This episode’s remarkable guest is Sarah Stein Greenberg. She has helped lead Stanford’s Institute of design, AKA the d school. The d school enables and guides students to become innovative thinkers and achievers.

As the current executive director, Sarah leads a multifaceted educational program involving twenty-five courses. These courses are taught by more than 60 experts from the Stanford faculty and the Silicon Valley community.

Sarah has successfully taught various d school courses, including including the Design Thinking Bootcamp, Design Thinking for Public Policy Innovators, and the long-running high-impact Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability. 

Sarah obtained her bachelor’s degree in history and politics from Oberlin College and holds an MBA from Stanford graduate school of business. She is the author of a new book, Creative Acts for Curious People: Thinking, Creating, and Leading in Unconventional Ways. It is packed with innovative exercises and provides guidance to discovering and using productive approaches when facing any challenge. 

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Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with the remarkable Sarah Stein Greenberg:

Guy Kawasaki:
I'm Guy Kawasaki and this is Remarkable People. This episode's remarkable guest is Sarah Stein Greenberg. She has helped lead Stanford's Institute of Design, aka the
The enables and guides students to become innovative thinkers and achievers. As the current executive director, she leads a multifaceted educational program involving twenty-five courses.
These courses are taught by more than sixty experts from the Stanford faculty in the Silicon Valley community. Sarah has successfully taught various courses including the design thinking boot camp, design thinking for public policy innovators, and the long-running, high-impact entrepreneurial design for extreme affordability.
Sarah obtained her bachelor's degree in history and politics from Oberlin College, and holds an MBA from Stanford's Graduate School of Business. She is the author of a new book, Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create, and Lead in Unconventional Ways. It is packed with innovative exercises, and provides guidance to discovering and using productive approaches when you face any kind of challenge.

I'm Guy Kawasaki, this is Remarkable People, and now, here's the remarkable Sarah Stein Greenberg.

Sarah Stein Greenberg:
The is an unconventional institute in the heart of the Stanford campus, and we're kind of unusual because we have students from all seven of the different schools who are coming together, they're taking classes together, and they're working on creative projects together. So we will have a team that could be engineers and business students, and maybe a public policy student or a humanity student, and together, the way that that unique group of perspectives is going to look at a challenge might be truly the first time that collection of disciplines or backgrounds or lenses has come together to face a particular challenge.
So we teach classes and we give the students design projects that are very open-ended. So we might have them working on a particular healthcare challenge, or a challenge in education, or a business challenge, and they don't necessarily start out the class having a common way to navigate an open-ended creative challenge, and that's where the process that we teach, the methods that we teach, are coming from the field of design really help them solidify their approach and figure out, “How do we navigate these kinds of open ended messy challenges?” So in a nutshell, that's what the is.
Guy Kawasaki:
Is it for credit and for grades?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
It is usually for credit and for grades. Sometimes we'd like to have some experimental classes, and we'll really ask the students to go with us and be part of the work of trying to come up with new ways of teaching and learning. But yeah, for the most part, students are enrolled in our classes, they're getting grades, and they are working extremely hard.
Guy Kawasaki:
This is maybe a little bit of an off-the-wall question, but I went to Stanford also in the last century, and I am convinced I would not get in today. It seems to me, from the outside looking in, Stanford is about your GPA, your essay, your standardized testing scores - everybody has a 4.2. Extremely competitive, all that good stuff.
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
Yeah, I mean, you are describing many of our students. Yes.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. So the next part of my question is, so that's how they got into Stanford but the experience is not at all like that. So what have you learned about the admissions process that maybe, if you were the dean of admissions, you say, “We could get better quality students,” or “More appropriate,” whatever the word is, what would you change if you were the dean of admissions now that you've had the experience?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
You're really putting your finger on something that I think is incredibly important to call out, which is that, students who have really achieved academically, these are students who have thrived, they've always known the right answer. They have really been able to perform in these highly structured, test-oriented environments in a lot of ways.
