Last week I led the first session of my Design Thinking Series at C ASEAN, a hub for entrepreneurs and young generations in Southeast Asia. My audience were professionals from all ages and various fields, including education, software development, marketing, and media among many others.
The 2-hour session was intensive yet interactive, focused yet so much fun! As a group, we successfully went beyond the confines of the definition and many frameworks involved in Design Thinking. The participants learned from unconventional real-world examples, such as Away To Mars for its high personalization, co-creation with customers, and profit sharing business model, Shang Xia by Hermes for its introduction of the Chinese heritage to the global luxury fashion industry, and The Mask Singer, Thailand’s current #1 TV show, for being a platform that brings out the unseen versions and hidden talents of Thai superstars.
The highlight of the session was our Design Challenge: Transportation. The participants left the comfort of their seats to collaborate with people they had just met on an area that was not really of their expertise. Transportation or mobility in general matters to all of us as it affects our lives on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Interestingly, I should probably change the word “mobility” to “immobility” due to the fact that Bangkok’s traffic congestion and lack of adequate public transportation literally paralyze us! Bangkokians have had the worst rush hour traffic in the world for two consecutive years and our drivers spend an average of 64.1 hours stuck in congested traffic in a year. If this is not painful and simply the worst way to spend almost three days of your life in a year, then I don’t know what is! I was so curious to see how the participants would respond to such a simple and personal yet complex and persistent problem. I wanted to challenge them and see various ways in which Design Thinking could come into play to solve pressing issues (or opportunities) related to transportation.
Given only 30 minutes to tackle this Design Challenge, the participants surprised me with their incredible teamwork, insurmountable positive energy, and great ideas! The final ideas presented to the entire audience ranged from using smart and friendly robots to enhance the experience of car rides for the elderly to revamping and reorganizing Thailand’s currently inefficient taxi vans.
You know you’ve probably done a good job as an instructor when people tell you they not only learned something new, but also felt empowered and excited to keep going on the path you helped them discover. I was most proud of how I helped bring out the best in these already wonderful people. When I said, “bring out the best” in someone, I don’t take it lightly. I mean bringing out the courage, creativity, confidence, competitiveness, compassion, and some sort of power from within they never even knew they had. All these different Cs, to me, make up one big ball of energy that pushes successful people forward. Without one of these 5Cs, this ball of energy will not be big or powerful enough for someone to thrive in this increasingly competitive and constantly evolving world.
In this post, I want to share with you what courage, creativity, confidence, compassion, and competitiveness mean to me, why they are so important for design thinkers, and how my audience impressed me by demonstrating these 5Cs.
Courage is about building a healthy relationship with your comfort zone. A healthy relationship happens when you still have your strong sense of self, in spite of the comfort zone you can always fall back to. Comfort zones make us feel safe, relieved, stable, and of course comfortable. There is nothing wrong to want to feel all these things in such a rapidly changing world. But design thinkers know nothing ever changes or improves when you do what you’ve always done or when you stand still as the rest of the world is moving forward in many different directions at different speeds. Design thinkers know that if they ever want to change something, they have to change themselves first.
Design thinkers have the courage to accept themselves, their limitations, and weaknesses. They don’t sit around feeling sorry for themselves or find excuses for all the wrongs and shortcomings in life. They actively seek help from others, expand their network, ask questions, and acquire new knowledge from every book they read, every success and not-so-successful story, everyone they meet, and everything their five senses encounter. Design thinkers have the courage to leave their comfort zones, even for a little while, to go out there and grow even beyond the imaginable lengths, widths, and depths. My audience learned from each other’s work and experiences, sat in circles of all sizes to discuss big global trends and innovations, and proudly talked about their unique passions and goals. To me, this took a lot of courage. The courage to admit that you are never ever too smart, too old, or too experienced to stop learning, self-improving, and resetting your goals.
My audience proved to me that time constraints, professions, and even physical space don’t pose any limitation to our creativity. Their admirable flow of creative ideas reminded me of my internship in the creative department of a global advertising agency back in college. I felt the heavy time pressure on the shoulders of everyone on the creative team. Just like everyone else, even the brightest minds and people with creative jobs experience a creative rut at times. However, when they take a step back and least expect it, they reach an “aha!” moment. Working with such creative people taught me to let loose. Thinking and working like a designer is to be inspired by anything and nothing all at once. That was exactly what I encouraged the participants to do. Go to any corner of the room or even walk outside for some fresh air. Write down or sketch whatever that comes to mind, no matter how silly, ambitious, or unconventional. No filter, no red flag, no second-guessing. Then, the idea that offers the most potential will jump out from the rest for you. This “let loose” mindset seemed to have worked so well for my participants, considering the length and messiness of their idea lists within the first 10 minutes alone! Although they weren’t in their familiar workspace or tackling a familiar design challenge, my audience managed to keep their ideas coming. If anything, being in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people made them feel more alive, challenged, and enthusiastic and freed them from their creative rut.
