The view of a Design Thinking coach in a global innovation team

Here follows an interview with senior lecturer Christian Johansson. Currently the main coach for the BTH students in the global Stanford ME310 Design Innovation project.

Christian, you’re the coach for the global team. What is your role?

I have several roles on this team.

First, as the Swedish students does the project as their final master thesis projects, I am the supervisor for them in their thesis projects. This means balancing their individual thesis writing with the collaborative work that they are doing as a global team of eight people.

Another role that I have is to facilitate the design thinking process that the students are working by. This means that I’m posing challenges and nudging the students to navigate the process. We try to stay within the wording of the design thinking curricula put forward by the Stanford faculty and work in a coordinated and complementary way to them. Sometimes, the Swedes can utilize their freedom to explore beyond the scope of the deliverable if it benefits the project. However, we expect there to be one team and not two satellites crossing paths on rare occasions. Therefore, it’s important to be responsive to the needs of the project in relation to the corporate prompt.

Then, of course I am the regular coach and sounding board for the team, in collaboration with our culture coach.

The role that I don’t want to have is that of a team member on the inside of the project, which would effectively put me in the position of making decisions for the students. I want the students to feel enforced to make their decisions – based on strong arguments – about where to take the project. We should essentially trust the process and be sounding boards for them.

The support team around Stanford ME310/BTH studentsMartin Frank (Volvo CE), Jenny Elfsberg (Volvo CE), Tobias Larsson (BTH), Christian Johansson (BTH).

How do you push the students to leave the comfort zone?

It’s probably a healthy mix of carrot and stick, although not as hard as it sounds. I think they need to be given freedom to explore and run with ideas, but also sometimes I think they need to be nudged in directions that could be interesting from a lateral and creative perspective and also sometimes there might be a need to push them with clearer expectations; never on a specific content that I would like but more in terms of design activities to be done. It’s about managing the flow in the team.

The physical manifestation of the comfort zone is the project space; it’s a real cozy place and used correctly it should be a valuable resource in their work; close proximity to ideation and prototyping resources. However, not all happens here; from experience, one of the major challenges and fears are to actually get out and interact with the real world of people and users, who potentially may be critical and scary to talk to. But as a friend of mine said “there’s no real substitute for good ‘legwork’”, meaning that designers need to constantly get out there and validate their assumptions, problems, and solutions in the real world. Here there are no answers at the end of the textbook. The learning comes from the real world.

I think that another important aspect to consider is to also allow them to take their own leaps of faith. We should always ask of the students to motivate their decisions and choices, which should be strong and related to user needs – however, they should drive the project and feel enforced to make their own choices.

What separates “great” from “so-so” in a project?

Bottom line; lots of hard work. But it’s not as easy as just working long hours. The trade is a little bit more nuanced than this. It starts with a hunt for the users and their needs to set a problem statement that is compelling enough to render an innovation. This is a tedious activity that takes substantial effort with many observations, interviews, and iterations. This chase continues into the ideation and prototyping phases. The more you learn; the better the end result will be.

If the students are able to really go out hunting for and finding their captivating need, churn out a prototype for it that pushes the limits of imagination while delivering the intended functionality; if they finally can tie it together in a story that sells the product we’re happy.

In design thinking, desirability, feasibility, and viability are the core criteria for whether or not you strike gold, so being able to wow people on these points and finding your sweet spot is a good indicator for a good result.

If they’re able to find this sweet spot they should have every motivation to work hard and long hours to bring the project home.

Is there a difference in Swedish/US students?

Yes, there is. We see from experience that cultures are often different between them, where the US side initially drives the pace of the project and the Swedes being a bit more thoughtful and analytical about the work.

Initially there is a cultural difference that can be challenging to manage, especially because half of the team are not using their first language whereas the other half does. But, it’s like in the movie A head in the clouds where the Alberto Aragon character says “Just because I talk with an accent doesn't mean I think with an accent”. When they meet in person, they usually form a stronger bond of trust that spurs on the team throughout the remainder of the project.

A good feature in the ME310-process of managing the projects is to enlist culture coaches that have the purpose of being mediators about practical issues that relates to the cultural lost in translation that might occur. Me, being their teacher, has a role that can be a bit intimidating for them and here the culture coach can be a valuable resource closer to the inside of the team.

We do see, however, that the cultural differences between Swedes and Americans also can work quite complementary in their approach to innovation. Both cultures have a relaxed admiration for authority, in the sense that the stronger arguments should prevail rather than whomever is the highest-ranking person in the room.

We see that both breeds of students are technically competent and perhaps that the BTH students have good training on design tools such as CAE or simulation tools to put to use in the projects, whereas the creative confidence of the Stanford students work as an inspiration for the whole project with closeness to actions and the next prototype being just around the corner.

Note: The 2017 ME310 Design EXPE takes place June 8 at Stanford.