I will say Stanford students often have a wide variety of interests as well, but that underlying behavior of having been able to be successful at jumping through all those hoops, in a lot of ways that can be an impediment to exactly what you're saying, the kind of teaching and learning that we're hoping happens at the I have this fundamental belief that every single person is creative. So even our students who have the attitude towards creativity of like they're a little afraid to take some risks, they might be a little bit afraid to share an unfinished piece of work and get feedback on it early, but through the experience that we can take them through, oftentimes those core creative abilities can emerge in really fruitful ways.
I think what I would say to the admissions folks is, “How can we get better at looking for those moments where somebody looked at a problem and challenged how it was defined? Or really took an unorthodox approach? Could we make that part of the admissions picture?”
I think a lot of students would find it easier then to navigate that process of finding the major that really matters to them, not necessarily the ones that they came in assuming they would like or having the courage to go study abroad, or to take classes outside of their core interest area, those are the behaviors that we really want to see because, of course, when they graduate from school, the world isn't as well organized. They're going to have to face all of these different kinds of problems, some that we don't even have names for right now.
I'll just say one of my favorite all-time comments on “What is the purpose of an education,” came from a guy who used to be the president of Brown named Harold Square, and he said the purpose of an education is preparation for appointments not yet made and that idea of an education shouldn't just fill you up with expertise and with content and facts, it should actually prepare you to be able to take action and face all of these things that are going to come your way that are yet to be discovered. That to me is really where I think education needs to be firmly centered.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. I have two sons in the workforce. One worked for eBay, Google, Salesforce, and Apple. The other is working for Looker/Google now, and I asked them, "Has anybody ever asked you what your GPA is?" Never. No one. No interview, no job screening, nothing. No one cares about GPA.
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
It's crazy, because we're taught that is the goal, and of course the goal should be that that GPA reflects that you've had all of these learning experiences where basically you've learned how to learn. You're now prepared to be able to continue to be somebody who can face those new challenges, who can rapidly figure out how to approach a problem that you haven't seen before.
But yeah, the ways that we codify that in terms of GPA or some of those other metrics are in some ways I think intention what the underlying goal should be. Interesting to hear that your sons, neither one of them has had that experience of being asked about their GPA.
Guy Kawasaki:
I really want to set the foundation at the highest conceptual level, in a nutshell, what exactly is design?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
I think about design as a very flexible way of thinking about problem solving, and not just problem solving, but also problem finding. So in design, we know, we trust that you're going to be able as a human being to come up with solutions and answers - a lot of engineering and a lot of work in business, a lot of work in many fields prepares you very well to do the problem solving part.
What design adds is that quest for, what is the opportunity here? What are the needs here? What is the question that I actually should be addressing? So the way that I think about it is it's almost an equal mix between problem finding and problem solving. For me, that's one of the most compelling underlying concepts in design.
If you think about everything around you. Whether that is the water glass on your table, or the car that you drive, or the experiences that you have when you're interacting with customer service or with a clinician at a hospital, all of those experiences and artifacts in your life, they have been designed. Now, not all of them have been designed well or with intention.
I think one of the things that design can help you do is to focus on that intention and to care about both that high-level vision and all of the details that go into making those experiences not pedestrian, but actually extraordinary or helpful or transformational. I think of design in these ways: It's about problem finding not just problem solving. It's about intentionality and it's hearing about that “why” as well as those little details that make an experience something really spectacular.
Guy Kawasaki:
I would think that most people understand that problem solving is important, obviously, but you make a great point about problem finding. So why is problem finding hard? Isn't it smacking you in the face and you've got to solve this problem? What's the complication with finding a problem? Is it finding a problem or finding an opportunity?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
You can think about it either way. Oftentimes a problem really is an opportunity. You don't have to think of those as separate. I think there are a couple of reasons that it's hard for folks sometimes, or that we don't assume that the way that we're going to start a project or a process involves problem finding and one of those is: we get handed the problem by someone.
You're in a company, you're deciding you want to optimize for some new feature and nobody is bothered to say, "Well, what do the customers actually need or care about here?" And not just our current ones but the next generation of people that we might be trying to reach or to serve. So spending more time in that problem finding and opportunity finding space is really important and useful.
