On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Sarah Stein Greenberg, Executive Director of Stanford’s d.School. Sarah and I talk about her new book, Creative Acts for Curious People and dig into a number of the exercises and activities that innovators can use to move ideas forward faster.
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Interview Transcript of Sarah Stein Greenberg, ED of Stanford’s d.School and Author of Creative Acts for Curious People
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Sarah Stein Greenberg. She’s the Executive Director of Stanford’s d. School and author of the new book, Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create and Lead in Unconventional Ways. Welcome to the show, Sarah.
Sarah Stein Greenberg: Thanks so much, Brian. I’m really excited to be here.
Brian Ardinger: You know, as a person in the trenches, trying to help companies and teams think through the innovation process. It’s kind of hard-to-get people on board half the time. And you’ve taken and created this new book, that’s really the tactical guide of exercise and experiences, almost a roadmap for that. What made you decide to tackle this topic and what do you hope for folks to get the most out of it?
Sarah Stein Greenberg: Oh, great question. We’re living through this historic moment right now, where on nearly a daily basis, each of us are trying to solve problems that we have not faced before. So, as we were getting going, we were talking about the challenge of having one kid vaccinated. One kid not vaccinated. People are back in school. There’s lots of different risk factors.
Folks are starting in some cases to return to offices. Like what’s the new social etiquette. And then at the same time, there are these like community level issues or global issues around whether it’s wildfires, which are happening in my area, or really different perspectives about politics that we’re experiencing all over the country.
And it’s a lot of ambiguity and a lot of uncertainty. So, while we might be used to thinking about like, how do we apply our creativity to innovation and coming up with new products and services, there’s also this whole realm of use for our creative abilities that has to do with these kinds of both small personal and large global challenges.
So, I wrote this book because I think that design offers a set of abilities that are really useful when you’re trying to tackle problems where you don’t know the right answer. Maybe there is no right answer, and you have to bring your full creative self.
These are the kinds of skills and abilities that we seek to help develop in our students at the d. School and with executives and teachers and folks all over the world. And I think there’s something in here for everyone, no matter where you are in your creative journey. I think you can find something that will be of use to you.
Brian Ardinger: A lot of folks are understanding that to a real extent this idea of living in constant change and ambiguity and a world in flux. What are some of the key skillsets that you find are important to be able to dabble in that world?
Sarah Stein Greenberg: One is the act of noticing and observing how the world is changing. And, you know, we get really habitual to the routines and the things we see every day. But when you look at what amazing designers do, somehow, they see opportunities that no one else is noticing. But there are really a set of ways, I have a few great assignments in the book based on this to cultivate your own ability to observe and notice differently.
So, one of my favorites is called the Dureve, in which you are able to take a walk and navigate around a space or your neighborhood, or your office building, by using the practices in the Dureve. All of a sudden you notice things that maybe have been there for 25 years, and you haven’t noticed these elements. And it awakens you to recognize how many opportunities are around us all the time that are just lying in plain sight, but we are not seeing them. So that’s one of those skillsets.
I think another key one is just, we talk about this all the time in innovation and design, but it’s about collaboration. Right. And how you get to a state of true creative collaboration and how much trust that requires, an openness, and the ability to navigate together with a group of people who may think very differently about the same things through a creative process.
Brian Ardinger: You talk about in the book, the difference between problem finding and problem solving. Can you outline that and why that is so important to understanding how to work in this innovation space?
Sarah Stein Greenberg: Yeah. I mean, for me, that was one of the critical ahas that I experienced when I first started learning about design when I was a grad student. You know, I think in a lot of more analytical disciplines, you are taught to take the problem that you’ve been given, break it into small pieces and then figure out how are you going to solve that?
And that is a very valuable set of skills, but in design, we add some stages before you start working on problem solving. That’s about problem framing, as you said. And the reason for doing this is that often the way a problem we frame in a conventional way, right? It’s kind of the way that’s either out there and sort of the obvious way.
It is what we assume that our customers might need, or we assume that people would care about. But in fact, if you allow yourself that stage of problem finding that’s often what drives the innovation, is when you reframe an opportunity and then you start to see it in a whole new way.
Brian Ardinger: Do you have any examples that you can share around that?
Sarah Stein Greenberg: Yeah. One of the examples that I go into detail in the book is the example of a team of students who ultimately wound up founding a new company. And they were tasked with working with a partner, a hospital, a cardiac care hospital in India. And they thought that their mission as a team was to design something that could really assist with like efficiency or sort of patient flow. They thought that they were going to wind up designing something for either the clinicians or maybe for the hospital administrators.
What they saw when they started doing their research was a completely different set of opportunities. What they spotted was the fact that there are many people in the hospital who were coming to accompany their family member and then winding up waiting for hours or days even, and not having a lot of information about how their family member was doing, what their prognosis was.
