A Conversation on Design Thinking with Opening Keynoter Warren Berger and CCC Chair Carol Goldsmith

The paperback edition of Warren Berger’s bestselling book, A More Beautiful Question, will be out in September.  Conference attendees can have their free copy autographed by the author at the CCC.

Carol: Warren, I’m delighted to talk to you. Can you give us a preview of your Capital Coaches Conference keynote?  

Warren:  I envision that much of it will be new and geared towards leaders. I think leaders now need to be trained in questioning, and encouraged to question more than ever. Coaches are in an ideal spot to do that…coaches themselves have always been good questioners. They’re perfectly positioned to bring that kind of thinking and communication to the leadership world, to the business execs, to leaders in any organization who need to be better questioners themselves. What I’m suggesting is that maybe their role now is to also help the people themselves be better questioners. That probably wasn’t really an opportunity until now.  I will also focus on Design Thinking principles and how they relate to coaching conversations.

Carol: I love what you said about a big shift being coaches helping leaders become better questioners. I could not agree with you more. Years ago, I attended a presentation at a leadership breakfast by a former CEO. He said that there are various types of leaders – you have diplomatic leaders, collaborative leaders, autocratic leaders, and he went on down the list. He said, “I would like to propose a new type of leader – and that’s the coach-leader. This leader leads through questions.”

Warren: It’s really interesting, and it just occurs to me now, that there’s a parallel between coaches and teachers. Traditionally, teachers have been the ones who have been asking all the questions in the classroom. What we’re seeing now is a little bit of a realization and shift that it would be a great thing if the students were asking more questions. There’s another thing that happens when students start formulating their own questions instead of just reacting to questions that are coming at them from the teachers. When coaches are in the role of asking questions, that’s great. But there’s also a value that comes as coaches transfer that skill to the client, and the client is then able to ask more questions and better questions themselves.

Carol: Absolutely. And that ties in very nicely to what Chuck Appleby [CCC presenter who contributed to Warren’s book, A More Beautiful Question] will be talking about in his breakout session on the power of peer coaching. I don’t know how well-known or understood the term ‘peer coaching’ is.  Have you encountered that term, Warren, in your work with organizations?  What do you call group questioning in the organizational world?

Warren: I call it ‘collaborative inquiry.’ That’s my own term that I use for group questioning – working together on a problem through questioning, as opposed to one just one person asking questions of the other.  They’re working on the question together.

Carol: I like that. Collaborative inquiry. Do you hear other terms used as you work with and speak to organizations?

Warren:  Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a big one.  Is that big in your world?

Carol: AI is something many coaches have experience in, or knowledge of.  Coming from a journalism background as you do, Warren, maybe you’ve experienced the same thing that I have as a former journalist. I encounter these different methodologies and when I get deeper into them, I think, “You know, it’s just questioning – positive, appreciative questioning.”

Warren:  Right, exactly. When I look at the whole AI thing, I have trouble believing that a whole industry has sprung up around it and that there’s so much to talk about. Because when I talk about it to audiences that haven’t heard about it at all, I feel like you can talk about it in two minutes and people get it. I’m not sure how much more they need to know than that. But that’s one of the terms that pops up in inquiry. Another one is Humble Inquiry from Edgar Schein.

Carol: Is that a two-minute thing too?

Warren: It is, it totally is. It’s what it sounds like: basically, putting yourself aside, stop talking so much, and be willing to ask questions and listen. That’s all it really is. A lot of these things can be summed up fairly simply.

Carol: I’ve had some difficulty getting my arms around about Design Thinking. One of our volunteers, Rob Michelucci, will be co-presenting a breakout session on Design Thinking at the CCC. Before becoming a coach he worked at Capital One with his co-presenter, Jen Fox. Capital One is a big believer in, and user of, Design Thinking in its leadership development programs.  I asked Rob what makes Design Thinking so different and useful in coaching.  He said that it provides a template that can help one person ask questions of the other, capture the information, and move the conversation toward designing something that meets the person’s need.  The Design Thinking template makes the process accessible and useful for our non-coaching clients in organizations. How does that comport with your understanding.

Warren: That sounds right.

Carol:  So I’ve got to jump in and ask you this. Given that AI and Humble Inquiry can be summed up in two minutes, how long does it take to sum up Design Thinking?

Warren: Well, I have a three-word summary if you want to hear that.

Carol: I do.

Warren: Everyone gets a kick out of it. When I talk about Design Thinking, my whole thing is to simplify it as much as possible. When I would give talks, especially to designers, I would offer this long, jargon-laden definition of Design Thinking that went on for 33 words and by the end of the sentence, you didn’t know what you’d just heard. Then I would say to the audience, ‘Here’s how I define it in three words. ‘Design Thinking equals how designers think.”

At the simplest level, that’s really what it is. That’s how Design Thinking started out –as a model based on the way various types of designers try to solve a problem. Designers tend to go through 4 or 5 steps when they try to solve a problem. Someone had the great idea, “Hey, let’s codify this. Let’s make it a system that other people who aren’t designers can also use for various kinds of problem solving.” When you put it that way, it’s a light bulb moment for a lot of people. They say, “OK, I get it now. It’s a model based on how problem-solvers solve a problem.” Very simple.

Then you have to lay out those steps: designers tend to do A, B, C, D. How can I apply that to whatever I’m doing? I may not be designing an automobile. But in a way I’m doing something similar. I know what I want to do – what outcome I want — I know I have to take steps and turn in a different direction, so how do I do that?’ Design Thinking can be presented fairly simply, and that’s what I will try to do.

Carol: So different packages or methodologies of questioning, like Design Thinking, can be very useful for different clients and purposes.

Warren: Exactly. A designer, at the most basic level, is someone who wants to solve a problem. We tend to think of designers as people who deal with aesthetics, but basically design is about coming up with a plan to do something to get a desired outcome. We’re all trying to do that.  So in a sense, we’re all designers.

Carol: That’s great, Warren. Journalist to journalist, I really appreciate how you simplify this.  I look forward to learning and experiencing more about Design Thinking at the conference.