I also think that we can just become habituated to the data and the information around us and also the interpretation of that data. Routines can really numb us to alternate understandings of what people might need or what the opportunities might be.
I think about that problem finding and problem framing work as being in part about learning how to notice and how to see opportunities in new ways, and also really developing the fortitude to challenge the assumptions that are the ingoing assumptions or take that moment and say, "Wait, is this a problem worth designing for? Is this a problem worth solving? Or do we need to step back and actually re-conceptualize how we're thinking about the direction in which the solution might lie?"
Guy Kawasaki:
Would you say that optimal finding and framing makes solving easier?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
It makes it much more likely that you're going to end up solving a relevant and important and useful problem. So there's a story that I share in my book that's about a team of students who were working on a project with a hospital in southern India. The mission of this hospital is to provide extremely high-quality care at large scale but also at very low cost.
The students went in thinking about their goal was to design around some inefficiency in the system, or to reduce the cost of some part of the existing healthcare delivery model. What they found when they allowed themselves to see outside of the boundaries of the way that problem had originally been framed is that they noticed that there was a whole other constituency within the hospital which turned out to be the family members of the people who were undergoing surgery.
Once they started tuning in to the needs of that particular group, they realized, “Wow, these folks are really stressed, they don't have a lot of information, they have a lot of anxiety about what's going to happen once their family member returns home with them.” The students completely shifted their focus and realized, “There is an opportunity to design for this large population of family members, is there any way that we could think about how they could be part of the care equation as opposed to on the outside of it?”
That problem framing really led them into this whole new territory where they now run an organization called Noora Health that provides education in the hospital setting through a whole network of nurses and practitioners who do this training for family members. The family members are trained in how to take a pulse, how to practice really good hygiene when someone's recovering from surgery, what to look for in terms of warning signs.
This small intervention is educationally focused intervention now reduces the rate of hospital readmissions, reduces post-surgical complications. That never would have happened if the students hadn't really spent the time that they needed and also had the permission to go off road to spot this opportunity that was outside of their original purview.
I should say that organization now is operating at a significant scale. They've trained over a million family members, they work with hospitals all across South Asia. It's really down to that moment that they had where they realized, "Oh, this need is worth designing for, it's not going to go away, and let's try to actually see what we could design that would reduce the anxiety and bring those family members into the care equation."
They've gotten into this quite radical area in healthcare that has to do with resetting that power balance between only the expertise of the clinicians versus, “Oh, it's actually a whole effort on the part of this broader group of stakeholders to actually get to the kinds of healthcare outcomes that they want to see.”
Guy Kawasaki:
There's a… I think the name is the Hesperian Foundation? Something like that. Have you heard of this?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
I haven't heard of them.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay, so maybe that's the wrong name, that's why you haven't heard of it, but there’s this organization and they have written books, all entitled something along the lines of, “When there is no doctor,” “When there is no dentist,” “When there is no,” whatever. I'll send you the information because it seems to me that this study that you did in India is like that.
I think most medical approaches is what to do vis-a-vis the patient as opposed to the rest of... it's been framed wrong. This is what you do when you have a headache. You need to tell a family this is what you need to do when someone's coming home from the hospital.
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
That's really interesting, and it speaks to something that also can be true, which is a lot of innovation, a lot of creativity can come from very unexpected places. It doesn't have to be just in that formal arena, but it can be that some of those family members might have really good ideas about how to actually be part of that care equation and that gets into another part related to the problem framing or problem finding conversation, which is, if you're allowing yourself the permission to dwell in the messiness of that problem finding moment, what you're going into the problem solving work is really just a hunch or a hypothesis. You also need ways to really test your ideas, test your hunches with the people who understand the problem best. People who've actually have that lived experience.
So I would say that's the other important piece about how we teach design at the is that it's very much embedded with the end user, with the people who might have the most knowledge about what the implementation of such and such a solution might be. That's also a very freeing or even liberating experience for the designer or the design team is actually not assuming that you're the one who's arriving with the expert solution, but that you have an iterative way to navigate these kinds of challenges and you have a lot of help and collaboration along the way from teammates, from experts, and from the people who are on the ground to really understand what the issues are.