The students really like feed into this and wound up designing something for those family members. So they have now launched this organization that provides healthcare training to family members during that waiting process. And what that allows is that the patient then goes home with a trained caregiver who actually has the largest stake in the outcome, the health outcomes.
And they’ve trained over a million people. They work in over 150 hospitals across South Asia. It’s a really unconventional solution. It’s so powerful because they just took this completely ignored opportunity and created a very low cost, very effective solution that helps reduce the rate of hospital readmissions. It reduces complications following surgery.
Those students would not have been able to get to that outcome if they didn’t have the permission to really do the problem finding work, right. And not take the problem as given but find a new opportunity.
Brian Ardinger: I think that’s so important because when you work with corporate teams, a lot of times they think they understand the problem because they’ve worked with that customer before, they understand a lot of the dynamics versus like a startup. Maybe that’s working in a green space idea. What kind of advice can you give for a team that’s working in an existing environment to give them permission, to think about things differently and tackle the problem side first.
Sarah Stein Greenberg: I’m going to give two examples of assignments in the book that I think are incredibly relevant for the scenario that you just depicted. And neither of them are a huge investment of time. So, when people are always worried about like, hey, we just got to jump right into problem solving mode, taking one day or even just a couple of hours to check whether or not there might be solution space is it’s such a good investment of time.
The first one that I’ll mention is an activity I call Experts Assumptions. And it’s based on the practice of Assumption Storming. Everybody knows about brainstorming, but there’s a really cool practice created by a guy named Craig Lauchner called Assumption Storming, where you list all the assumptions that you have about what your customer needs, or what the market opportunity looks like.
I really list all of them. And then you start categorizing them based on whether they’re fact or opinions or guesses. And actually, what you discover is there’s a lot more opinions and guesses, behind most of our assumptions, than you would think. Anything that’s a fact you just disregard for the sake of the exercise, but anything that’s an opinion or a guess, you challenge that.
So, you flip it and you say, well what if this opinion were not true, what could we design them? What could we make then? And oftentimes it just reveals that like our assumptions are built on this foundation of a lot of guesswork and it gives you the opportunity to do that right up front when you’re starting something.
The other practice that I would advise in this case is called shadowing. And shadowing is just the practice of following in the footsteps of whoever you’re trying to design for for a full day. We have a lot of experience running this with educators who follow a student for the entire day, from the bus stop to the drop off at the end of the day.
And they come back with the most interesting and unexpected insights, right? So those are people who are in the school context all day. They think they really understand what’s going on, but until you put yourself in the shoes or you walk in the shoes of someone else, you don’t realize how much of the experience might be altered from having that different perspective. And again, it helps you challenge those assumptions, and it helps you spot all of these opportunities for creative work or innovation that you haven’t noticed yet.
Brian Ardinger: So, you’ve worked with a lot of teams, and they’d gone through a lot of these types of exercises and that. What are some of the biggest aha moments or obstacles and where do people get stuck and how do they overcome it?
Sarah Stein Greenberg: I love it when people get stuck, because that means it’s a challenge worthy of their creative abilities. I think getting stuck has a bad rap, but actually it means you’re doing important work and you’re stretching and you’re learning. One place where we often see students in our classrooms get stuck is during the phase when you’re trying to light on the direction for your project, kind of synthesis phase, establishing a point of view.
I also see our teams get stuck when everybody’s gone off and done the exploration research separately. And nobody has actually like gone to interview users together and had the aha that comes from having two different people interpret, oh, is that what that person was saying? There’s a real missed opportunity there.
And then there was a wonderful moment of feeling the pressure of the final deadline that often causes a lot of angst and tension within a team. And what those moments often are is what’s called productive struggle. So, there’s research from mathematics education that says that when you struggle, when you’re first trying to learn a new skill in math, you actually wind up learning it more deeply. And you’re more likely to be able to transfer that knowledge to other kinds of problems.
And so people who kind of get things right away the first time, that doesn’t mean they’re deeply learning. So again, I welcome the struggle. I think the struggle can be a sign that the task is worthy of your attention and that you’re going to have to stretch and grow while you’re conquering it.
Brian Ardinger: One of the things that I’ve seen working with teams, a lot of times that keeping the momentum and the consistency is difficult. A lot of times they go out and do customer discovery and then they think they can check it off the list. Do you have any hints or tips for, how do you keep that momentum and consistency pulling away to the executing and optimizing mode. This happens to too many people.
Sarah Stein Greenberg: Really establishing upfront that you’re going to go back to customers multiple times is critical. When you first interpret whatever you learned during that exploration and research, you can kind of be like, oh, I’m onto it. Like I’ve got this new idea. It’s new to me. It’s exciting. But if you don’t actually go back and test your assumptions by exposing those early prototypes to real people, then you’re not really closing the loop.
So, treating those first insights as a hypothesis, but then continuing to test and make sure that you’re getting real feedback from the market or from colleagues or from anyone who has an external perspective to the work, I think that’s what really helps you avoid that pitfall that you’re describing.
