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Blinded by the lights: Depths of design thinking

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Blinded by the lights: Depths of design thinking

The Weeknd’s melancholy song about desperation and desire seems to have little to do with design thinking. And yet it holds valuable lessons for a lawyer’s often tumultuous introduction to creative problem solving.

Most of us are familiar with the evangelising of design thinking, a process for innovation. For the uninitiated, design thinking is a methodology that combines analytical and creative problem solving to design solutions by working directly with end users. Despite promoting taglines such as "fail fast and fail cheap", it’s really a process for de-risking innovation. It’s the latest and greatest fad for the fourth industrial revolution.

But we lawyers are deeply sceptical of fads. They are strategic sleight of hand. A convenient answer in times of crises. A new skill to aim for. A new hoop to jump through. Despite being overhyped, fads usually originate from credible ideas, the impacts of which linger long after the mania has fizzled out.

Design thinking has already been credited for numerous successes, from the heartening start-up story of the Embrace Infant Warmer to Apple’s first mouse. And yet, despite all the evidence, we lawyers tend to cringe at the process.

I’ve borrowed the Weeknd’s lyrics to try help explain what it is exactly about design thinking that sets us on edge.

1. “I been tryna call, I been on my own for long enough”: We tend to work alone

Despite working in teams, we lawyers tend to do our actual work in isolation. Deep contemplation, careful drafting and a focus on detail. This type of rumination requires a certain brain chemistry and mood.

Design thinking requires the opposite. Colour, light, energy, movement, thinking out loud and team huddles are central to the biological states required to access creative thought processes. The type of blind optimism associated with the success of entrepreneurs, artists and athletes does not come naturally, and sometimes not at all, for us lawyers. We view the world through the lens of risk. In many cases it’s our role to cement this type of blind belief with concrete practicality. It’s not a switch we can just flip. It takes practice but most importantly, psychological safety.

2. “Maybe you can show me how to love, maybe”: We don’t value empathy

Legal analysis does not usually incorporate empathy or intuition. We’re in the business of being right, after all. We need evidence, not anecdote. So when we’re asked to conduct empathetic research with actual people and base our solutions on these scant subjective details, we object. Openly.

Fortunately, the design thinking process has a rigorous analytical foundation that few get to see in a sprint or workshop. These introductory events tend to focus on the creative aspects, such as brainstorming or prototyping with playdough. But lawyers need to see this rigour in order to respect the process.

3. “I'm going through withdrawals”: Our brains don’t like ambiguity

We’ve been trained from the first day of law school to process vast quantities of information and funnel to a solution with speed and precision. We like clear instructions, deep analysis and certain answers. We don’t like ambiguity. Being asked to produce a solution where the problem isn’t properly articulated and there isn’t enough information to deduce an answer is NOT how our brains work. Yet this type of fuzzy logic is where the design thinking methodology provides the most value. When you’re doing something truly new to the world, there often isn’t enough information or budget to deduct or induct a solution. And so it becomes an informed game of trial and error. The only way to become comfortable with this process is to use it and solidify any insights with rigorous analysis in the prototype and test phases. Design thinking is as much about analytical problem solving as it is about creative problem solving, yet introductory workshops tend to speed past this.

4. “No one's around to judge me. I can’t see clearly when you’re gone”: We hate judgment and go to great lengths to avoid it

We’re also more susceptible to feedback, struggling with perfectionism paralysis. We tend to take things to heart and will go to great lengths to avoid receiving feedback from clients. We’ll also spend loads of time polishing up the most basic prototype, meaning we tend to overspend on innovation projects. This behaviour militates against design thinking’s mode of experiential learning – a central tenet of cost-effective innovation. Without direct user feedback, we run high risks of overspending and failing to achieve that elusive problem-solution fit. Dealing with the perfectionism paralysis is a foundation to any design thinking sprint with lawyers.

5. “I’m running out of time”: We have a greater sense of urgency than most

We lawyers also tend to have a greater sense of urgency than the general population. We could blame the billing system or the Type A personality (each compounding the other). This means we rush through steps and undervalue the importance of divergent thinking. We tend to approach innovation the same way we approach law: process the data, identify the ideas and funnel into a solution.

It doesn’t help that most lawyer-led projects tend to stall because client work will always be prioritised (as it should be). Asking lawyers to step off the billing treadmill is counterproductive. Asking lawyers to be responsible for innovation while on the treadmill can be potentially destructive; the reality is that innovation represents an unwelcome increase in unbillable time for which there is no direct tangible benefit to them. There’s no time to experiment, to learn from failure or embrace ambiguity. There is no space to be creative. Making space is the challenge. If this is done well, lawyers feel re-energised by the creative escapism design thinking offers. It stimulates underused sections of their brain and reaches into dormant skills and traits. It can provide balance that lawyers seek for their own wellbeing.

6. “I’m blinded by the lights”: We’re goal-oriented high achievers

We’re results-oriented perfectionists who have a tendency to overachieve. Delivering on our overachievement only serves to increase our expectations of success. We tend to set our expectations high going into an innovation project, and these expectations can place undue pressure on us. We then focus on delivering by following the design thinking manual rather than creating, and it’s generally all downhill from there.

The challenge design thinking poses for us lawyers is to wrestle with our instinctive, emotional and intuitive alter ego – to take that version of ourselves and exploit it productively without falling back into the safe, analytical approach that has served us so well until now.

Many thanks for reading this article and to the Weeknd for lending me his lyrics.

Sara Rayment is a lawyer and designer at Inkling Legal Design where she helps lawyers innovate using human centred design and legal expertise. She advises corporate counsel, government agencies, regulators and law firms. You can read more about her here.

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