How Design Thinking Helped Me Innovate Myself
What the heck was I supposed to do now? Everything I had worked so hard for seemed to be crumbling down. There I was, standing alone in a home that would now become my isolation chamber. All of their things were gone except for the remnants. A nursery full of what had been my three-month-old daughter's things. An empty closet with empty drawers where my wife's clothes had once been. They were gone and were never coming back.
What brought you to Tokyo?
I’ve been getting this question for the last five years. The answer usually comes out as something like, “oh, my wife’s family needed help on their business.” And yes, that is true, but it’s not the complete picture. In reality, the truth is much deeper than that.
As a Program Manager in the Aerospace & Defense Electronics industry supporting military applications, it was my job to keep things in order. My typical day seemed like a stream of firefights. The day-to-day details consisted of repairing fractured customer relations, overcoming engineering setbacks, ironing out manufacturing defects, negotiating supplier deliveries, and troubleshooting environmental test failures. And when I wasn’t putting out fires, I was writing business proposals to win new projects.
All the problems I encountered became puzzles that needed to be solved.
After years of juggling, I got really good at connecting the dots between seemingly unrelated activities. This unique ability allowed me to spot issues before they happened. Most of the time, this was good. But I often came across like Tom Cruise from Minority Report trying to prevent crimes that even the perpetrator didn’t know they would soon commit. I felt like I needed to control everything, and this would ultimately become the problem that I would ultimately need to solve.
When things didn’t go my way, I would get anxious. How was I going to make up for all the issues that kept popping up like whack-a-mole? I did well at keeping my anxieties bottled up at work. But when I got home, I would boil over—pacing back and forth, analyzing every moment of the day, planning for the next. I had become someone that even I didn’t want to be around.
In the grand scheme, the problems I was solving didn't matter. But I had allowed them to consume my life. And almost all of these issues were mere symptoms of more significant issues within the organization(s) I worked for. Because the bigger problems were left to fester, they created this giant ball of chaos that executives hired me to handle.
When I finally realized that I needed to make a change, I began searching for answers.
One day I took an assessment as part of a program on design thinking. Design thinking is a framework for innovation based on creativity to identify and solve strategic problems. The assessment was called the Basadur Innovation Profile. After taking the assessment, I received my results. I fell into a "Generator” category, and I was on the far end of the spectrum.
The generation stage is the activity that initiates the creative process. It is disruptive because it entails proactively and deliberately seeking and discovering new problems and opportunities. Often called opportunity finding, generation results from a restless discontent with the status quo. As a result, generators are in short supply among industrial and business organizations.¹
According to the profile, generators excel at getting things started by analyzing fuzzy situations, gathering information, and defining the problem. These activities allow generators to imagine many possibilities and quickly identify opportunities and pitfalls. However, generators are often less interested in the day-to-day activities associated with detailed implementation.
The real problem that needed to be solved was that I was doing the wrong work.
In juggling multiple projects, I was drinking from a firehose of potential problems. I jumped from problem to problem because I could see all of the issues as a whole, where others only saw fragmented components within a system.
Thinking back and speaking to others, I did my best work by figuring out vague situations and setting projects up for success—not managing the day-to-day implementation. I would get bored and start creating new projects that needed to be solved. I needed to re-channel my energy more productively by focusing on the bigger picture strategy.