So the HR Director dramatically increases the budget and staffing for software engineer recruiting. The HR Department does a great job of outreach and manages to double the candidate pipeline in three months. However, this only increases the hire rate by 10%!

The HR department is upset. The way they see it: they did exactly what the VP of Engineering asked. They put in long hours and sacrificed attention they could have spent on other job areas. The engineering department wasted the opportunity to hire new candidates. The VP of Engineering is upset because they still don’t have the engineers they need, and the CEO is ready to fire her. What went wrong?

The first thing that went wrong was the VP of Engineering jumped to a conclusion about what the root cause was. She assumed it was a lack of qualified candidates without actually looking at what was really happening. The first step in design thinking is a clear definition of the problem space through exploration. This means asking lots of questions, talking to other people, and challenging your own assumptions.

A Better Approach

In a design thinking approach, the VP of Engineering could have talked to her stakeholders to find out what was really happening. She could have asked her HR team to provide data and compared that to industry benchmarks. For example, what is the offer acceptance rate, the ratio of applications to interviews, and turnover rate of software engineers? She could have talked to candidates who went through the hiring process but didn’t accept the job to understand why. She could have talked to recently hired engineers to understand why they took the job and what their new hire experience has been like. She could have talked to the HR recruiters to get their perspective on why hiring is so difficult. There’s a myriad of inputs that could have been helpful in defining the correct problem from the beginning.

The second thing that went wrong was the VP of Engineering never considered alternative solutions. She went with her first instinct, which was to blame another department and put the pressure on them to deliver. She didn’t ask for anyone else’s input. She didn’t spend time exploring what other possibilities existed to solve this problem. And she only tried one thing! She expected that one thing to work and was surprised when it didn’t.

In a design thinking approach, the VP of Engineering would have explored a wide range of options to solve a clearly defined & verified problem. She would have involved many people in the exploration of potential solutions. Input from people with different points of view in the organization leads to diverse possibilities. Then, she would have narrowed to several options and prototyped them to see what was actually making a difference, rather than expecting one idea alone to succeed. And she would have learned from the prototypes before rolling out a final solution, preserving time, money and employee engagement in the process.

Towards Greener Dog Parks

In this story, it turns out the real problem wasn’t a lack of candidates. It was that the majority of job offers were being declined. The salary and benefits packages were out of date and hadn’t been kept up with the rapid pace of change, and engineers were getting much more attractive offers elsewhere. Candidates weren’t forthcoming with this information because they wanted to avoid burning bridges. They simply said they accepted another offer without giving away too much information. So the solution the VP of Engineering proposed (to the wrong problem) was like pouring more water into a leaky bucket. Sure, you’ll get a little more water, but wouldn’t it be better to patch the hole?

A traditional problem solving approach is like a leaky bucket or a dog park with no grass. However you look at it, traditional problem solving is a drain on your organization’s resources while design thinking is a multiplier of resources. In the social good sector, we can’t afford to waste any resources on solving the wrong problem the wrong way. The world is ready for us to create new fertile ground.

Dawn Ressel
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