On Why Defining a Challenge is an Act of Leadership

Design Thinking is a mindset but it is also a process and an inherently collaborative process at that. The collaborative part has me stumped a bit on my quest to use Design Thinking to address challenges in my own life. I have to be the interviewer and the interviewee for the discovery period, riff off my own ideas in the brainstorming/prototype phase of the process, create and heed my own feedback during evolution and try to bring a fresh and outsider perspective to the fabric of my everyday–the myriad moments and acts that are such an integral part of my daily existence that they often occur on some level rarely noticed by my conscious mind. I have been trying to define a few challenges to focus on next month, a process which has given me a whole new appreciation for what is meant by “defining a challenge is an act of leadership”.


IDEO’s tips for discovery

Understand Deeply: Encourage people to reveal what really matters to them.

Pay Attention: Ask participants to show you the objective or space that they are talking about, or suggest participating in their activities.

Try to Understand Intents: Keep asking “why?” in response to consecutive answers.

Get their perspective: Ask people to “tell you a story about a time…”

Know what to look for: Understand the tools people use to interact with their environment. Look for cues in the things that people surround themselves with or the way they carry themselves.

Experience Fully: Capture what you see. Take lots of notes and photos of what you see, hear, feel, smell and taste during a field visit. Capture direct quotes.

So how do I adapt these tips for discovery to my solo quest? I decided to start with a giant rant session. I took out a piece of paper and prepared to transcribe an avalanche of oh-so-insightful and fruitful complaints that would be crafted into brilliant DT challenges. Unfortunately, my usually strong and reliable complaining abilities failed me entirely. I sat and waited staring at my blank page, unable to list even one thing. In two weeks, I managed to enumerate five complaints, none of which seemed particularly fruitful nor insightful.

My list:

-Poor closet organization (kitchen/wardrobe)

-Horrible eating habits

-Smelly trashcans outside the building

-Awful smell and feathers all over my street from the poultry slaughterhouse

-Bad life balance

I decided to experiment with various ways to group my complaints into meaningful categories, hoping to discover some larger common thread uniting various problematic elements in my daily life. Here’s what I came up with:




Obviously, SMELL is not an adequate category for this list. So I renamed that category QUALITY OF LIFE. But then they all fall under that category to some extent, so I thought I should change it once more to NEIGHBORHOOD. At this point my list looked like this:


-Smelly trashcans outside the building

-Awful smell and feathers all over my street from the poultry slaughterhouse


-Poor closet organization

-Horrible eating habits


-Bad life balance

I wasted another two hours trying to decide whether bad life balance belonged in the self or relationship category. Finally, I realized that categories were unhelpful and I was spending too much time worrying about language rather than substance.

So I tried a different approach. Every design thinking challenge begins with a “How might we”—a one sentence description of the challenge. When I began to think about my complaints in those terms, I chose to focus on the ‘horrible eating habits’ issue as it seemed to be the broadest yet most concrete of the problems I had identified and thus the most promising HMW challenge to be.

What do I mean by horrible eating habits? I eat little if anything other than coffee all day and order in at night. More often than not my boyfriend and I eat our delivery on the couch, bent over our plastic containers, sitting side by side. Because of how ridiculously impractical it is to eat out of these containers on our (white) couch, we often fail to make eye contact for most of the meal, focusing our eyes on our knees where the food is balancing precariously. It’s uncomfortable being hunched over and usually our mindset when it comes to dinner time is let’s just get it over with and then we can go back to interacting. Eating has become a chore, which rather than bringing us together into meaningful conversations and exchanges, isolates us into a sense of overall discomfort and mild stomachaches.

In France, especially in the South where I come from, food is perceived as being much more than fuel for the body. It is an integral part of social and family life. It is an experience crafted with love and intent to satisfy all the senses: smell, touch, sight, etc. A meal is judged not merely in terms of the quality and taste of the food but also based upon the quality of the ambience, the conversation and the degree of conviviality inherent in sharing the experience. Cooking is seen as a sensual pleasure and a nurturing activity, a way to make one’s love apparent and tangible; consumable. This is how I grew up; this is what I was taught food, cooking and eating meant. So what happened?

When I went off to college, the idea of me cooking for myself seemed about as ridiculous as committing to wearing underwear on the top of my head for the rest of my life and I survived mainly on pretzels, bananas, instant miso soup and Goldfish. I moved out of the dorms and into a tiny, if charming, studio apartment with my boyfriend, Matt. The ‘kitchen’ part of our studio was slightly less wide than my arm span, and consisted of a sink, a stove barely big enough to store two pairs of shoes and a miniscule fridge, which I suspect had been manufactured long before I was born. There was no space to cook and no space to eat, so our diet consisted mainly of take out and delivery, eaten on the couch.

We moved to a 1-bedroom apartment about three months ago, with a magnificent, ‘real’ kitchen, filled with counter and cupboard space, a two-door fridge and an oven large enough to fit a full-grown and rather stout adult. Yet delivery is still the norm. Sure, we have the ‘talk’ every couple of weeks or so where we both agree that our eating habits are ridiculous and pledge to start cooking our own meals and eating them, like most people, sitting in a chair at a table. We go grocery shopping where I insist on buying tons of fruits and vegetables, filled as I am with a renewed commitment to health each time I enter the grocery store. We go home, unload the vegetables and feel great about ourselves until dinnertime when we open our newly filled fridge and are greeted with a forest of scary looking vegetables (lacinato kale?), which I have no idea how to cook or combine. So I try to be creative and throw things in a bowl together, mixing with gusto, praying that I will not have to throw it all out because of how badly it tastes. We sit down at the table, still eat quickly and for the most part in silence, both of us quietly wishing we had just gotten delivery. We keep this up for about two days until one of us caves and suggests delivery “just for tonight”.  And just like that we’re back to weeks of eating out of plastic container hunched over on the couch. We no longer have the lack of space excuse so why has nothing changed?

That was the key insight for me, it’s not about changing eating habits through sheer will-power nor is it simply about changing kitchens, it’s about rethinking the eating experience entirely. I have to rethink the physical aspects of my kitchen to make is a pleasing place (paint the walls, add decorations, get candles and nice lighting, etc.) but I also have to reframe the intangible aspects of the cooking/eating experience (make it a bonding time, a celebration and affirmation of our love for each other, a time to unwind, take refuge from the demands of the outside world and engage in meaningful face time).

Once I had that nugget of a how might we/I, I found IDEO’s tips for discovery much more helpful. I went around the kitchen taking pictures and noting the various sensorial stimuli I encountered. I felt a rush of ideas on how to improve things I hadn’t even realized needed improvement and started thinking about a holistic way to revamp the entire experience.

I tried to go back and repeat this process with my other four complaints but have been unable to formulate helpful How might we/I so far. Haven’t lost hope yet–practice makes perfect as they say. I’ve also been brainstorming different ways to approach the defining a challenge process:

-Wear a camera around my neck for a week to film my daily life, in the hopes that by seeing/experiencing it through the mediation of a screen, I might be able to get more insights into what challenges affect my everyday.

-Making a What Matters Most to Me list, after all there is no reason why Design Thinking should be confined to problems, why not use it to significantly enhance the positives?

-Asking people who are close to me to list (perhaps anonymously?) what they perceive as challenges in my own life.

Tips and suggestions would be massively appreciated…*

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