Design Thinking: The Art of Failing Fast and Succeeding Sooner

By PrincetonTigerChallenge

By: Audrey Chebet '18
Team: UnLeaded

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  - Thomas Edison, Inventor

When faced with a complex problem, it can be hard knowing where to start. But even more so for ‘wicked’ problems where one does not know where exactly to stop. When I was first offered a position at the Tiger Challenge Program, I was uncertain about what to expect in terms of working on the Lead Poisoning problem in Trenton. And no, I did not become more certain about the problem over the course of summer, it was the opposite. As we continued collecting data and analyzing how it informed the project, I became unsure of what problem we were meant to solve. Our project was multifaceted with infinite ways of thinking through it. At first, this became a point of unpredictability, especially the framing of the problem statement, made me uncomfortable with design thinking.

I was always comparing design thinking with scientific methods that I was more familiar with. With science, one sets out with a hypothesis and rigorously tests it within the desired context and the results would either support or not support the hypothesis. Design thinking challenges the notions of set parameters within a given problem and pushes one to reconsider and reframe the original question. Unlike scientists who set parameters for their study/experiments, design thinkers begin by questioning everything, even the problem itself. Is it actually a problem? If you are designing a product, do your consumers need it? If they do, does your design focus on their actual needs or what you think their needs are?

I have come to appreciate design thinking for many reasons, but I have developed a great fondness for Ideation aka brainstorming (one of the design thinking processes). Admittedly, it was my least favorite stage, however by the end of summer, I developed a newfound appreciation for it. The ability to iterate - generate ideas rapidly, conceptualize them and find the ones worth pursuing was very difficult for me at first. I wanted to focus only on the best because what is the point of looking at bad ideas? I am the kind of person who likes solving problems fast, so spending days generating lots and lots of ideas only to throw some out seemed wasteful. However, when I think back on our workspace, covered in a sea of post-its, I know we would not have arrived at 12 concepts without those little “bad” seeds that we planted, watered, pruned over and over until we got to the incredible place we were at the end of summer. I stopped thinking of those ideas as failures, in fact, design thinking allowed me to mess up and get my ideas out in their roughest form.

Team UnLeaded "warming up" the creative muscles

So as I begin my senior year in college, I’ve started thinking about my life as a space for design and innovation, thanks to my former least favorite phase. Life is messy, poorly bounded and even what a ‘good life’ is, is somewhat poorly defined just like the ‘wicked’ challenges the Tiger Challenge program sets to solve. For anyone struggling with this world of iteration, here are simple directives I found particularly useful:

  1. Fail fast, cheaply and often: get ideas out there however undeveloped they are. Nothing about design thinking process is smooth so why should your ideas be? The only failure is not getting any ideas out because you spend too much time thinking about its execution.
  2. Nothing is only yours: once you put an idea out there, everyone owns it. Once the idea is enhanced and shaped into a concept, everyone gets credit. It might be difficult to let go, but clinging on to who did what hinders the process.
  3. Yes! And… : many know this improv game that encourages collaboration and acceptance of each other’s ideas in order to tell a story. As part of this creative process, team members need to create an environment that encourages curiosity and courage. Ideation can be fun and fruitful when everyone shares openly and freely without fear of judgment.

Judgment, yes and … the process of thinking, rethinking, reshaping and iterating through so many ideas opens a world where we continue telling a story instead of just completing it. Design thinking has shaped the way I think about attaining goals. Instead of focusing on the constraints around a problem, I am now driven by the many possibilities gleaned from insights developed from data. I like to think of design thinking not as a tool or a process, rather it is a mindset geared towards innovation.

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." -Albert Einstein

We cannot solve problems simply by understanding the present, we need to be able to imagine the future.