Design Process Evolution – Understanding OpenIDEO

Rogers Granite Rapid

Rogers and Bill, Granite Rapid, Grand Canyon, 2009 — still rowing, Rogers is in his early 70s.

In this previous post, we’ve talked about the choices between sophistication and evolution in the context of organizational change.  There are always exceptions, but there’s also no question that sophistication is easier.  Modifying techniques and fractalizing on smaller scales the v-Meme that an organization is already in doesn’t require personal growth and empathetic development.  More often than not, it’s just better time management and segmentation.

But there are limits in this approach.  You can only fragment time (or space) down so far, or increase the energetics (read that as money/resources) in an organization before diminishing returns set in.

In order to understand this idea, an example is helpful.  Twenty years ago, there used to exist a clerical class dedicated to supporting business and engineering professionals.  Then Microsoft Excel and Word came on strong, and an entire cohort of jobs were systematically eliminated.  Job responsibilities were shifted to the group of professionals that a priori had counted on secretarial support to do things like fill in travel reimbursement forms, manage simple budgets, do typing and such.  Now, the expectation became that all documents would be typed, edited, etc. by the professionals themselves.  Though leaves were pruned off the hierarchical tree, the fundamental organizational structure did not change.  Financial performance might have improved — there were certainly less people to pay.  But the number of work hours in the last twenty years has also steadily increased, as the aggregation process accelerated.  I haven’t seen a study on this, but I’m sure also that the error rate for all these more clerical tasks has gone up.  There was implicit systemic knowledge in all those people’s heads.  And now those folks aren’t here any more.

But what does empathetic evolution really look like?  A great example can be taken from design practice — namely from the evolved design process of one of the leaders in design thinking: IDEO.  Founded in 1991 as a commercial concern, IDEO established an open platform in 2011 dedicated to solving problems in developing countries called OpenIDEO.  OpenIDEO bills itself as a “global community working together to design solutions for the world’s biggest challenges.” That’s a tall order.  The way they function comes through in understanding the implicit structure of OpenIDEO.  The main principle is creating a software platform for partnering between organizations that are local and on-the-ground in the communities of interest, and professionals or students working on the problem, thus bringing community-based organizational efforts between the two cohorts.

OpenIDEO initiates activities through issuing Challenges, defined from their web page as:

“usually a three to five month collaborative process that focuses our attention on a specific issue and creates a space for community members to contribute, refine and prototype solutions.”

Challenges are then part of larger Programs, defined as:

“long-term partnerships where we tackle a specific issue area—like climate change or international development—by launching multiple challenges, events and other activities that lead to the creation of far-reaching, innovative solutions.”

Implicit in the language of both of these statements is the idea of partners and collaborations, and deliberate empathetic statements about community members bringing ideas and processes to the table.  This maps well to the idea of a truly Communitarian v-Meme design process, where lots of different people, with lots of different ideas on how to accomplish things, are going to be included in coming to consensus and a final solution.

OpenIDEO offers two dominant modes for connection between team members.  Once you subscribe to participate in a challenge, you can assemble your own team through self-generation once an idea you have is posted.  Agency is enormous — once you’ve subscribed to trying to do something, you can actively recruit individuals to help you who are also interested in the same problem.  An integrated software platform allows individuals to select in or out through electronic communication channels on projects of interest.

Additionally, OpenIDEO utilizes the MeetUp concept so that individuals collocated in a given community can see each other in person and establish empathetic social relationships.  Individual cities have volunteer coordinators that let interested external parties know times and places where OpenIDEO aficionados can gather.  All this is available on the first-level web page, so there is no a priori screening of people looking for social contact.

OpenIDEO also posts what I call its Origination Culture on its webpage.  Listed are Guiding Principles, as well as lower-level scaffolding under the heading Methods and Actions.  The Guiding Principles are:

  1. Lead with Empathy
  2. Together is Better
  3. Learn by Doing
  4. Make it Happen

Lead with Empathy, in the case of IDEO, is embodied by the idea that research by an individual on a problem or audience can lead to more profound place-taking exchanges.  This is a solid empathetic ladder for much of the audience that would connect to OpenIDEO, as it assumes that they start from a place of egocentricity.  Together is Better works with standard empathetic engagement tools of post sharing, MeetUps, and comments to build understanding.  Learn by Doing is a very standard ‘build and test’ Performance-based behavior, with feedback and sharing being required.  Finally, Make it Happen involves support for fundraising.

One of the nicer features of the OpenIDEO founders’ insights is that they have recognized the need for both v-Meme and technical scaffolding of participants in the design process.  Good scaffolding produces convergent heuristics at the Communitarian level, and creates a better potential for executable solutions that incorporate more insight from more people.  The toolkits available range from brainstorming,  conducting a successful customer interview, visualization, to a user experience map tool.  Feedback from users is scaffolded out at the algorithmic level, with everything from standard test protocols to suggestions on how to manage emotions.

What might be the next level of evolution for OpenIDEO?  Empathetic development and Spiral Dynamics point the way.  The OpenIDEO community is already working on global connection through its various challenges and initiatives.  That’s great — but it jumps over some of the personal development work that might lead to more successes.  A self-reflection and differentiation course for the more involved might yield great benefits in probabilities of successful ideation.  In the next post, we’ll discuss an evolutionary path for designers that could directly be applied to the overarching design theoretical approach of OpenIDEO.

Takeaways:  While I’m not sure I’d recommend an open-source approach for designing the next rocket engine in a time-constrained environment, there is much to like about an approach that has in its v-Meme-NA a process for a true Communitarian v-Meme-based process for folding multiple heuristics together.  OpenIDEO is used mostly on problems in the developing world, including clever methods for water purification, improvement of agriculture and such.  It offers a solid approach for solving community-based problems that require only a certain amount of refined tech, but lots of target community participation in actually executing the solutions.




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