Guy Kawasaki:
How has the pandemic changed design?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
I'll tell you just from the experience that we're having at the, it's a challenge that we're all facing around how do you collaborate with your teams when you're used to working on physical artifacts? When you're used to moving things around on a whiteboard? When you're used to building physical prototypes together?
There was a real moment at the beginning that we were asking, "Can we do this? Can we teach in this experiential way? Can our students actually collaborate effectively in these mediums if you just work on it a little bit and you think about all of the new collaboration tools that are available?" Of course, you can get the basics using MURAL or Miro, or any of these kinds of tools.
We also had to start to really think about, “How do we teach the skills of being resourceful in your own environment in a way that instead of being together in a design studio, you have to go into your recycling bin and pull out all of the prototyping materials that you might want to build a rough model with?” That's actually a really useful practice and useful lesson.
I think, for me, the thing that has been the hardest to figure out is the lack of a 360-degree view when you are trying to immerse in an environment. You can actually find ways, even to do a pretty good empathy-rich interview with someone, even with the limitation of speaking through the screen, but what you can't do is go sit in the place that you're designing around, or designing for, and immerse and just observe and see what's happening. What that process allows is for you to have just very unexpected insights and observations.
Some of those often wind up being the themes that help you the most when you're trying to challenge assumptions or you're trying to reframe the problem in an unconventional direction. You just don't have access to the kind of data that you can't predict or plan for. So the shift to working in a distributed format is: everything is very planned and scheduled. How do you design both more spontaneity but create an experience where you're getting data-rich data in unexpected ways? That is a harder challenge, and I'll say, I don't think we've entirely figured that out.
Guy Kawasaki:
You could make the case for this example in India, that if you were only studying what's happening in the examination room but you didn't know that the person had to catch a train and then walk, and it took three hours to go five kilometers to get through the hospital, and then there's a... there's a lot of things you don't know that person went through to get medical treatment.
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
That's right. To just address that, you have to get better at using all kinds of tools in your interviews that might elicit those kinds of details. For example, we might use a tool around a journey map - can you draw a map of all the steps that it took for you to get to your doctor's appointment? But your hunch that that might be an important question to ask, it might be a little bit dull if you haven't had that serendipitous moment where you happen to encounter somebody who clearly had just ridden a bus for six hours, or had to set aside a day of work to be able to make it to the hospital.
So I think you're right. Even if some of those design tools exist for eliciting those details, you still have to have the presence of mind or the hunch to know that might be an area of inquiry that could be important. I mean, a huge proponent of the methods in design that are about immersion, that are about going through the process yourself sitting in one place for several hours at a time and soaking in the environment, that's where you get past a lot of the more obvious ideas and tactics and into the richer arena that you can't predict exactly where it's going to go.
Guy Kawasaki:
What do you see as the future for curriculum and delivery of curriculum in higher education?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
Are you asking my preferred future or the future that I think might happen?
Guy Kawasaki:
Actually both, but I wish they were the same.
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
I wish they were the same for sure. I will say, on a positive note, what the pandemic has shown is that we are capable of change. We are capable of moving fairly rapidly and challenging assumptions.
A lot of things have happened in the past eighteen months that if you had interviewed a group of faculty at any university in the months preceding the pandemic, they would have said, "Absolutely not. I would never teach a class online. I would never assign homework in this way. I would never have a chat function open while my students were the equivalent of that while I was lecturing," and we've just seen this huge array of new behaviors that are absolutely possible despite how challenging some of those shifts have been. That to me is encouraging.
In part, one of those shifts has to do with meeting people where they are. That should be a norm. That should be how we think about delivering education all the time. Really understanding, what is it for somebody who grew up as a digital native to be experiencing classes? That should be causing everyone to really rethink the basic model of a lecture class, for example, because that's just not how we can hold student’s attention these days.
The pandemic, in some ways, like these new mediums of interacting, allow for us to have to confront those new needs because they're just so obvious. Where I have some questions is: Can we take the opportunity now that we've been given - which has to rethink and challenge some of those assumptions about the way higher education has always been delivered - and in the next twelve to eighteen months, solidify some of the new practices that have amplified student learning and then also move into a space where we might have more hybrid approaches? We might actually figure that out.
