Design Thinking for Meetings and Events


David Kelley speaks about design thinking on 60 Minutes

Introduction

Recently, I watched a 60 Minutes episode featuring David Kelley. Mr. Kelley is the founder and chairman of the global design consultancy IDEO and professor (and founder) of Stanford’s d.school.

Kelley is a leading thinker on “design thinking,” a methodology for designing products and procedures via empathy, diversity, collaboration and iteration. The program highlights many of Kelley’s (and his firm’s) great product achievements, including the design of the first mouse for Steve Jobs at Apple.

Design Thinking for Events

In a Harvard Business Review piece on design thinking, IDEO’s CEO (Tim Brown) writes:

“As more of our basic needs are met, we increasingly expect sophisticated experiences that are emotionally satisfying and meaningful … design thinking is the tool for imagining these experiences as well as giving them a desirable form.”

I suppose this blog posting was foretold by Mr. Brown: let’s use design thinking to create “sophisticated experiences that are emotionally satisfying and meaningful”!

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one thinking about design thinking for events:

Overview: Design Thinking

Design thinking components

Image source: SAP

The design thinking process can be broken down into three components: inspiration, ideation and implementation. To quote a design thinking article co-authored by Mr. Brown:

  1. Inspiration: “Think of inspiration as the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions.”
  2. Ideation: “Ideation as the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas.”
  3. Implementation: “Implementation as the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives.”

Here are some useful resources that provide overviews on the design thinking methodology:

  1. Stanford d.school’s crash course on design thinking
  2. An Introduction to Design Thinking from SAP
  3. From the Emergent By Design blog: What Is Design Thinking, Really?

Incorporating Design Thinking into Meetings and Events

I’ve taken a look at the tenets and methodologies of design thinking and considered how they could be applied to meetings and events. Let’s consider some.

Attend Your Own Event (Empathy)

Meeting and event planners should take off their “planning hats” and attend one of their events solely with their “attendee hats” on. After all, you can only have true empathy for your attendee if you put yourself squarely in their shoes.

And that means that you can have no part in planning the event. Go through the entire cycle of registration, travel, sessions, workshops, social events, etc. Practice further empathy by understanding how fellow attendees are experiencing the event.

Deepen (and Broaden) Your Team Roster

Design thinking introduces the notion of “multidisciplinary teams,” in which people of assorted backgrounds (and schools of thought) ideate, iterate and collaborate.

Consider it a blender, where what comes out is a fascinatingly tasty beverage. You need a group that creates divergent thinking, which, according to Mr. Brown of IDEO, “is the route, not the obstacle, to innovation.”

Mr. Brown suggests “architects who have studied psychology, artists with MBAs, or engineers with marketing experience.” While this may be a stretch for the typical event planner, I’d recommend adding folks from Finance, HR and Engineering.

They don’t have to be core members of the event planning team; however, their perspectives can be more valuable that you’d think.

Where No Idea is a Bad Idea

The scientist Linus Pauling once said, “To have a good idea you must first have lots of ideas.” (quote source: an SSI article co-authored by Mr. Brown). Design thinking teaches you that no idea is a bad idea. If you make an early judgment on the quality of an idea, you may have just squashed a “germ” that would develop into a breakthrough.

The ideation process is critical in creating the next breakthrough event.

Instead, design thinking teaches you to build upon each other’s ideas, sort of like the “yes, and..” methodology in improvisational theater. As a meeting planner, then, your role is to encourage ideation and “shepherd” the process so that no idea is left abandoned (too quickly). And to the earlier point, here’s where multidisciplinary teams can be a goldmine.

Meeting and Event Prototypes

Recall that part of the ideation phase is “testing ideas.” It’s an iterative process in which you deploy a prototype, collect “real user feedback,” determine what you learned, then ideate on product refinements (repeating the cycle all over again).

Let’s say you’re planning next year’s 5,000 person sales kick-off meeting and you have innovative new ideas for it. Create a prototype using 50 sales people and actually implement those ideas in a “real prototype” (event). Determine what worked, make adjustments, then plan another prototype. When the “real thing” comes around, you’ll have a much better “product.”

Potential Barriers to Adoption

Seasoned event and meeting planners (who’ve gotten this far in my post) may be calling me crazy. And I can understand that. What I’ve proposed (in concept) must be balanced against the realities of a meeting planner’s job. And the following barriers could come into play.

Budget, Timeline and ROI

Simply put, design thinking methodologies could add significantly to meeting and event costs, while extending the timeline to deliver them. The ideation phase of design thinking is intentionally non-sequential. Meeting planners are highly organized creatures who thrive on delivering against a sequential timeline. Additionally, meeting and event management may not be comfortable spending more without knowing the precise ROI on it.

Risk Mitigation

The meeting planner is like an NFL coach: every season (i.e. every event), your job can be on the line. In his article, Mr. Brown wrote, “One of the biggest impediments to adopting design thinking is simply fear of failure.” The natural tendency of the meeting and event planner is to be risk averse, which is very much the opposite approach of design thinking.

Conclusion

Design thinking is surely not applicable to all meetings and events. And as I’ve outlined, meeting and event planners will likely shudder at the very concept. What I hope to accomplish with this post, however, is to introduce its concept to meetings and events. It’s my belief that true breakthrough events and experiences can result from it.

Note: This post was originally published on the eVenues blog. Here’s a link to the original piece.

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