A Situation Someone Wants to Change

As teenagers, my three daughters shared a bathroom situated between two bedrooms. My oldest daughter, Abby had her own bedroom on one side of the bathroom. My middle daughter Hannah and her younger sister Bekah shared a bedroom on the other side of the bathroom. There are two doors leading into the bathroom from each of the bedrooms and two sinks in the bathroom, one per bedroom. In real estate jargon, this arrangement is referred to as a “Jack and Jill” bathroom, although in our case it’s more of a “Jill and Jill” situation.

Two of my three daughters wore little to no makeup in high school and did not spend much time caring for their nails. Hannah, on the other hand accumulated an ample collection of cosmetics, nail polishes, and other beautification equipment I’m too unfamiliar with to name. It was not unusual to find one sink of the bathroom splattered with mascara droppings. On the counter near the sink sat an open bag of colorful tubes and bottles. An electric hair device was permanently plugged in and often dangerously hot. There would be a hand-mirror here and a roll of toilet paper there. It would not be unusual to find a half-filled water bottle or two on the counter, evidence I suppose of some exertion related to whatever was happening on that side of the bathroom. You could say that the situation I’m describing constituted a persistent problem and that my wife Katherine and I felt stuck about how best to resolve it. By the way, the problem has been solved. All of our daughters have moved out.

I mention the situation with the messy bathroom because it illustrates two important points about problem solving and design thinking. David Straus, the founder of Interaction Associates and the author of How to Make Collaboration Work, defines a problem as, “…a situation someone wants to change” (2002, p.19). By this definition, when it comes to collaborating with my daughter on cleaning up the bathroom only one of us has a problem because only one of us has a situation he wants to change.

The second point illustrated by the messy bathroom situation has to do with the main principle of human-centered design thinking. If I want to use design thinking, I need to consider the motivations and needs of the people served by an innovative solution. A design thinker might reframe the challenge from “How do I get my daughter to keep her bathroom clean?” to something like, “How do we reduce the amount of nagging around the house?”

Perhaps you’re thinking that a more authoritarian approach to getting my daughter to clean her bathroom is called for. First, remember that creative inquiry is about novel options. Secondly, let’s look at the effectiveness of more traditional and direct parenting tools in light of David Straus’ definition of a problem. Let’s say, for example that I tell Hannah, “you can get your phone back when this bathroom is clean.” I have now created a situation that my daughter is motivated to change. In other words, she now has a problem to solve. Notice however that Hannah is not solving the problem I want solved. She is working on changing the ‘get-my-phone-back’ situation. I’m more interested in her making progress on the ‘show-respect-for-other-family-members’ situation. Consequently, I shouldn’t be surprised if Hannah succeeds in solving her problem, but in the long run it doesn’t really solve my problem.

Straus’ definition of a problem and design thinking’s bias for starting with desirability both suggest that getting unstuck through creative inquiry means identifying what I call the “targets” and the “tensions.” Targets are the people served by a new idea or option; the people whose lives you aim to improve are collectively the targets. Tensions are the needs or dissatisfying situations that a new idea or option will resolve. Robert Fritz introduced the concept of creativity as the resolution of a tension in his 1991 book, Creating. Fritz wrote, “There will always be structural tension at the beginning of the creative process, for there will always be a discrepancy between what you want and what you have” (1991, p. 27). For Fritz, the creation resolves the tension.

One way to use creative inquiry to help a leader, team or organization get unstuck is by clarifying and aligning on definitions of the target and the tension. In the case of the messy bathroom, the targets are the family members living in the house and the tension is the stress of constant nagging. There are any number of ways to choose a target and a tension.

A tension can exist in the current state for a target, in which case the target has a situation they are motivated to change. Envisioning a possible future that some target will want once they become aware of it can also create a tension. In other words, even if I am content with my current situation, once I see something that will improve my life, I now have a situation I am motivated to change. One can create tension for a target by working forwards from a dissatisfying present or working backwards from a compelling future possibility.

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