The interview question that taught me the importance of design thinking
And how it can be applied to management styles.
I spent the majority of my last semester of undergrad interviewing for jobs. After 24 interviews and 13 companies, I left with some interesting experiences. One interview was a two-day long event with 24 interviewees competing for 10 spots.
Part of the interview involved doing “team-building” activities for 4 hours…while blindfolded. The purpose of this was so we could only use our voices to communicate (I am now traumatized by blindfolds.)
But there was one interview question I will always remember. I didn’t even make it past the first round. The question was:
“If you were managing a team and everyone on the team wanted to make a certain decision but you didn’t agree, what would you do?”
I paused. And I said this:
Based on the amount of information given, I would go with what my team wants. An example of this is when I started an organization in college…
My newly formed team and I were deciding on the organization name. We had spent a good hour brainstorming and were starting to grow weary.
For context, the organization was called SPARC [conversations]. SPARC is an acronym for science, politics, art, research, and community. We organized events that invited students and community members to give talks on ideas they were passionate about, and hosted community forums to discuss current political and social issues.
One friend on the team suggested putting brackets on “conversations”. I wasn’t a fan. I thought it seemed cheesy. But slowly the buy-in from the rest of the group spread. The energy level climbed as everyone threw out opinions on how using brackets was #trending. I had 10 bright-eyed friends looking at me, waiting for me to make the final decision.
“Fine. Let’s go with the brackets,” I said. Everyone clapped and gave small cheers of delight. Months later, the PR team found a great use for brackets to showcase the different events SPARC held. SPARC [round tables], SPARC [forums], SPARC [student talks]. Everyone loved it, and I was so glad I was wrong.
I chose people I trusted to help me start this organization. They collectively agreed on an idea and I found myself not able to defend my reasoning. I had no experience in marketing, I was just as new to starting an organization as my friends were.
The 3 interviewers’ smiles disappeared. The once friendly vibe of the room quickly became cold.
“But what if you know you’re right?”
I thought again.
“If it was something I had expertise in, I would mention that to the team. I would also hope that my expertise would allow me to make a good argument for it.”
The mood of the room grew worse. The grim faces were turning into annoyed scowls.
They said, “So you would go along with what your team says even if you knew you were right?”
“Given the amount of information, yes. Perhaps it would change based on the situation.”
The three interviewers were quiet. The interview ended shortly after. I didn’t get a follow-up.
I ended up working with someone who left that company. He told me I dodged a bullet. Intense arguments and yelling were common. The managers were “always right”, and push back was frowned upon.
My current career is in the field of human-centered design. The roles in this field use the design thinking method to innovate and problem solve. Design thinking involves interviewing and observing users to formulate design decisions based on the user’s needs.
According to Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management,
“Design Thinking is in a halfway house between analytical thinking: the purely deductive and inductive logical thinking that utilizes quantitative methodologies to come to conclusions, and intuitive thinking: knowing without reasoning.”
Intuitive thinking paired with analytical thinking. After interviewing and observing, you will start to notice patterns emerge from what your users say and do when they use your product. “Most users like to click this button before continuing on to this webpage” or “most users tend to arrange their tools a certain way while working”.
As these patterns of user behavior emerge, you need to separate your personal bias from what is appearing in these observations. You may have a preconceived notion of how things should be, and therefore need to take care to not manipulate your data so it follows your beliefs.
In other words, intuition isn’t enough. And this logic applies to management.
It seems straightforward: just don’t be a jerk. Listen to your team. According to Forbes, 66% of employees would leave their job if they didn’t feel appreciated. But while it may seem obvious, even the nicest people may fall short on noticing patterns. I was recently put on a project with a quiet teammate.
Every now and then she would give a suggestion, but otherwise she was relatively silent. I noticed after making a suggestion, she would purse her lips and make a quiet mmm. At first, I just moved on and assumed she agreed.
But I noticed that once she made that noise and facial expression, she stopped giving suggestions. So I stopped and asked if she had thoughts or disagreed. Yes, in fact she did. And every time, it ended up leading to a better solution. After that, she felt more comfortable bringing up an opposing opinion without being prompted.
