SparkNotes: Design Thinking and Leadership

Tom Merril giving us insight on design thinking.

Tom Merril giving us insight on design thinking.

SparkNotes: A field report documenting our morning investigating Design Thinking.

Picture your average weekday morning – waking up, running through the tasks needing to be accomplished for the day, sipping coffee, and (maybe) wishing for the weekend. Fortunately, we had the privilege of mixing it up last week with the Cleveland Leadership Center at their annual Spark event, focused on design thinking. Although coffee was still part of the routine, it wasn’t the only thing energizing us that morning. The day began with a keynote presentation by Tom Merrill followed by a series of open sessions and completed the day with Scott Allen. We left feeling inspired and ready for innovation.  Our summary and highlights below. 




KEYNOTE: Tom Merrill

Master Facilitator
ExperiencePoint Inc.

Tom took us through several steps when approaching a problem with design thinking. He led the discussion by breaking down the process into five different steps (unfortunately we could only get to three!) – Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

Empathize: The most thoughtful outcomes truly reside in understanding and empathizing with your audience and starting the discussion with humility. You think you have all the answers at first, but the reality is you don’t. In a quick exercise with our neighbor of explaining our favorite app, then showing them how we use it, we quickly understood it is a marriage of listening and witnessing where true understanding occurs.  But the real lesson was recognizing that no one asked the elemental questions – Did you unlock your phone? What is an app? What is a phone? To take our understanding back to the very root can expose the how and why more than surface level questions.  At TECHNE, this is ingrained in our programming process, however seeing it implemented into a myriad of non-architecture-based problems is validating.

Define: This covers moving from “what” to “why”. Empathize allow us to uncover the workarounds and adaptations and recognize surprises. Define takes those findings, and uncovers the explanations for the behavior, and focuses on the non-obvious (which also tends to be the revealing information as well).

Ideate: The goal is not to look for a solution, but to maintain focus on users and collected data. Big ideas are welcomed, if not encouraged, in this step. Basic brainstorm rules include:

            • Defer Judgement – all ideas are valid

            • Encourage Wild Ideas – there is nothing that is too ‘out there’

            • Build on Ideas – how far can this idea go? Keep asking questions!

The key here is to think outside the box, and don’t let your constraints hold you back. An example he gave was – what can you do with a baguette if you can’t eat it? While most answers revolved around using it as a sports instrument (i.e. baseball bat), people were confined to it in its original form. He then asked, “well what if you broke the baguette apart?” People had some ah-ha moments, and realized it could be used as a sponge, shoes, a pillow, etc. When we let go of our expectation or preconceived idea (solution) of what something is for, we open ourselves up to new ways of thinking and better outcomes.

credit: Pinterest - Work - Eten, Feest diy en Bakken

credit: Pinterest - Work - Eten, Feest diy en Bakken


CLOSING SESSION: Bringing It All Together with Scott Allen

PhD, Standard Products – Dr. James S. Reid Chair in Management, Boler College of Business, John Carroll University

Scott exposed us to things we all experience but are most likely not aware of: inattentional blindness, conceptual blocks, and linear thinking. These inadvertently inhibit our creatively, stifle innovation, and create complacency. 

Inattentional Blindness: This first topic was essentially a magic trick. He showed us a video where 21 differences occurred, yet no one realized (okay, 10 people out of over 150 people realized – you get the point), because we were too focused on the topic of the video. The root of the lesson was that focus can cause us to lose sight. There is importance in re-familiarizing yourself with your surroundings, even if you think its not warranted.

Conceptual Blocks: Basically, any “I can’t” that you say to yourself is a conceptual block. Conceptual blocks are preconceived rules that don’t actually exist, yet most people still follow. His example focused on the businesses that are dominating, such as Airbnb and Lyft. Two companies who are ruling their respective industries, however own no property or vehicles.

Linear Thinking: Applying linear thinking to a goal, is the equivalent of saying that in 10 years you’ll be 10 years older. Nothing changes, you just keeping moving along in one direction. Instead, apply Exponential Thinking. It shakes up dated ways of thinking and enacts innovation. Let Kodak be an example to us all… when a fresh idea is presented to you (digital cameras), be receptive to it, and investigate. Otherwise, you could go bankrupt and your Instagram-equivalent could be bought for a literal billion dollars. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Credit: Click photo for video. Can you spot the differences?

Credit: Click photo for video. Can you spot the differences?


It’s easy to allow the routine of our days to overtake our habits.  It’s difficult to pause and take time to evaluate if the routine is serving us.  We would encourage you to consider some of these concepts as you’re working within your own communities.