Universities are very good at a particular normal path and so I feel we're in a short window right now.
Guy Kawasaki:
I would say that, yeah, in a sense you're having a zero-point-one percent problem because it's Stanford. Let's face it, there are twenty-five colleges in the United States, whether you're in-person, not-in person, et cetera, et cetera, just to say you went to Stanford is probably worth 250,000 bucks, let's just say. But a second-tier school, a small, private liberal arts school, man, that's a tougher sell. That, I think, is fundamentally going to change education.
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
I have to say, I think a huge percentage of students in higher education in this country are what in the past might have been considered non-traditional students. Either it's the majority or it's nearly the majority of people who are working professionals while they go to school or they're already attending school remotely or in a distributed fashion.
There actually are a lot of schools that are delivering really good learning experiences in those mediums. I sometimes think that the group that has had less pressure to change and adapt the group of universities and colleges that have faced less pressure to respond to student changes and conditions, in some ways, we may be a little bit further behind in terms of adopting more innovative pedagogical approaches. It'll be very interesting to see what happens in the next several years as we absorb the shocks.
I'll also say that, undoubtedly, our students at Stanford had a much easier time of it with better access to resources than many students across around the country. I'm keenly aware of that.
Guy Kawasaki:
I would argue that every Ivy League dean of admissions is probably saying, "Why do we need to change? We had more applications than we've ever had." Which is sort of like Kodak saying in the mid '70s, "We're selling every piece of film we can make, why do we have to embrace digital photography?" And that's why we don't use Kodak cameras today. But I digress. So what do you think campus life is going to be? Or is campus life going to be all digital?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
I don't think it's going to be all digital. We're having the experience right now we've just started teaching in-person classes again. This is just the second or third week of the quarter when we're having this conversation and we are experiencing, I would say, two at the extreme ends of the reactions.
We are experiencing a lot of students who are so joyful at the moment and so engaged and so happy to be able just to turn to someone sitting next to them in class and have a conversation during a real breakout room, not a Zoom-based breakout room, and that's fueling this incredible classroom spirit and participation level. At the other end, there are definitely students who struggled so deeply in the past year and a half that they're facing pretty severe mental illness issues, they feel you've really lost that time, and are struggling to come back to it.
I can't tell you exactly where we're going to land by the end of this quarter, but it feels we're getting this tremendous amount of new information that was harder to perceive when our students were all distributed. My hunch is that if people come to a physical campus, there's going to continue to be some type of actual in-person interaction…I'm not sure, in the long term, that the value will be high enough for people to pay that premium of an in-person educational experience without making really good use of that time, but I could imagine a world in which more instruction is happening online and more office hours are happening online, and then group collaboration or being in a lab, being in a maker space, those could become more of the center of the on campus experience rather than being more at the periphery.
Guy Kawasaki:
How does an educator, looking towards the future, trying not to be a dinosaur, how do you wrap your mind around this kind of program from Google where they say, “You just have to graduate from high school, we'll put you in an eighteen-month, free Google university course, and at the end, you'll come out of there and you'll have enough information and training and data analytics? Google is going to hire you. You don't need a liberal arts education anymore.
So one side says, "Oh, totally specific, targeted, right on and not wasting four years and quarter million dollars." Another attitude would be, "So we're just going to slot these people into data analytics at eighteen-years-old? They're not going to get a broad, liberal education and this is the death of liberal education."
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
One thing I find very interesting about most of us in higher education or people who comment on higher education is we have a lot of very strong feelings. I wrestle with this because, on the one hand, I do think that a lot of people from a social mobility perspective can really benefit from a more targeted educational path, and for some folks, that is going to be really quite liberating.
If you, at eighteen, go into a professionally-oriented program that way, is you miss that time to have some coming of age experiences, to have some exploration time, and to develop your ability to work on those creative skills that will help you be resourceful and resilient and able to continue to face changes in the employment market over time. There's a benefit to both.
