Connect through purpose: Design doing and exercising empathy

by Leah Lundquist
follow me on Twitter: @leahlundquist

Watching fellow board member Nathan Magel’s great collection of videos focused on ideation last month got me thinking. A few years ago, the best kept secrets of the design world took off in the business world. Top managers sought to foster creative confidence in their employees and crack open space for abductive logic (what might be) amidst the deductive logic (what is) and inductive logic (what should be) that traditionally fill the work day. The fad continues. TED talks tagged with “innovation” or “creativity” still get millions of hits and best sellers on design thinking continue to fly off airport bookshelves.

When a concept gets too much buzz, I admittedly find myself turned off. But when a colleague of mine recently introduced me to the design thinking concept of “professional empathy” - being more user-focused with your colleagues and those you serve on the job - I got intrigued. I decided to try to get beyond the “CliffsNotes” on design thinking. 

At the risk of sounding like I’ve drank the Kool-Aid, I’ve become interested in the way professional empathy - and design thinking more broadly - fit so perfectly with our Millennial ethos and can serve as a powerful way to “manage from the middle”…or wherever you might find yourself in the org chart. The challenge is getting beyond the conceptual to application – beyond design thinking to design doing. 

As a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article attests, it’s one thing to think like a designer and another to actually lead a design process. And design doing still seems to be very much at its infancy in the nonprofit sector, where we are focused not on transforming products but on transforming social interactions. We’re certainly going to need a few more tools than pipe cleaners and construction paper for this one, but where to start? Here are four tips for getting started with bringing some design thinking into your workday:   

1. Practice professional empathy: At the foundation of leading, using design thinking is embodying professional empathy. What does this mean? In a term borrowed from Zen Buddhism, it means adopting a beginner’s mindset - suspending judgment, always asking questions, being genuinely curious, finding patterns and themes, listening, and absorbing. Practice this with those you serve and you’ll develop better solutions. Practice this with your supervisor and colleagues and you’ll find yourself setting your organization’s strategic course. 

2. Get to know the process and methods: The at Stanford has a great website that outlines a number of methods and even offers a few “mixed tapes” - examples of how methods might be combined in a half-day session focused on understanding, experimentation, or ideation.  

3. Learn from the early innovators: The Australian Centre for Social Innovation is doing cutting-edge work, merging the best of design, social science, community development, and business to create new social solutions. Their employees are expected to embody six work “behaviors” in varying levels, depending on the stage of the process they are in: analytic, generative, people, making feedback, and storytelling. Read more about these behaviors and their process of radical redesign in theirprototype curriculum for social problem solving.  

Here in Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation is employing design thinking to improve the healthcare system and a number of designers interested in social good are coming together to build an organization called Design for Good

4. Connect, collaborate, experiment:  As the co-authors of theStanford Social Innovation Review article stated, design doing is social and experiential. It comes down to going out on a limb and trying out some of these methods. Perhaps you redesign how you do your next staff meeting or you spend a day with your constituents to try out a little professional empathy.  

This is where being a part of a network like YNPN holds real value. We can practice with each other. How might collaborating with a team of YNPN members from different organizations, sub-sectors or areas of expertise bring fresh ideas to something you are developing for your organization? How might we find new ways as a network to more intentionally partner with young professionals in the business and government sectors to improve all of our work? This is what the Stanford would call “radical collaboration,” and it’s something I would encourage us all to be bolder about in 2013.  

For the first four months of 2013, YNPN of the Twin Cities will focus our programming thematically on the first tenant of our vision statement: “We envision a world where young nonprofit professionals connect through purpose.” I encourage you to not only get involved with what is going to be some awesome programming – starting with High Resolution: Connection through clarity improv event with The Theater of Public Policy on January 11 - but to think about how you connect through purpose.

How could you see professional empathy and radical collaboration improving how you connect professionally?

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