When we were young, we were taught to understand the separate functions of two sides of the brain. In college, we often categorized someone as either a science/math person or an “artsy” person. At work, we stick to "our own kind," work with people in our department, and hang out with people who speak and understand the same language. As a result, we don’t do anything beyond what we know, let alone talk enough (or at all) about other possibilities.
Bringing professionals from various fields to work together was, therefore, refreshing for everyone. When put in the laid back, open space of C ASEAN’s Dream Office with fun upbeat music in the background, the audience really let loose. They were thinking together, openly exchanging thoughts and feelings, and most importantly sharing a good laugh and meaningful conversations. It was amazing to see younger generations with so much curiosity and fire and senior leaders from various fields with so much creativity and such an open mind.
Confidence is about believing. Believing that you have unique capabilities and resources to bring to the table, no matter what age, level of experience, or field. When I met my audience, I could feel their confidence. Confidence is not the same as arrogance, ignorance, or aggressiveness. The confidence I saw in them was not about how they walked or talked. Instead, it came from their belief. They believed they were so much more than their current roles and job descriptions. They believed they could be better at doing their jobs or even create their own jobs in the future. They wanted to unleash their fullest potential.
Confidence is something we have to build. We are certainly not born with it, and it’s not something we can get simply by going to school or even gaining more work experience year by year. Sometimes we have to get knocked down a few times, change our directions back and forth, or even fail to be really good at what we do. Being really good at what we do then leads to self-satisfaction and confidence respectively. Confidence comes from practice. Confidence comes from action.
I received positive comments that my session provided a hands-on experience that helped my audience better understand not the theory, but the real-world application of Design Thinking. Cracking a real-world and totally relatable design challenge let the participants capture the essence of Design Thinking, something they wouldn’t be able to fully understand simply by reading or hearing about it. When they practiced and applied Design Thinking, they became more confident!
We often associate competition or being competitive with negative traits. For example, you are either the winner or the loser or the insignificant somewhere-in-between. To me, competitiveness is a positive thing. It keeps you focused, motivated, and strong.
It is easy to get too comfortable when you have run your business for a while, when you have a fixed 9-5 work schedule, or when you know everyone around you so well. In other words, you have run out of the drive to do something different and the energy to push yourself out there. I decided to put my audience in an uncomfortable position. They had to work with not one, but 3-4 people they had just met for the first time on a surprise challenge that they had only thirty minutes to work on. Plus, each team of 4-5 had to present their final idea to the crowd who would then challenge them with unexpected questions, concerns, and suggestions.
I found that, when put in an uncomfortable situation, people actually open up more. With such limited time, my audience went straight to what needed to be done. They cut out all the trivial, the unnecessary, and the second-guessing that would typically slow things down in a work environment. Because they were not being structured by any rules, customs, or expectations, the participants felt free and confident to fully express, defend their ideas, and stand by what they believed in. I loved the inner fighter I could see in everyone on that day. Design thinkers are fighters. Once they have a clear vision, they fight for it and execute it.
When I talk about compassion, I’m talking about being able to connect with others on a deep, emotional, and personal level. A big portion of the business world has moved away from mass production toward customization and personalization. Products and services now have personalities, meanings, and even emotions of their own. Design thinkers cannot solely rely on their own creativity. In order to build an intimate connection and a long-term relationship, design thinkers have to immerse themselves in real experiences of their target customers. One of the many reasons the participants’ responses to issues of transportation were so impressive was due to their direct experience and ability to turn the lessons learned as end users to apply to their Design Challenge.
A participant asked if she needed to acquire certain skills or knowledge in order to become a design thinker. My response was I didn’t think specific skills or knowledge were as important as aligning yourself as closely as possible with end users. A successful design, to me, is either when you can numb the pain right where it hurts or when you can make your customers smile a little wider and laugh a little louder than they already do.
There's no doubt that courage, creativity, confidence, competitiveness, and compassion are crucial not just for design thinkers, but for everyone who wants to yield higher personal satisfaction and professional success. For design thinkers, it's so important to be creative and compassionate so that they can address the right problem and find the right answer. It's just as important for them to be courageous, confident, and competitive so that they can fight for the idea they pulled all-nighters and even their own hairs out for.
I was very excited and beyond happy to have already seen these 5Cs in my audience. The future of successfully applying Design Thinking to products, services, fields, and even sectors in Thailand, to me, is very promising. As a young creative force, I hope I'll be able to contribute even more in the near future!