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Applying the Principles of Design Thinking to Career Development

How to use design thinking to spark a positive change in your career path.

9/18/2020 | Career Development, Featured | 10 minute read

Picture of Mary Sharp Emerson
Written By:
Mary Sharp Emerson

"There is no passion to be found playing small — in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living." - Nelson Mandela

Are you unhappy at your job but unsure what you really want to do? Are you feeling stuck in a dead-end career path? Are you uncertain how to make a positive change in your career?

Nearly everyone will find themselves answering "yes" to these types of questions at some point.

At the same time, we often find ourselves unable to decide what to do in response.

The questions can feel so overwhelming that we become stuck in "analysis paralysis." Positive change can easily be blocked by doubts and fears of making the wrong choice.

Recently, career coaches such as Ingrid Goldbloom Bloch, founder of Mosaic Careers, have begun applying the principles of design thinking to help people rethink career change.

The following blog post outlines Bloch’s tips for using the principles of design thinking to spark a positive change in your career path. The post is based on a webinar Bloch led for Harvard Extension School’s Career and Academic Resource Center.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a methodology that product developers have used successfully for many years to design products that meet consumer needs.

Design thinking is also used in the corporate world to stimulate innovation more broadly.

Innovation can be challenging because our thinking tends to be limited by our own preconceived notions and assumptions. The most creative ideas are often dismissed too quickly as "impossible" or "too risky." To be innovative requires taking risks and acting in a context of uncertainty.

Design thinking focuses on developing a growth mindset, a bias to action, and a willingness to tolerate ambiguity. The process is built on the belief that risk is acceptable and mistakes are critical learning opportunities.

Spark Personal Growth

The tenets of design thinking can also be used to innovate your career.

Innovation is often even harder in our personal paths than it is in the corporate world.

The consequences of making a mistake, taking a risk, or acting without a clear outcome may feel unacceptable. And our own personal narratives are often focused on what we can't do or on what's not possible.

The goal of design thinking is to change the way you think about the problem. It focuses on correctly defining the problem and moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

By altering your narrative to solutions-based thinking, design thinking stimulates you to break down your long-term goals into smaller steps. This, in turn, enables you to be curious and take action, even when you don't necessarily know the final result.

Accept Mistakes and Uncertainties

We often find ourselves staying on a certain path because it feels safe.

Most of us use negative thinking—automatic negative thoughts—in our own personal narrative to justify staying on that path of safety. Automatic negative thoughts are anything that starts with "I can't," "I shouldn't," "I'm not good at," "I don't."

Design thinking starts with identifying and questioning this pattern of negative thinking. The goal is to turn those automatic negative thoughts into positive drivers of action.

And inherent in the design thinking process is the idea that mistakes are actually opportunities for learning and growth.

As accepting and learning from mistakes become part of the process, we become more comfortable navigating risk and uncertainty.

The Principles of Design Thinking

In her webinar, Bloch describes the basic steps in design thinking and how you can utilize them to change your career path.

1. Empathize

To start, you need to know your own story.

Look closely at your goals, challenges you might be afraid to take on, and important milestones that may require change.

Listen carefully to what you are telling yourself, and examine your own personal narrative. Be sure to identify those automatic negative thoughts, and question the assumptions on which they are based.

Recognizing, understanding, and challenging the way you think about yourself and your career is a critical step in changing your narrative and moving toward a growth mindset.

2. Define

You have to define the problem before you can solve it.

Unfortunately, many of us spend too much time trying to solve the wrong problem. The key is making sure that the problem you want to solve is actionable.

Some problems simply aren't actionable. Bloch calls these "gravity problems." For example, you may have always dreamed about being a rock star. But, if you have reached middle age, have a family and a mortgage, and haven't played an instrument since high school, this dream is likely not actionable.

Other times, the problem is too broad or undefined. For instance, we are often told to "follow our passion." Unfortunately, this problem demands a level of certainty that most of us don't have. And in reality, most people have many interests and strengths, all of which could form the foundation of a successful career.

The key is to reframe the problem so that it is actionable. You may find yourself complaining, for example, that the large, stable company where you work no longer has the startup environment that you loved. Asking that the company stay a startup is not actionable. Instead, ask yourself whether you can be happy in that stable company, or whether you want to seek a new opportunity at another start up.

In other words, redefine the problem in terms of what you can—realistically—do to solve it.

3. Ideate

This is where you get to be creative!

Ask "what if." Engage in creative brainstorming. Generate multiple options.

Don't dismiss anything out of hand. In the corporate world, this is where innovation often stalls. People are quick to dismiss ideas that seem too far-fetched, unrealistic, or impossible. Embracing the impractical is inherent in the design thinking process.

Instead of quickly dismissing ideas, allow them to percolate. Think about how these ideas create opportunities for you to step outside of your comfort zone.

In other words, practice saying "yes" instead of "no."

Bloch notes that this is a great place in the process to ask for help. Reach out and ask people for their ideas and thoughts.

And be sure to step outside your usual networks. We have a natural tendency to seek out people who think as we do and who reinforce our own narratives.

By seeking out people who don't think like you, you will strengthen your growth mindset. You may even hear some new ideas you didn't think about yourself!

4. Prototype and Test

In official design thinking processes in the corporate world, prototyping and testing are often broken out into two distinct steps.

When thinking about your career, however, Bloch says it's important to remember that the process of prototyping and testing is iterative.

Because mistakes and failure are built into design thinking, it's important to give yourself space to develop and test a variety of ideas. Focus particular attention on those ideas that push you outside your comfort zone.

It's also important to break your ideas down into smaller, more actionable parts. Starting with small goals can feel significantly less overwhelming than working toward one final goal.

And don't wait until you know what the outcome will be. The willingness to operate in a context of uncertainty is a key element of design thinking as well.

Fleshing out and testing an unusual suggestion may not lead where you expect, but it may lead to other ideas. These ideas can then be developed and tested, and so on, until you discover yourself moving in an entirely unexpected direction.

The outcome—we hope—will be a surprising and satisfying career path.

Further Reference

For more reading on using design thinking for personal development, Bloch recommends
Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett (Knopf, 2016).

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