Design Thinking: Perils and Pitfalls of the Crit

How Communication Can Make or Break Your Team

You’ve no doubt heard about design thinking—a practical, step-by-step, user-centric method of solving problems. Though its roots reach back to the 1950s, design thinking was popularized by IDEO in the 1990s, and has since been adopted by leading global companies such as GE, Apple, IBM, and SAP.

Clearly the concept has been around for years, which begs the question: Why haven’t we moved on to the next fad? Is design thinking just that effective, or are we simply yet to master it?

My job as a creative consultant in international business development has given me opportunities to cross borders and deal with clients from various industries—automobile, food and beverage, IT, and so on. While working with these companies, I often hear about the importance of “the crit.” This, of course, refers to critique—an essential part of the design thinking process, and one of the main areas people falter in realizing design thinking’s potential.

PLAYING FAIR

We all know getting critiques can be rough, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget that when giving a critique. Like brainstorming or discussion, feedback is important to help us gauge where we stand in order to improve ourselves. For the sake of effective communication, here are some key points to keep in mind when giving a crit:

1. Describe your thoughts and emotions.
How does the subject of your critique make you feel and why? Be thorough. Work to make your point clear in any way you can. Share your thought process. Invite back-and-forth discussion if something is unclear. As Dale Carnegie famously said, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”

2. Be constructive, not destructive.
Never critique just for the sake of saying something. If the project or proposal works as is, say so. If you do have something to critique, however, give suggestions for improvement and listen to the response. Your ears and heart should be open.

3. Avoid pointing fingers.
Fear of making mistakes... Everyone can empathize with that. During the crit, be careful not to blame others. Avoid stalling discussion by triggering emotions. Remember, design thinking calls for empathy. The ultimate purpose of the crit is to help, not call people out.

While the above may seem easy or obvious in theory, you may find some of these points to be more difficult than expected in practice.

CASE IN POINT

When it comes to critiquing, there are 2 common pitfalls: giving overly harsh critique and holding back when we should speak up. For effective design thinking, striking a balance between these two extremes is crucial. Let’s explore this further with the example below:

Matthew is a manager who noticed cost leakage in his IT project. He called a meeting with his team to discuss why this was happening.

Anna, the delivery manager, immediately blamed Matthew for failing to meet deadlines. When Matthew tried to defend his team, he found himself facing harsh critique on his fundamental ability to manage. Angered by this attack, he walked out of the meeting.

Cody, a junior accountant in the team, has noticed that Marketing and Sales are focused on chasing revenue, leaving the IT staff to work doubly hard to meet high customer expectations. Cody wanted to share his thoughts, but struggled to think of how to phrase them. Then, after the heated exchange between Anna and Matthew, Cody decided to keep quiet.

So...what went wrong at this meeting?

It’s easy for harsh critique to scale into a major problem. Bruised ego and discord among team members are just a few of the detriments to pointing fingers. Matthew and Anna will have a harder time moving forward now that their critique has gotten personal.

Looking at Cody, we find an entirely different problem. A common misconception is that we shouldn’t point something out if we can’t communicate the idea perfectly. Remember that your opinion is significant and always worth sharing. Reflect on how you usually communicate with people. If you’re not good at speaking, draw. If you’re bad at drawing, circle the problem and try to explain why you’re stuck. Use any means you can to articulate your point and get your message across. And remember what you did when you succeeded—you may be able to use that same method again in the future.

BETTER COMMUNICATION = BETTER CRIT

If you’re still wondering whether the crit is really that crucial to the design thinking process, imagine this scenario: An aircraft maintenance officer has noticed something off about an airplane’s engine for a few weeks, but he could not explain what it was. Since nothing has gone wrong, he’s decided it isn’t worth mentioning. Would you really want to fly on this airplane?

Like the danger posed in this analogy, missing information could potentially throw your entire project in the wrong direction. Team members who can’t effectively communicate can be detrimental—even deadly (to the project, anyway).

It’s natural for information to fall through the cracks when we have discussions, so remember that the design thinking process is flexible. You can always move back to the previous step or even start from scratch if need be. To do this, however, you’ll need to communicate. Sharing and critiquing information helps level the playing field and identify problem areas. If only one voice speaks out (for whatever reason), valuable input is inevitably lost.

“So if we just use design thinking, everything will be fine!” you might say. Well, not exactly. Design thinking is not a quick fix to magically enlighten us, solve our problems, or transform us into more efficient workers. Nor is it the only way to get more customers or design the best product. What it can do is provide a step-by-step approach to finetune problem solving. The key to unlocking this approach: effective communication.

Image credit: Michelle Lim

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