Change by Design, by Tim Brown

Brown argues persuasively that design thinking is not reserved for architects and landscape gardeners, or those working on product teams at Apple or Gucci.  My favorite notion in his book can be represented by a Venn diagram with three intersecting circles.  Design thinkers are searching for the sweet spot in the middle of the drawing where three elements/conditions overlap: Desirability; Viability; and Feasibility. Viability means can we afford it?  Feasibility means is it possible?  Let’s note that in the social profit world, feasibility has technical, political, and cultural dimensions; it can get complicated.

Brown argues that good design is rooted in the dimension of desirability, and I think this is one of the lessons social profit staff and board members can take from his book.  In a sector starved for resources and confronted with daunting social ills, we can find ourselves slipping into the part of the diagram where viability and feasibility overlap, just outside of the desirability circle.  The test is how you answer the question, “Why are you doing it that way?”  If we find ourselves answering, “because that’s what we could afford” or “because that was our only option” instead of an answer based on mission language, we have slipped out of the zone where the three design elements overlap.

Another very helpful concept for social profit organizations in Brown’s book is his point that design involves alternating periods of divergent and convergent thinking, i.e. periods of producing a range of ideas and possible choices, followed by periods of narrowing down ideas and making choices among the possibilities you have generated.  One divergent/convergent cycle follows another. Design teams become very good at knowing where they are in this cyclical process.