Complexity dominates our lives. We accept overwhelming volumes of information as common and can’t escape our “always on” work culture – quick, check your email, slack, text, LinkedIn, and Facebook updates! Our living rooms are cluttered with confusing arrays of technology, and the promise of a trillion-node network connecting everything to everyone is quickly becoming a reality.

Complexity goes well beyond the products and services we create and use. It exists in the companies we run and work for, and the environments we live and work in. The greatest challenges of our time are problems of complexity, which arise from the unpredictable interactions and interdependencies of many moving parts.

Fighting complexity is an overwhelming challenge that can wear us down. Design thinking is an antidote to complexity, and the masses are starting to approach problems the way a trained designer might. This is a good start, but if we’re truly trying to invent the future we need the discipline and courage to move – no, run – toward the signs of complexity. Toward culture, logistics, policies, technology, operations, organization, and environments. Toward things that often appear to be out of our control as individuals if we try to address them in isolation.

It won’t be easy or comfortable. It’s in our nature to do what’s familiar – even if it yields unfavorable results. Only a few will truly accept the challenge, and I’d like to offer a few simple rules to guide us.

1. Shift scales.
Shifting scales allows us to view the larger system in context (rather than one thing in isolation) and then zoom in to consider the granularity of the things we’re doing. Consider starting with your purpose or looking at bigger trends shaping our industry, the economy, etc., before diving in and developing an action plan.

2. Start with people.
If we’re trying to solve problems for a group of people, to affect change in their world, then we need to understand how they think about the world around them. Design thinking is really about designing for people, understanding their needs and challenges and creating appropriate solutions. And while empathy for users is great, it is often equally important to have empathy for all the people who have a vested interest in the success of a project. Design for desirable outcomes by making the experience rewarding and delightful for all stakeholders.

3. Allow for discovery.
When you are truly bringing something new into the world, you need to allow for discovery – for unexpected things to surface. Consider the difference between solving a complicated problem and a complex one. You won’t know the outcome of a complex problem at the outset, so it’s about being open to making changes wherever they’re needed.

4. Prepare for uncertainty.
You are going to fail. If you are not failing, you’re not trying hard enough. Failure is uncomfortable, but it is possible to create the right environment and conditions to safely fail early and often. It’s about shifting the focus to learning and getting good at recognizing the difference between failure and incompetence. The former is to be celebrated, and the latter, eliminated.

5. Make it visible.
Get people to draw a picture of the current and preferred situations. Even ugly doodles and cartoons that capture the right ideas are invaluable in facilitating team communication, so make sure it’s not just the artists that are picking up the marker to draw. Avoid too much talking and encourage the team to think by making. Oh, and make people care about what you’re doing by telling great stories all along the way.

Director of Visual Design at MAYA Design
Pittsburgh xCHANGE – Keynote Speaker