What design thinking can teach us about communicating effectively

Have you ever found yourself in a meeting and on the receiving end of a long diatribe or winding story that has absolutely nothing to do with you, the purpose of the meeting, or the project at hand? It’s a kind of ineffectual communication that almost never influences change, other than the change of “I need to get out of this situation asap”.

Cue design thinking.

Design thinking encourages us to be more intentional and experimental about the way we approach problem-solving, product development, and design. It’s also a process that can also allow us to dramatically improve the effectiveness of our communication and avoid being that person in those meetings.

In order for us to better ‘land’ a message, idea, or piece of feedback, we can pause to consider these four elements that are common parlance (great word) in design thinking circles:

  1. The needs and emotions of those we’re communicating with
    • Ask yourself: who’s it for? Who is on the other end of this communication? What are they motivated by? What are their hopes, dreams, aspirations, and incentives? What are their fears and doubts?
  2. The specific challenge at hand and what success looks like
    • Ask yourself: What’s it for? What’s the change you’re seeking to make? How are you hoping you’ll make them feel?
  3. All of the possible ways to solve this problem
    • Brainstorm 13 different ways to communicate this problem/challenge. What stories, metaphors, and analogies do you have to articulate and communicate this change that will resonate with the identified audience? What facts and figures might you leverage?
  4. Decide and experiment
    • Ask yourself: from the brainstorm which 1-2 of these stories, metaphors, and analogies is most likely to address your answers to steps #1 and #2? Pick one and go.

The goal of really effective communication isn’t to share every single thing you know about any given topic. The goal is to shift the energy in the room. To open a door and turn on a light. We do this through human stories, metaphors, and analogies that match the needs and emotions of those we’re communicating with.

It’s all quite meta really. You probably wouldn’t have made it to this sentence had you not resonated with something from the first paragraph of this post.

A framework for difficult conversations

For all you leaders out there navigating difficult conversations and don’t have enough acronyms in your life (iykyk lol fyi):

EEmpathise by seeking to understand what might be going on for the other person. What are their dreams, hopes, fears, doubts, goals and insecurities that they’ll be bringing to this conversation?

AAsk questions that enable you to better understand where the other person is coming from and how they hope to move forward. Questions like: What’s difficult about this for you? What does success look like for you moving forward? How would you like to be supported?

R – Reflect back what you have heard the other person say using their words.

S – State what moving forward might look like based on what you know and everything that has been said (remember: concise is nice).

Most people fear difficult conversations because they’re afraid of what the other person might say. So afraid, in fact, that they avoid even having the conversation.

When in doubt: acknowledge that the conversation you’re about to have is difficult and then use your EARS (see what I did there?)


A strategy for growing your business/career

A friend recently shared she was hired to run a full-day workshop by a CEO she’d never met. There was no direct marketing campaign, exhaustive pitch or 67-page proposal document.

The CEO contacted her because:

a) she’d heard good things from another CEO who had been “delighted” by their work together and;

b) she listened to some episodes of my friend’s podcast (from 2 years ago) and loved them

I share this story because it highlights two of the most impactful questions I’ve come across when seeking to grow one’s business/career:

  1. Who are you delighting? and;
  2. What habits are you practising that will benefit your future self?

It’s easy to think you need to post more on Instagram, change your LinkedIn profile photo or design a new pitch document, but it might be far more impactful to focus on delighting your current clients and timelessly adding value.

Action creates information

A few weeks ago my wife asked me to decide where we should go for dinner for an upcoming weekend. Naturally, I proceeded to research 17 options doing a deep dive on their websites, Instagram accounts, Google reviews, Uber Eats offering and any news articles written about them.

I got the list down to 3 options which I proudly shared with her, along with the question: “which would you like to go to?”

Her response was swift and fair: “whichever one you decide.”

Ouch. Here I was poked right in the metaphorical eye. You see the task wasn’t to spend as much time as possible shortlisting options only to defer the decision to her. The task was simply to make a decision. ANY decision.

This has me pondering where else deferring and lack of decisiveness is showing up in my life. Consider: where am I hiding in inaction? In telling myself story that I need to “collect more info”? Or “just be patient”?

What if instead, I took action? What might I learn? What might I gain? What’s the worst that can happen?

For the record, I picked the Italian option (obviously) and it was an absolute winner.

Creativity and pancakes

My friend Jen compares creativity to making pancakes. Both are processes that require a bunch of attempts, imperfections, and patience.

Think about it. No one ever nails the first pancake. You pour the mixture out onto the frying pan and it resembles a Pacman. Or a crescent moon. Or maybe it looks so warped that you wonder if it’s Jesus looking back at you so you take a photo and post it on eBay for $25k ala this guy.

All this before you embark on the treacherous act of flipping the damn thing.

When it comes to pancake numbers three and four now you’re starting to find your groove, maybe even showing off a little with a bit of a flip-it-as-high-as-you-can situation.