Along with noticing patterns, there are a few more skills used in design thinking that can be applied to management and leadership.
One key skill is to be empathetic in order to understand your users.
Being able to take a step back and examine things by how other people see them and not how you would see them is an essential skill in design thinking. An example in Observing the User Experience by Elizabeth Goodman is of a CEO of a digital greeting card company who had his own system of finding the cards he liked.
He would search for a specific card, see it appear in the results, and he was set. He asked the development team to focus on improving this system. It turns out, most users didn’t like the streamlined approach of searching for cards and wanted to leisurely browse for cards.
This idea is cultivated because many longtime executives and managers believe they understand the business the best, and therefore design decisions must come from the top. By being empathetic to your user, you will understand how and why your users use your product.
So how can a manager apply this to their own employees? Basically the exact same way: by understanding the reasoning behind their suggestions.
I have a friend who works in a manufacturing plant. Every now and then, one of the lines would go wrong. My friend worked on the shop floor and understood how that line worked.
The solution would typically involve shutting down a portion of the line based on the machine diagnostics and repair a mechanical fixture. Usually this problem can be postponed for weeks or months — when the supply chain schedule is lighter and won’t suffer with a line shutdown.
His supervisor did not understand the manufacturing line equipment well, but insisted the line be shut down immediately. Since this shutdown occurred regardless of their supply chain schedule, this usually costed days of valuable manufacturing time.
So why shut down immediately? As a manager maybe he’s concerned that the problem could lead to a bigger, more costly problem. However, every time the line shuts down it becomes apparent that the problem could have been postponed to a more convenient time.
Not only did he fail to see the patterns of these actions, but he also failed to listen to the employees around him. Employees whom were more knowledgeable about the equipment, and repeatedly insisted that the manufacturing line does not need to be shut down based on their expertise.
To mitigate this, ask yourself: What is your teammate’s basis for their decision? Is more than one teammate saying the same thing? What is the basis for your decision? All decisions must be evidence-based and patterns should not be ignored.
Once the empathetic mindset is adopted, decision making is no longer up to a single person.
Design thinking is a methodology that must involve a team. Once insights are gathered, a plethora of potential solutions must be determined before choosing the best one to continue with. Allowing input from your team will result in a higher probability of diverse ideas.
Not only does this help design the product, but it can also improve the overall strategic thinking of your team. Being forced to come up with many ideas before narrowing down to one can help one be more open-minded.
Furthermore, being open to your team’s suggestions and allowing them to ideate freely can be a more effective way to collaborate and improve company culture. It purposefully allows a time and place to let everyone’s voice be heard. Allowing the team to constantly challenge assumptions can lead to an expansion in creative thinking.
My biggest takeaway from my interview was their company culture was built to have managers be decision makers, and employees were just cogs in the wheel. Not only does that lower morale, but those are extra sets of thinking caps they aren’t using.
It purposefully allows a time and place to let everyone’s voice be heard.
And finally, learning to iterate is an important skill in design thinking that can be applied to management styles.
Iteration means to improve upon a process or a product based on user feedback.
At my previous company, when there was an engineering change, the physical document explaining the change needed to be passed around to every department manager to be signed. If one manager disagreed with a portion of the document, they consulted the engineer and the engineer adjusted it. Then a new document was printed, and the process of walking the document around the building repeated. After the change was signed off, a copy of that physical document was kept on the manufacturing floor. Sometimes the originally document changed, but didn’t require another sign-off — just an email to the manufacturing floor manager describing the change.
That worked when the company only had 20 people. As every department grew, keeping track of these changes became a detail-oriented art. After multiple complaints from every department, the executive level managers agreed there needed to be a new process.
Always keep asking: is this process working? Why or why not?
Not every management decision needs to have the design thinking methodology applied, nor is it feasible. Some decisions need to be made swiftly. Although design thinking can yield great results, it’s not a short process. However, developing the mindset of empathy, evidence based decision making, and iteration will hopefully allow a company culture to become more collaborative and innovative.