Leaders Sleep in Hats – Empathy

“When we designed our own inventions, we just did this and that, it was really easy, we did what we wanted, but for this project, [we gathered] data on the proposals, we had to listen to the people….it was really hard…really, really hard.”

This is a quote from Hannah, a 2nd grader. I had the privilege and pleasure of collaborating with Tim Kaegi, a 2nd grade teacher at Horace Mann Elementary School in Oak Park, Il, to capture student reflections as they moved through the “design thinking” process. We set out to try and capture, through audio and video, how the students felt as they worked through each step of this process. Tim had started the school year with a design project where each student would practice critical thinking skills by designing and making their own inventions, an egocentric process whereby each individual would design something according to their own needs and wants. But Tim wanted to end the school year with a group-based critical thinking project, where the design was based on not only taking into account what each student wanted, but also what others wanted.

Tim gave the class the design challenge of creating their own amusement park. They began by brainstorming and coming up with ideas of their own. Then they used those ideas to form categories and come up with questions to ask others about want they wanted to experience in an amusement park. The students took those categories and questions and interviewed the whole school. They used the data they gathered to inform the choices of what the amusement park would look like and what type of rides and food it would offer. I came into the classroom to record their reflections about the process as they moved through each design step. When I heard Hannah’s bit of audio during recording, I was really amazing how clearly she articulated one of the most challenging aspects of evolving as a leader – moving from ego toward empathy. It is really hard…really, really hard.

Can “design thinking” help leaders move in this direction? Can it help more clearly identify problems and champion solutions that take into account the needs and wants of others?

Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, a design consulting firm said, “Whenever I’m faced with a tough business challenge, rather than trying to use some prescribed CEO logic, I tackle it as a design problem. That’s not an inborn ability, it’s a skill—OK, a mastery—learned over many years of doing.”

This “thinking” and “doing” has evolved from being applied primarily to the aesthetics of product design to influencing the way people work. The process is being touted just about everywhere, manufacturing, banking, education, technology, museums, libraries and the list goes on. In has infiltrated my own work. Several years ago I transformed a training session about family engagement using design thinking and recently collaborated on this podcast episode to demonstrate what design thinking looks like with 2nd graders. I also attended a session at the American Library Association’s conference this year about how design thinking can help transform library services. Design thinking was even the basis for my daughter’s summer camp.

Empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, iteration, testing – these are some of the “new” words coming from the design world, influencing the way organizations are defining problems and finding solutions, impacting the way people are working together. Those words reminded me of one of my favorite books from childhood, “Miss Twiggley’s Tree” by Dorothea Warren Fox, published in 1966. You see,

Funny Miss Twiggley
Lived in a tree,
With a dog named Puss
And a color TV.

She did what she liked,
and she liked what she did,
But when company came
Miss Twiggley hid.

You come to learn a great deal about Miss Twiggley and her ways at the start of this story. She’s shy. Her very best friend is a cat. Her dog does the shopping. She’s friendly with bears. She’s quite neat. And, she sleeps in her hat.

But a hurricane was coming.

Miss Twiggley thought about the townspeople, knowing they would be wet, tired, hungry and worried. She battened the hatches and checked the supplies “of tea and dry matches.” Puss and the bears went to work, stringing up hammocks, building beds and chairs. Miss Twiggley mixed up a big pot of stew and buttered some bread,

The townspeople rowed out to Miss Twigley’s tree, and she made room for them all. The bears created a pulley system to pull up folks from their boats into the tree. And when a cat rowed up to the tree, Puss used a fishing pool to rescue it. Some were afraid, wet, and upset, but all were welcome in Miss Twiggly’s tree.

And Miss Twiggley found out
Something wonderful, too:
When emergencies come,
You don’t think about you.

Miss Twiggley and her team (dog and bears), while not being aware of design thinking, demonstrated the process quite nicely. First, Miss Twiggley empathized with the town’s people, knowing they would be wet, tired, hungry and scared. She defined the problems based on their feelings, then, she created ideas to solve those problems. Her team went to work prototyping solutions by building beds, hanging hammocks and creating pulley hoists. When the townsfolk started to arrive, they tested their solutions, and iterated by creating new ideas, such as pretending the tree was Noah’s ark so they wouldn’t be scared.

I say, Miss Twiggley is a leader, an empathetic leader. She was able to help the townspeople because “when emergencies come, you don’t think about you.” And she went and did. So why do we need “design thinking” if there are empathetic leaders among us? Why do we seem to try so hard to come up with new terms, new pathways to find solutions to problems instead of talking about what it means to work together on solving problems that are really important to us all?

I’ll tell you why…because of the mayor’s wife. You see, the mayor’s wife had it out for Miss Twiggley. At the start of this story, the mayor’s wife went to visit Miss Twiggley, but Miss Twiggley wouldn’t answer her call because she was so shy. So, as humans tend to do when our feelings are hurt, she lashed out with some name-calling and then defined a problem that needed solving…without empathizing. She called Miss Twiggley’s inability to answer her call “disgraceful” “unforgivable” and touted off facts like she lives with a dog, is friends with bears, hangs her laundry from a branch, and she sleeps in her hat. She then defined the problem, as she saw it, “That house in the tree is spoiling our view!”

Thank goodness for that hurricane or poor Miss Twiggley would have lost her home! So, here’s the rub with design thinking….we’re human. And because we’re human, there are many obstacles along the path prescribed by designers. I had to laugh when I came across a list of those obstacles put out by the Interactive Design Foundation. The list may as well be labeled, “The Obstacles to Working With People.” The first two obstacles are actually “individual people” and “ego”!

Chicago Public Library recently updated their children’s reading room and used design thinking as their process. As the head of Chicago Public Library, Brian Bannon, put it, “The library system’s old model would have had experts on the staff simply come together and design new children’s spaces themselves. It sounds really obvious that you would do all those different steps of observations, interviews and experiments and prototypes and continue to iterate, iterate, iterate. But, really, it doesn’t work that way in most institutions.”

Miss Twiggley, in the process of readying her tree, also made sure to change the bows on her sleeping hat. And when the mayor’s wife, in the very last boat, rowed up to the tree, she was indeed ashamed of the words she had said about Miss Twiggley. With empathy, Miss Twiggley greeted the mayor’s wife and said, “I’ve fixed you my bed,” and the mayor’s wife slept safe and sound – in Miss Twiggley’s hat.Based on my own limited experience with design thinking, I did find value in its practice, especially because the process starts by purposefully thinking about and observing others. Perhaps, by providing leaders and problem solvers another valuable tool for reflecting about our shared human values, it can help us think creatively, inspiring us to transform our needs and wants into finding solutions to problems larger than our individual selves.

I’ve loved Miss Twiggley for a very long time. I loved her tree, her dog, and how she and her friends helped the townspeople, and especially how she gave up her bed and shared her hat with the mayor’s wife. She’s my kind of leader. She’s also a reminder that there are many obstacles to finding creative solutions, namely ourselves. Perhaps, the next time you encounter yourself, or another, defining the problem according to your own needs, first, remember Hannah’s reflection, “we had to listen to the people… is was really hard…really, really hard”. Then, see if the “design thinking” process can help you and your team empathize and observe others before you get too far….and if that doesn’t work, see if Miss Twiggley will loan you her hat.

They don’t find me odd
And I’m grateful for that.
I don’t think they’d mind
If I slept in my hat.