What Lies Beyond Design Thinking?

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting a rapid-fire talk at Suffolk University Law School’s Legal Innovation and Technology Conference. The rapid-fire talks were in the style of PechaKucha—I was limited to 20 slides, which advanced automatically every 15 seconds.

I re-recorded the presentation to share here, and I have transcribed the talk below:

Before we get to what lies beyond design thinking, I thought it might be helpful to back up a minute and explain how I got here. I suppose it all began when I was working in BigLaw and trying to figure out what I really wanted to do. I stumbled on a book called Typography for Lawyers, which totally blew my mind. Butterick wrote that as lawyers, “our work matters. Because our work matters, our writing matters. [And b]ecause our writing matters, our typography matters.”

That message resonated with me deeply. So, I started playing around with the formatting of my own legal briefs and offered to redesign my colleagues’ powerpoint decks. And I devoured information about document design. I soon learned that graphic design is considered the first of four different orders of design. I started being drawn upwards and outwards. I learned about design thinking and started contemplating how we might redesign legal services, inspired in part by the folks at Stanford. Eventually I left my firm to pursue legal design full time. 

I started out by offering design-thinking workshops to the handful of lawyers who were starting to get interested in this stuff. But I discovered that oftentimes, when these attorneys took their prototypes back to their firms, the projects fizzled out. Their colleagues would say things like, I don’t want to spend time on non-billable stuff. Or, since the first prototype didn’t work, let’s not pursue this any further. Or worse, good ideas wouldn’t even see the light of day because people were afraid of speaking up during a brainstorming session. 

I realized that the mindsets underlying the design-thinking process were really critical to its success. Trying to innovate in an unsupportive environment just doesn’t work. Researching how to foster the right environment led me to study organizational design. I studied innovative organizations to find out what they’re doing differently. In these companies, people tend to work in self-managing teams, and they’re intentional about creating an environment where it’s safe to fully express yourself. 

So, I started trying to cultivate these ideas in the organizations where I was working. But again, it wasn’t having the impact I’d hoped for. Even though the leaders said they wanted these things, I was having a hard time getting everyone to embrace the practices. Something central was missing. 

That’s when I discovered Theory U, a change framework developed by Dr. Otto Scharmer at MIT. The U-shaped process is similar to design thinking in many ways. You start by really observing the status quo to gain a deeper understanding of the problem. And you engage in rapid prototyping to develop solutions. But the middle part is what really sets Theory U apart. It requires us to go deeper within ourselves and to connect with other ways of knowing. 

One of the quotations Scharmer likes to use is: “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” Scharmer calls this the source. But what that does this mean exactly? This inner source? For one thing, it means the quality of our attention; the quality of our listening. In other words, the success of what I do as a changemaker depends on the inner place from which I operate. I realized that I had a lot of personal work to do. And I realized that the leaders I was working with to effect change also needed to connect to their sources.

When I went back and re-read Reinventing Organizations, it dawned on me that Laloux had said the same thing. He said the only precondition for transforming an organization is that the top leaders must already “get it.” What I’ve found is that a lot of leaders think they get it. They get it conceptually. But they haven’t actually integrated it into their hearts and wills. And that’s hard work, because it’s beneath the surface. 

Scharmer likens this to the work of a farmer. The quality of the harvest—what we can see above ground—is a function of the quality of the soil. A farmer can’t command a plant to grow; she can only cultivate the soil. Likewise, as innovators we need to cultivate the social soil. Scharmer says that innovation is a practice of leadership. It is the leader’s job to create an environment where we can experiment with these new ways of operating. 

To help facilitate this process, Scharmer co-founded the Presencing Institute in Boston. I’m part of their Societal Transformation Lab, which is made up of teams from around the world. There are seven areas of focus; my team is in the democracy and governance category. We meet in person with our local teams, and then we have these video calls with the hundreds of other teams around the world. We use Zoom breakout rooms to have small group conversations and learn from each other—it really gives you a new perspective on how interconnected we are.

From this experience, I hope to help other legal changemakers working at the systems level to amplify their impact—because I truly believe that without it, we won’t achieve the scale of change that the world so desperately needs.