Words and Graphics By Maggie Favretti, 2019, All Rights Reserved.
My husband thought he was having a heart attack. I took in the anxiety in his voice (if you’ve ever heard your beloved saying “I think you’d better call 911” you’ll know exactly what I mean), his shallow fast breathing, the frightening bluishness of his lips--my adrenaline shot up and my brain overloaded with “faster!” I rushed around looking for my cellphone while the landline was right next to him. I put my clothes on over my pajamas. I opened the front door (it was freezing cold outside) while we waited for the ambulance. He was the one who remembered his pills and his healthcare card. On my way to the hospital after having put my clothes on (again) correctly, I realized I had forgotten my purse, and spent an extra ten minutes going back to get it. Haste makes waste.
At the US Coast Guard Academy, where future officers are trained to think clearly and work as a team in crisis situations, they are regularly presented with instructive challenges. In one, cadets have three minutes to solve a sorting problem. My instinct would be the same as theirs. Jump right in! We only have three minutes! It turns out that the challenge is practically impossible to solve in three minutes if the team jumps right in, and almost always solvable if the team takes one minute to observe, breathe, and plan. That’s what I should have done.
I once sat with government officials two weeks after an overwhelming natural disaster. One confided in me, “we have terrible communication, even when we’re not in crisis. No one knows what anyone else is doing. We duplicate effort, and work at cross-purposes.” What if you spend twenty minutes every morning sharing out, helping each other to get unstuck, and looking for opportunities to combine and align for greater impact? “Oh, no. There’s no time for that.“
A similar narrative happens at school. Teachers and students alike describe their school days (and nights!) as a near constant sense of emergency as every day requires triage to sort which urgent need we’ll tend to. Rushed students aim at getting things done. Teachers aim at “covering the necessary material.” Efficient students and teachers develop shortcuts, find the right formulas, and abbreviate the depth of experience by eliminating those elements that seem to require more time: Close observation. Deep listening. Full communication. Planning. Teamwork and collaboration. Open-mindedness. Asking why. Often the result is superficial rote “learning” that disappears very quickly, and the development of test-taking skills at the expense of relevant substance and life skills. Like the government officials I met, teachers and students alike appreciate that something essential is missing—something that would actually accelerate, deepen, and empower learning—but they don’t have the time to explore it.
When we think of “design,” we imagine human agency and intent, a taking control over outcomes. Everyday design thinking is a way of thinking and being that is not squishing more in to what we already do in a short period of time (working harder and faster), but improving and deepening it (working better). It unlocks our access to our creative minds and our collaborative selves, the twin drivers of efficient learning and innovative problem solving. The key to the lock is a trusted process that begins with people. But people are complicated. In order to design well and efficiently, we need to invest “slow time,” observing closely and listening deeply, actively pursuing empathy and true understanding of our “design partners.”
When people have a problem, there is a sense of urgency. We want to jump right in and create the best solution for them. When our urgency is heightened by emotional connection and crisis sympathy, it is even harder to slow down and get it right. But haste not only makes waste, it fuels inequity. When we rush to solve someone else’s problem, we often forget to include them in the developing the solution. Whole groups of people might be ignored and “silenced” if the urge to solve races ahead of inclusion. This problem occurs in governance all the time. A government may understand that vulnerable neighborhoods need financial support to move to higher ground. They focus on securing new land and funding. When the block grants are lined up, only the better organized communities with more resources apply. The most vulnerable ones don’t. Now it will take much more time and effort to find out why and re-do the work. Haste makes waste.
Good design can’t happen until the designer has shifted from designing FOR to designing WITH. And designing WITH end users (i.e., design partners) takes some slowing down. Finding and listening to the extreme perspectives, seeking the voices of the young and very old, the disenfranchised as well as the powerful, the self-appointed stakeholders and the actual ones takes time and a willingness to co-research. If you move through a community too fast, and with no “local guide,” you miss things, and that will cost you later. Slow down and practice noticing and documenting what you observe. Everything you can learn informs your ability to empathize, and empathy is needed for equitable inclusion and effectively defining the right problem, the right scale, and the right direction. When design partners are included at key points in the process, there is no need to convince, or overcome the objections of those who should be benefitting from the solutions.
Remember the lesson the cadets learned. Slowing down your mind to listen, observe, and empathize will save time later. Slow thinking and co-researching and solving makes for more efficient and equitable governance and quicker adoption of new, more relevant solutions and social innovations. In school, early involvement in design thinking builds life skills that include seeking academic depth through inquiry, sustained willingness to try, true collaboration, critical and creative systems thinking, and civic confidence, developing graduates who are life-ready and don’t have to invest more time in re-learning content and skills. The essential problem-solving skill of slowing down to save time might just become second nature. I learned in a very personal way how taking time early can save much more later. I have reviewed CPR and there’s a go-bag hanging in the closet. We can laugh about it, now.