Sitting in the Problem

* 7 minute read *

This week I attended the 2013 Better By Design CEO Summit, in Auckland, New Zealand. The theme for the summit was ‘Disrupt by Design’, and over two days we were immersed in both the theory and real world examples of design thinking presented by an amazing array of international speakers and facilitators.

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Image courtesy of Better by Design

After my positive experience from last year’s event I had high expectations for this year, and I was certainly not disappointed. Yet, with so many inspiring presenters, new ideas and connections, my brain is still close to exploding and here I am on Sunday night still not able to really make sense of it all.

I know it was awesome, but I’m confused. I’m sitting in the confusion and I’m comfortable with that. And in fact, this is the main message I’m taking from the conference. This was the same message that was delivered by one of the local speakers, Mark Pennington on the last day. Mark made a comment along these lines that has really stuck with me:

It’s OK if you’re feeling lost or uncertain. Trust me, whatever you’re doing right now, whatever you’re investing in, will make sense and pay off in the future.

I’m constantly amazed by the parallels that I discover between my work in the worlds of design thinking and personal growth.

One shared idea across design thinking and personal growth is the concept of “sitting in the problem”.

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In design terms, it’s well accepted that the deeper the understanding we have of a particular problem or design challenge, the more appropriate and succesful a final solution will be.

We designers love to create things. We love to generate ideas and solutions, and so, often we are quick to jump straight into ideas and solutions without spending too much time really considering the problem. Our compulsion to be creative means that often it seems counter-intuitive to “sit in the problem” for too long. But why is it important sometimes to slow down and consider our problems more deeply before diving into action?

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Eco-tourism CEO master class with John Thackara

Two weeks ago I was part of a great workshop at work facilitated by our international guest John Thackara as part of our ‘Think Outside‘ series of events. John lead a design integration masterclass where we teamed 4 CEOs from leading Queensland eco-tourism organisations with designers to explore some of their curliest problems and challenges, developing new services and experiences in response to these challenges.

We spent the entire first half of the day exploring, discussing, analysing and pulling out insights around the problem. But up until lunch time there were no ideas and no solutions. It was all about the problem!

I remember feeling very uncomfortable, anxious and impatient to move on. But I was also conscious enough as an experienced designer to know that being comfortable with this discomfort would be my greatest strength. With a deep understanding of the problem we were able to jump in straight after lunch with clear insights that allowed us to choose a direction to act on with confidence. In the hours to follow, we ended up developing some meaningful and thoughtful ideas and new experiences for our CEO clients.

Sitting in the problem worked!

I knew it would work because I had been in that situation before, whether it was in a previous workshop or working on a particular architecture job. As a designer, I have learnt to become comfortable with discomfort and to thrive in environments of uncertainty. In our complex and ever-changing world, I believe that the successful and empowered citizens of the next generation will be those who can harness this kind of uncertainty and discomfort to their advantage.

The other important element to “sitting in the problem” is what happens when we change perspective. In the case of my workshop with John Thackara, I had a light bulb moment late in the day when I reflected on the anxiety I had felt earlier in the morning while exploring the problem, realising that it eventually all made sense.

The amazing thing about a change of perspective is that it can allow something that once seems unintelligible to suddenly all make sense!

Sometimes a change of perspective can come with a change of environment, other times it happens more gradually with the benefit of time and hindsight. Designers like to refer to this process as a “re-frame”. The other analogy I like to use is the idea of zooming in and zooming out or as Helen Bird described recently at TEDx, the idea of “the lantern and the spotlight”.

So, as a designer and in my professional life these are all concepts I’m comfortable with. I know it’s important to sit in the problem and trust the process, I know that it’s important to reframe and change perspectives on problems often. But do I apply these same principles to my personal life?

For me, I went through some very challenging experiences four years ago that didn’t make much sense at the time. Now, years later, I can see the order and the sense in all of it. What was once pain and difficulty, I now see as a great gift and a really positive turning point in my life.

The efforts that I made in investing in my personal growth at that time; to put myself out of my comfort zone and take new risks, I am only starting to feel the benefit and reward of some of these experiences now.

So, I wonder, what will be the impact of the actions and choices I am making right here and now for my long-term future? I believe we should never underestimate the value of small efforts toward a consistent purpose.

Right now, I feel the whisper of different opportunities and choices for my future and I can’t really make sense of what they mean or how I should act. The best advice I’ve been given about my current situation has come from my good friend Simon. Simon has encouraged me to go slow and be patient, because, as he says, “a masterpiece takes time to create!”

So, if you are like me and are impatient to rush to the answer and to know how everything will work out, I encourage you to take Simon’s advice. Go slow and be patient, because your masterpiece takes time to create!

Whether in your professional or personal life, don’t be afraid to sit in the problem for a while. Learn to love the problem, because it is here in our problems that we gain the insights to grow and move forward.

Go slow, be patient and continue to choose to Be Awesome. It will all make sense in the long run!

Til next week, Be Awesome!


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