28 November 2011 ~ 4 Comments

Encouraging “Design Thinking” & “Participatory Development” ideas through the questions we ask

Both “participatory development” and “design thinking” theories advocate for project planning to start with the needs of the end-user. It’s interesting to me that both concepts illustrate pretty much the same intuitive process, yet the naming of both makes them seem less broadly applicable. I guess maybe that’s because “Successful impact-for-the-end-user-focused-planning” is a much less sexy name!

I had dinner last night with a fabulous crew of Rhodes Scholars who are studying everything from love to girls education in Pakistan. In addition to learning about Heidegger, I learned more about the work some of them do with an Oxford based NGO which supports programs in southern Africa. Part of their role is helping to vet project proposals.

They mentioned that when a project was proposed to them they weren’t able to tell if the proposer had considered other alternatives as the only material available to them was their current hypothesis for success. Here is a little brainstormed list of some questions that they could put on their application form to both check for and encourage “design thinking/participatory” planning.  I’d love YOUR thoughts on what questions they could add or what things you would change!

Potential questions to ask in a project proposal application form to check for an end-user impact focus:

a)    What is the goal you are working towards?

b)   What alternative actions/plans have you tried or considered outside of the proposed project which you have rejected and why?

c)    Who are the stakeholders in your proposed project, how do you know/relate to them, and how have their needs/opinions shaped your project proposal?

d)   What is your proposed project?

e)    How can you measure success towards your goal through this project?

f)     What are some potential barriers to success for this project?

g)    Can you already anticipate some ways you might need to alter your given plan if your hypothesis is unsuccessful? What might some of those ways be?

We had previously been discussing the importance of NGOs marrying themselves to an impact goal rather than the hypothesis for success which is their “plan”. This is probably the same for a novelist, an entrepreneur, a parent….. all of us. We sometimes “think” we know how to reach a goal, and we continue down the path of trying to prove that plan correct until sometimes we reach the point of failure. We were discussing how it is important to flush out many possible paths to a goal before deciding which hypothesis to consider and then how important it is to be able to notice the signs of failure fast so that you can iterate and adjust quickly towards reaching a goal. If impact “success” is the goal, it might be achieved in this manor though the executed plan will likely look very different than the original proposal.

First off, do you believe that this type of thinking is important or not, and if so why?

And second, what questions would you add/change/remove from the list above to encourage and understand this thinking?

Hope to hear your thoughts!

  • http://twitter.com/tenaciousleigh Leigh

    I think it’s great that the application requires people to question how they arrived at their proposed project and lays the groundwork for flexibility and adaptability. The latter two have been so necessary as I embark on our work, small biz, social enterprise in Cambodia. 

    Also, I think it’s great that the people approving the proposals understand that plan used to execute and achieve a goal will likely look very different from the original plan proposed. This allows the team on the ground to change course when something isn’t going correctly, without feeling tied to the original proposal because that is what was approved. 

  • Gillian Langor

    Thanks for a great post, Daniela! 

    To add to your list: “why are you doing this project?”. I think that the
    articulation of a projects’ rationale helps to uncover the assumptions
    (or value system) that underlie a project.  Why prioritize this problem
    over another? Will solving this problem create the impact you’re hoping

    I also believe that user-centered problem solving is very important, but
    challenging to implement in situations where people are not used to
    thinking this way. It requires a shift in mindset… not an easy thing!
    Beyond a list of questions on an application form, how else might you
    encourage this way of thinking in practice?

  • Anonymous

    Indeed, Gillian! I agree.  One of the questions we talked about which I forgot to list which I think is one of the most important is:

    How do you define success?

    Maybe combined with “why”, or perhaps that incorporates the “why” and “how will you know if you got there” in one.

    What a fabulous addition – sending all those who apply some “community led decision making”/”design thinking” tools, ideas, frameworks, etc.  And/or sending back comments/questions from each application to show the areas where you’d love to see more thought demonstrated/why.  That might be a way to help influence thinking change throughout a much wider range than just those who demonstrated it already and were able to get the grant.

    Thanks for the comments as well, Leigh!  I think it would be so interesting to try to get a group of granting organizations to start thinking like this – both in framing the questions and providing training materials.  Let’s think about this some more… and Oxford guys, let us know if you are going to move forward with this!

  • Anonymous

    PS – I guess using the same logic, we’d need to first see if there are many other granting orgs out there who see this as a main problem. I am sure there are a large number just here in Oxford we could speak with….