We have this very fixed idea that college is just something that happens at this one period in your life, and I think it's possible that in the future we might see a model of higher education that's distributed across someone's life. So you might have some kind of professional or liberal arts experience in early adulthood, but then you might come back after ten years in the workforce and actually spend more time studying something new, making a pivot in your career - that kind of operating model doesn't exist at our four-year universities right now, but that's an idea that we've played with at the, this idea of an open-loop university where we break this assumption that college is just that thing that happens in early adulthood and then you're finished, you're fully baked.
Instead, think about: what is the model that could support truly being a lifelong learner? How important that might be in a world that keeps changing, that keeps calling on us to develop new skills over time?
Guy Kawasaki:
How do you help people deal with ambiguity?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
This is really one of my favorite things to think about, and partly because I personally struggle with ambiguity. So this is one of the ways in which design has helped me the most.
One way to think about ambiguity is like, it's a terrifying situation in which I don't know the right answer - lots of different possibilities might be there. I just want to get through it. I want to conquer that ambiguity and get to the solution as quickly as I can.
If you feel prepared to navigate a problem with that orientation towards open ended-ness, which I think are the skills that you build through using design, then all of a sudden you realize ambiguity means there isn't one predestined path. There isn't just one right answer or solution. Ambiguity sits at the heart of any design work that I do in which a real innovation is possible, or a real breakthrough has the potential to emerge.
If the answer were clear from the beginning, there wouldn't be that real opportunity to make something new, or to put something out in the world that's truly creative. Having a mindset shift about ambiguity as something that feels intense and overwhelming to something that feels like it's a smell of possibility.
Being in the midst of ambiguity really means more than one possibility could emerge. That mindset shift is really important. Some of those really concrete skills are things like pursuing multiple ideas in parallel and testing. That's what allows you to explore those different ideas but have a rigorous process for understanding, “How do I advance along multiple directions at once?” Based on the feedback that I get when I'm testing the idea, whether that's testing it with experts or testing it with end users, I'm actually going to be able to eventually decide and converge on the idea or the direction that I want to pursue. It's this combination of a mindset shift around ambiguity, and the concrete skills that we teach in design, for example, to know how to navigate ambiguity.
There's nothing more important at the moment. We are faced with these challenges, whether it's climate change, whether it's, “What am I going to do with the air quality being as bad as it might be in California? How are we going to re-navigate the politics of our culture right now? How are we going to end this pandemic?” These are all questions that we don't have clear answers for and that we need people who are unafraid to step into that ambiguity and help resolve.
For me, a core part of learning is about learning how to handle ambiguity and to reframe your own relationship with it. I want to credit a couple of my colleagues. A few years ago, they did some wonderful research. This is Kelly Shmoody and Shamus Hart, and they developed some archetypes around how people experience and encounter ambiguity.
One is the model of enduring, so that's that “grit your teeth” and try to get through it as fast as possible, even during ambiguity. One is about engaging ambiguity, which is the folks who are, “Sometimes I like a little bit of ambiguity over here, maybe in my personal life, or for me maybe it's over here in my professional life,” and then there's a group of folks who identify as embracing ambiguity, and those are the people who we see being extremely resilient in a lot of ways when they're thrown in the deep-end in a new challenge that they haven't faced before.
Guy Kawasaki:
And for those people, are you born that way or can you learn it?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
I really think you can learn it. We don't talk a lot about ambiguity, we're at the beginning stages of, how do we really train people to navigate it?
Another colleague of mine, Lisa Kay Solomon, likes to say, "Who among us took a class in how to navigate ambiguity at any stage of our educations?" When students, in my experience, start to have this reliable process where they know how to get their hunches out, they know how to parallel prototype, they know how to get feedback across a spectrum of perspectives, they know how to really take action even when things are uncertain and try these small experiments and learn from them rapidly, it's just a different way of engaging with the world. It's about being responsive and about having that confidence that you know how to move forward just a little bit at a time and not get stuck in that swirl, in that uncertainty.
Guy Kawasaki:
I would bet that you're a Carol Dweck fan.
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
I am a Carol Dweck fan. Yes.
