When I first learned about design thinking, one of the things that really struck me was how the focus was not so much about focusing on problems, but on imagining and testing out solutions. While this practice is often used by engineers to design new machines and processes, it can also be applied to many things in life. Too often I think we get stuck thinking about what is not working or what can’t be fixed rather than what is possible.
One of the tools I learned for this is called How Might I? Basically, you identify the problem or challenge you are trying to solve and then brainstorm solutions using the How Might I prompt. Whenever I start using this prompt, I always think about my great grandfather and Mr. Nemitz. They were both old farmers and had sort of a MacGyver approach to solving problems. My grandfather once stapled a hem in his pants because he didn’t have a needle and thread or the patience to hem them up. In the nursing home he would store his pop cans in the tank of the toilet to keep them cold. Having lived through the depression, he saved and made use of
everything. Mr. Nemitz was similar. He build a resort in Wisconsin that we stayed with as kids. Much of the resort was built with nails pounded out of old boards. The swing which became my favorite spot was cut from an old tire. We bought a piece of the property that was once the resort and continue to find buried artifacts or things that were pieced or patched together with various materials.
I’ve learned to do a bit of this myself. My personal go to tool is bailing wire. This orange twine can be used to fix, tie or hang up almost anything. Currently it holds my wagon together, holds up my overgrown and heavy cilantro, hangs my utility knife right where I can find it, and hangs a sign on my chicken coop. Often when something breaks, my question is “how might I use bailing wire to fix this?”
This simple prompt can be used for more process driven challenges too. I remember working with a group of teachers who were really struggling with their math curriculum and schedule. It was scheduled at the end of the day and the students were at many different levels. As the discussion began, everyone focused on the challenges we were facing. We kept getting more and more frustrated by the restrictions which we couldn’t seem to work around. But then we switched our thinking from focusing on the problem to “how might we?” We asked, “How might we create a math experience that engages and meets the learning needs of all our
students?” Once we started to gain a little momentum with our brainstorming, the ideas flowed. We ended up creating an exciting new way to teach math where kids were able to rotate through activities, get individual help, and work in teams. It took a bit of testing and refining, but in the end, it was a great solution to our challenge.
One summer, I was talking with some moms and we were all complaining about how the summer flies by so fast and that now that our kids were getting older
we just weren’t connecting with them anymore. We continued to complain and really couldn’t think of anyway to fix teeanagers who just wanted to sit in their room and play video games. Discouraged, but not willing to give up, I invited the moms over to do some design thinking with me. We asked, “how might we create summer experiences and memories for our families?” We brainstormed and shared ideas and each went home with our plans. While not perfect, at the end of the summer, each of us had experiences and memories to share that were initiated because of our design thinking work and How might I question.
What are you stuck on right now? Is there some area of your life that just isn’t going the way you want it to or needs to be fixed? If you can’t fix it with bailing wire, try using the How Might I prompt. Try to think about it in terms of the solution you want to create, not the problem. For example, you might say, “how might I get my kids to empty the dishwasher?” or you can say, “how might I inspire my kids to help around the house without my nagging or prompting?” Both questions work, but you might get a better outcome with the second question. Once you have your How Might I prompt, brainstorm as many ideas as you can. Really let loose and don’t censor your ideas. Maybe even include others. Sometimes an idea will be so exciting you will just want to start implementing it right away. Other times you might have to sort through the ideas, combine or rearrange them or even brainstorm more to come up with something you are willing to try. Then just try it and see what happens. You’ll probably have to use the How Might I prompt again as you test out and refine your solution. Just give it a try!