In our book, Innovation by Design, Thomas Lockwood and I identified 10 attributes that give remarkable power to the human-centered aspects of design thinking organizations. Curious confrontation, that is, facing differing ideas and mindsets with the desire to investigate and learn, is one of these aspects.
Throughout our research we found this attribute to be consistently present. Though we can safely say that it isn’t 100 percent of the time present in how things get done, it almost always exists when people are applying design thinking to a problem. And, it is especially valuable when design thinking is used to confront differing viewpoints and conflicts.
Creating a change in mindset – The Hunger Project
Some 40 years ago, in the wake of the Bangladesh famine crisis, the founders of the Hunger Project took on one of humankind’s greatest challenges, ending human hunger. It wasn’t long before they came to the realization that the usual charity responses and resolutions wouldn’t work. They recognized that past efforts did not provide the right solutions because the right problems had not been identified. The key question that needed to be answered was not “How do we do what is being done better?” but “What’s missing in the work of ending hunger?
To broaden and deepen their problem-solving capability, and to think more creatively, they engaged the help of a group of experts and consultants. With the help of the group, they began a deeper inquiry and concluded that it wasn’t a matter of throwing money, and more money, at feeding people.
At that time, they concluded that the real problem was the lack of political will.
In Africa, where women were in the role of farmers, they found poor leadership and a lack of government focus on agriculture. When they confronted this issue further and followed their curiosity, they realized that the real problem was a matter of gender relationships. Though women had the primary responsibility for the feeding and care of the communities they lived in, they were the least empowered.
Confronting the truth and continuously acting from a place of curiosity is not easy.
By looking for what was missing, the Hunger Project found the path to strategically reinvent, shifting from the putting of time and energy into education in richer and wealthier countries, to bottom-up development in underdeveloped and impoverished areas of the world.
Each time the organization reinvented itself it required the ability to confront itself, and its stakeholders, to look for what is true.
As John Coonrod, the Hunger Project’s executive vice president, explains:
Learning how to reinvent has been part of our process. We had to stop doing what we thought we were good at and start addressing what was missing. Not knowing what was next can be hard sometimes. We had to accept that we didn’t know what was next always or how to get there. We referred to it as “climbing a mountain in the fog.” We had to shift our resources and get everyone on board. And then we found out that while leadership was on board, we had failed to engage donors. They didn’t understand the change. To do that, we had to educate them and shift their mindset. Instead of calling them “donors,” we started calling them “investors.” What we learned was that in making strategic shifts, we have to include everyone.
In the 1990s, the Hunger Project once again reinvented itself.
To confront gender issues at the local and individual levels, the strategy shifted to focus on the transformation of gender relations. However, this time they started with a focus on the broad engagement of investors and creating internal and external alignment. As John points out:
At the heart, ending hunger is about unleashing the human spirit and human dignity. The key to ending hunger is knowing who hungry people truly are. If given a chance, they will end their own hunger. It is about people being able to be in charge of their own lives and destiny. To not be denied the most basic of human rights and principles so that they can be able and capable of taking action in their own lives. Awareness creation is the starting point of a staged program of building people’s confidence, leadership, organizations and skills so that they can set and successfully achieve their own goals. We have a range of capabilities and structures to get things done.
In 1990, in response to typical top-down and charitable responses to hunger, which were often too inefficient and inflexible to meet the challenge of hunger, the Hunger Project, together with the Planning Commission of India, pioneered a new, decentralized, holistic, people-centered approach known as Strategic Planning in Action (SPIA).
This methodology turned traditional planning on its head: The Hunger Project would bring all sectors together, identify a critical gap or opportunity for synergy, and then launch catalytic projects, which would reveal new pathways for action.
More than 20,000 communities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have applied SPIA to empower people to achieve lasting improvements in health, education, nutrition, and family income.
The leadership of the Hunger Project shows the ability to confront the truth about the context that they were operating in and, through being curious, inquire and explore what changes they and the organization needed to go through. They also had to confront the organization’s myriad stakeholders—some of which could be resistant to change—asking them to also face the current realities, investigate and learn about the different viewpoints that emerged, and be open to the new ideas that offered the possibilities for finding the right solution. Each reinvention of the organization reflects a deeper exploration and understanding of the right problem to be solved.
For the Hunger Project, to create such a change in mindset requires the attribute of curious confrontation.
Edgar Papke is the co-author of Innovation By Design and author of True Alignment and The Elephant In The Boardroom. He helps leaders and their organizations align to create greater levels of innovation, performance, and fulfillment. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org