And a lot of people, you know, it is easy to get into that like solution optimization mindset. And a lot of that comes from this sense of, I need to work fast. In my opinion, and I think the experience with, you know, a lot of innovators would bear this out, if you take the time to do those tests, you really save yourself risk. Right.
You really help get the right product to market or the right innovation going rather than some kind of more arbitrary internal deadline. It’s so easy to like lose sight of that fact in the pursuit of, you know, getting to the preexisting timeline rather than actually thinking about what is right here, how am I solving the right problem? How am I going to come up with something that’s truly meaningful to some customer somewhere?
Brian Ardinger: The key is accelerating the learning, not necessarily the outcome itself.
Sarah Stein Greenberg: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think the learning also is useful to a company or a team, not just in this particular project, but then going forward. So, if you think about, am I optimizing for learning, what am I really doing to make sure we come out of this project, having a great outcome, but also like setting the team up for success in the future. That’s the exact right mindset. That’s the learning mindset that you want to cultivate.
Brian Ardinger: So, as you’re out in Silicon Valley at Stanford. So, technology is obviously a core component of the whole region. How do you see technology changing the way we design and some of the new trends that you’re seeing out there?
Sarah Stein Greenberg: One thing we’ve all gone through in the past 18 months is much more remote collaboration, particularly for many people in the world of design than we have experienced before. And I think that that’s been certainly a challenge, but it’s also provided a lot of new opportunities to design new types of interactions, new types of practices.
So, there are increasingly ways to be testing at scale through online platforms that we maybe haven’t used in the past. Personally, still think that has to complement the kind of depth human, you know, more individual, small qualitative research approaches. I think a blend is really useful.
It’s challenging all of our teams in terms of how you build trust. How do you build resilience? How do you build the kind of collaboration that we’re talking about be necessary when you’re not, it’s easy to have less empathy for your team members when you’re not seeing them every day?
And you know, not maybe scheduling in time to have those more human conversations that kind of coffee chat just happens in a in-person office environment. I think you can design for that remotely in a distributed culture, but you have to be conscious that that’s an important thing that you value.
Brian Ardinger: Like I said, there’s, I think over 80 types of activities or exercises that you have in this book. Are there particular ones that you like or want to talk about?
Sarah Stein Greenberg: Sure. I mean, one example that I’ll give, and I feel like this is the epitome of what we talk about when we say these are unconventional approaches. So, one of my favorites is an activity that I lead every year with students called Distribution Prototyping. So, this is like phenomenal for small businesses or large businesses.
Too often in design or in engineering we like think about the thing that we want to make or the service we want to deliver, but we don’t think about how it’s actually going to reach the customer. That’s such a miss because there is so much innovation and creativity that can happen in the distribution and the marketing and the sales experience and all of that.
So, thinking more broadly about where innovation can show up, that’s a favorite idea of mine. And in this particular assignment, I have people stretch a string across the biggest room they have, or the longest hallway that they have. Then imagine the thing that they’re trying to deliver to the customer at one end and the place where it’s either being the person being trained to deliver the service, or you know, where it’s being manufactured at the other end.
And then systematically you hang cards using paperclips or whatever you have at hand to represent all of the different steps along the channel. And there’s something very powerful about the embodiment of that, right? Like you can get your head around it. You can build a model. You can put it on a spreadsheet.
It doesn’t do as much for you as if you physically do what’s called body storming and make that physical representation. So, you will have kinds of insights about, oh, we could cut some costs here. Ooh, this could be a really nonsense traditional agent in my channel who might really change how people are experiencing the delivery of the service. Or you might think differently about the economic arrangements or some way to incentivize retailers that you haven’t thought about before. So that’s one of my favorites. That’s really what I’m taking a string and putting it… That is the kind of embrace of the more playful unconventional approaches that can really work.
Brian Ardinger: Yeah, that literal mapping of a customer journey gives you so many different dimensions to look at. It’s almost like the whole business model canvas versus a running of a business plan. It gives you a visualization of things that you can move around and change. I really like that.
Sarah Stein Greenberg: Yeah. And I would say like the visualization is a huge part of it. And then that one step further into the physicalization is like, there is a reason that when you walk into any design studio, it has lots of clutter with so many different objects. It’s because designers think with things and there is some really magical part of your brain that gets lit up when you do that.
For More Information
Brian Ardinger: I appreciate you being on Inside Outside Innovation, to talk a little bit about your book Creative Acts for Curious People. If people want to find out more about yourself or the book, what’s the best way to do that?
Sarah Stein Greenberg: They can reach us at dschoolbooks.Stanford.edu.
Brian Ardinger: Go and grab it at Amazon. And we’re excited to have you on the show and thanks very much for being a part of it.
Sarah Stein Greenberg: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.
Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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Originally published in Sept 2021.