This process mirrors the creative one. No-one confidentially writes a final draft or shoots a final video edit first go. Instead, we try something new, see that it’s not that great, and then have an opportunity to work on making it better. And as we do we build momentum and confidence.

So, what are you waiting for?

For more Jen wisdom on pancakes, check out last week’s episode of The Long and The Short Of It.

My biggest aha of 2022

Last year my wife and I traveled through Italy. We swam off the rocks of Riomaggiore, drank wine in the vineyards of Val d’Orcia, and walked our way around the streets of Rome.

We also discovered something that ended up being one of my biggest aha moments of 2022.

That is: pasta can be the first course. ‘Primi’ as it’s known over there.

Now, it’s entirely possible this is obvious to everyone reading this and I’m the only one that missed the memo, but in my mind, at least down under, pasta is a straight-up main meal. The kind that is served in a huge bowl and leaves you walking (or rolling) out of a restaurant struggling to breathe and tapping your stomach gently as if to say “I know, I know, I’m sorry.”

Knowing that it’s possible to have a small, lighter serving of pasta before embarking on a main meal completely reframed something I had forever assumed to be a norm.

Naturally, I’ve used this as a metaphor to noodle on the following question:

What other rules or norms am I following that I might challenge?

E.g. Do I really need 60min for my next meeting? Is it necessary to have Slack notifications on? Does work need to feel ‘hard’ for it to be worthwhile?

Why goal setting is more important than goal achieving

Jen Waldman recently reminded me that goal setting and goal achieving are two different things.

The former is all about creating a strategy.
The latter is a binary measurement of whether you did something.

The former can create habits that last beyond the goal itself.
The latter does not.

The former is within your control.
The latter is often not.

Wondering what a good goal-setting process looks like? Think of it as an exercise in probabilistic thinking (hello maths nerds) and ask yourself questions like:

  • What am I hoping to achieve?
  • How might I increase my chances of achieving this thing?
  • Who do I know that can help me?
  • What habits do I need to develop and/or drop in order for this goal to be achieved?

Your answers to the last three questions are more important than your answer to the first. These are the questions that will lead you down pathways you can’t currently see where you’ll discover opportunities you don’t realise exist.

The questions I’m asking myself for 2023

This morning I told my wife I was determined to finish my 2022 reflection and 2023 planning today. Her response: “Haven’t you spent the last 3 days doing that?”

Nothing like some direct and honest feedback from a loved one to sort you out.

I since realised I was overcomplicating and overthinking it (who me? Never) and have now come back to these simple questions:

  • What do I want to do more of this year?
  • What do I want to do less of this year?
  • Where do I want to be 12 months from now? What do I want to have happened?
  • Who will help me get there?

Happy New Year, legends. Here’s to a noodly one.

PS. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a classic existential question for good measure: How is it 2023? Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago when everyone was playing Angry Birds and Paper Toss on their newly purchased iPhones?

The disconnection problem

Earlier this month I ran a leadership workshop for a group of high performing leaders at one of Australia’s largest organisations.

At the end of the session I asked: “What was the most helpful part of this workshop for you?” and one of the responses floored me.

“I learned my colleagues names.”

After hours of learning, thinking, stretching, laughing, question asking and conversations the most important thing for this leader was the simplest form of human connection.

It made me wonder about the state of your workplace culture at the moment and left me noodling on this question: How might we create more opportunities for human connection at work?

A ridiculous question to help us ship

Will you die?

Because we (read: I) love to create stories about why we (I) shouldn’t ship something into the world.

“It’s a dumb idea.”

“My boss won’t like it.”

“No-one cares what you have to say.”

“I’ve run out of ideas”

All of these stories are rooted in fear of the unknown and an overblown reality of what we think the stakes are. The reality is that the stakes are often very low. Speaking up in a meeting, starting that new project or posting another blog aren’t matters of life and death.

So what if we started treating them as such?

It’s a big reason this weekly blog still exists. Each Sunday I like to remind myself that I can share an idea (even a half baked one like this) and not die. Phew.

Unreasonable hospitality

As a leader, one of your goals is to empower your team to also be leaders and create the conditions for them to thrive. We do this by providing them with space and permission to think independently and creatively.

So what does it actually look like in practice?

Will Guidara has the answer, and it involves being totally unreasonable.

When you’re done, consider: where might I experiment with some unreasonable hospitality?

Permission to change your mind [repost]

You have it.

We’ve been conditioned to believe that changing our minds is a sign of weakness or surrender. We spend time, energy and resources on justifying why we’re right, telling others why they’re wrong and continuing to do things the same way we always have.

In fact the opposite is true. Changing your mind is a sign of strength.

To raise your hand based on new information and say “I see things differently now, the best way for us to move forward is to try this instead.” That takes guts and a willingness to lead people towards something bigger than your own ego or opinion.

The life of a changemaker is littered with opportunities to test assumptions and change our mind. The question worth asking in these moments (which I’ve written about before) is: 

Do I want to be right, or do I want to make change?

This post was originally shared in April 2019.

In a rare stroke of genius, Homer was right

Recent reads and listens – October edition

Hey legend,

Do you like resources? Or at least an email containing links to resources? I got you.

Here’s your small collection of resources that I enjoyed in October and recommend.

If you’re a workplace culture nerd like me:

Check out these two episodes (one and two) of Dare to Lead with Brené Brown, Adam Grant and Simon Sinek.

If you’re a workplace culture nerd looking for even more:

Checkout this amazing report from O.C. Tanner.

For a fascinating take on cancel culture

This podcast interview with Meg Smaker might make you rethink a lot of things.

If you just feel like a laugh

This interview with Steve Carrell is very likely to give it to you.

That’s it for this month.

What was the best thing you read or listened to last month? Let me know by replying to this email and in the meantime, keep being awesome.

Blackberries and experiments

In 2009, Blackberry phones were all the rage. Remember those days? You’d be sitting on the train minding your own business while a fully grown man in a suit was seated next to you, hunched over and furiously typing away on an impossibly small, toddler-sized keyboard. At the time the company controlled almost 50 per cent of the smartphone market and everyone from Bill Gates, to Oprah, was adamant that they couldn’t live without their Blackberries. 

Cut to five years later and the company’s market share had gone from 50% to 1% and the fully grown man next to you was instead playing Angry Birds or Paper Toss on his iPhone (seriously, remember these games?). 

In his best-selling book Think Again, the brilliant Adam Grant uses this example as a cautionary tale to make the case for business leaders to think more like scientists. Scientists, he argues, are always curious about what they don’t know and what they can learn. They’re constantly coming up with experiments and hypotheses to test the norms and beliefs they’ve always had.

So now it’s over to you: what might you experiment with this week?

If you’re feeling stuck, try picking one of these 10:

1. Experiment with having no meetings for one day.

2. Experiment with only asking questions in your next meeting.

3. Experiment with leaving your phone turned off for a full day.

4. Experiment with a new morning routine.

5. Experiment with a new nighttime routine.

6. Experiment with doing the opposite of what you would normally do (and make George Constanza proud).

7. Experiment with only checking your emails twice a day (10am and 3pm).

8. Experiment with a standing desk.

9. Experiment with a walking meeting.

10. Experiment with a 200-word count limit in your emails

Recent reads and listens – September edition

Hey legend,

Here’s your small collection of resources that I enjoyed in September and recommend them to you, too.

If you’re ready to rethink your relationship with your phone:

Stolen Focus by Johann Hari.

If you want to go further down the Johann Hari/I want to stop scrolling my face off all the time rabbit hole:

Check out this interview and on the Imperfect’s Podcast.

If you’re wanting to feel good and be generous:

This list of 50 ways to be ridiculously generous and feel ridiculously good by Alexandra Franzen are all you need.

That’s it for this month, just the three things to checkout.

What was the best thing you read or listened to last month? Let me know by replying to this email and in the meantime, keep being awesome.

5 steps to getting unstuck

If you’re noodling on a decision and feeling stuck, consider these 5 steps:

  1. Find a colleague, family member or friend
  2. Set a timer for 20min
  3. Share with them where you’re stuck
  4. Have them ask you questions for 20min (no statements, assertions or ideas, just questions)
  5. When the timer goes off, consider: what’s my next step?

Do the floss dance because you just unstuck yourself.

See also: Out loud and 16 reasons making an arbitrary numbered list is the best way to get unstuck and spark possibility.

I can’t touch my toes…

Not even close. I’m lucky to get past my knees before my hamstrings feel like they might rip off the bone. It’s a product of having not practised the skill enough and the out-of-my-control reality of being 6″7′.

On the other hand, and not to brag too much, I can reach the top shelf in any supermarket. A product of having practised the skill and being 6″7′. Therefore you might conclude my height is both a weakness and a superpower.

It’s a terrible weakness on a plane and an awesome superpower at concerts.

The same is true of all other skills and traits.

Being a super organised human is awesome until you miss out on serendipity. Being a hands-off leader is great until someone in your team needs instruction and guidance. Being a great question asker is empowering until someone is seeking your opinion.

We all have superpowers and we all have weaknesses. It’s worth keeping this in mind for yourself and those around you. Some questions for cultivating awareness are:

What can you do that others can’t (see this post)? How is it a superpower? How is it a weakness?

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to the supermarket to show off my skills.

Some questions on opinions

When creating or sharing something we’re likely to encounter many opinions. As such, it’s worth having a handy rubric (great word) in order to help us process and filter out the helpful from the irrelevant.

Try asking these questions:

  • Is the opinion coming from someone who I created this thing for?
    • If so, what can I do about it?
    • If not, what can I learn from it before letting it go?

People often treat their opinions as indisputable and universal facts rather than specific stories they tell themselves based on how they uniquely see the world.

It’s worth remembering this when someone shares any sort of response to your work.

See also: this podcast.