Guy Kawasaki:
Who among us is not a Carol Dweck fan? That's an IQ test, isn't it?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
It's the opposite. It's a similar idea. If you have a fixed mindset about ambiguity, you're going to be stuck, particularly in the moments that we live in. Now it's actually part of why I think our work in this area is so important because we're just at the beginning stages of really naming some of these values around ambiguity.
Once a team has some of this vocabulary, you can have that conversation of like, "This is how I personally relate to ambiguity. How do you relate to it?" We sometimes do an activity where we have our students create a continuum. So you can do a continuum of, who likes to work early in the morning? Who likes to work late at night? Or who likes to build things with your hands and who likes to make abstract models and work in spreadsheets?
But then you get into deeper questions that are, like, “Line yourselves up according to your dispositions toward ambiguity,” and, all of a sudden, that's often the moment when you can see all the students looking around at each other and being like, "Oh, that was what made, I'm at a really different part of the spectrum than that person I was on a team with where we had all that conflict, I wonder what that was about?" Or, "Wow, this other person is really far apart from me but we work so well together.
Maybe we're really complementary in terms of how we navigate different kinds of challenges." So, having some of that language and that vocabulary can be extremely helpful from a collaboration perspective because it gives you the ability to name something that is really invisible and yet really crucial to people being able to function well together in a creative team.
Guy Kawasaki:
So now that we've handled ambiguity, let's do the other hard one, which is, how do people develop empathy?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
Empathy is one of those things that you should always strive for, but know that you may never fully achieve. Being able to be just even a little bit more empathetic and a little bit more able to see the world through other people's lenses is incredibly important, particularly at this moment where we have a lot of fracturing going on. Not only because but in part because we're having a lot of public dialogue through mediums that are empathy squelching.
If you read anyone's comments in any social media forum, even including some of our most amazing newspapers and publications, there's just a distinct lack of empathy in those environments, and one of the ways that you can develop empathy is to sit down with someone and have a long conversation that's semi-structured and try to really understand what matters.
You can start to develop empathy by shadowing them for a day. We had a whole class that was around building empathy, particularly with students who are studying medicine through storytelling. So they had the assignment to go and do a day in the life, little mini-documentary about a particular patient. It really wasn't about their medical condition, it was really trying to teach the students, how do you learn how to care about the fuller picture of someone's life not just the particular way in which you're interacting with them around your specialty?
It's so important not just in life, but in design, because without that fuller picture, you just don't know how to interpret the feedback that they're giving you about your particular thing that you're trying to design or solve for. Being able to step out of yourself and respond to somebody by truly understanding life through their eyes is very powerful in design.
One of the things that I learned while I was doing some of the research for this book was that researchers are actually thinking about empathy as having a couple of different components. So the kind that we're most familiar with is the kind of feel what someone else feels; kind of walk in their shoes, and that's a piece of it, but there's also something called perspective taking, which is trying to understand, “What's their worldview? How do they approach the world? How do they approach problems in their life?”
Then there's a third part, which is called “pro social motivation,” which is about, if you feel for someone, it turns out you feel compelled to try to help resolve their needs, or help ameliorate their struggles in some way, and that's an example of empathy that is really important in design. The thing that I saw in that team of students who were working in India where they came back with this set of data about the needs of family members that was off the map, it just wasn't part of the original design brief, but they felt a real degree of urgency around attending to those needs that they had seen. So empathy can be an incredibly powerful driver in your design work as well as part of being a good human being in your life and in the world in which we live in.
Guy Kawasaki:
Let's say that you encounter a product that shows a lack of empathy, seeing as how we're both Macintosh users, let's say that I am just astounded that Apple thinks that two USB-C ports are sufficient. Now, it may be statistically that I'm the only person who needs more than two ports, but I'm telling you, Sarah, that my dongle has a dongle.
If Tim Cook called you up and said, "Sarah, give us an examination, give us a score here. Do you think that our product design reflects empathy?" And you say, "Well, you know, Guy says that his dongle has a dongle. Why is that, Tim Cook? Why does this happen? Is it because Apple has just figured out that Guy's an outlier, we can't worry about him, let's just go for the 99% of people who never plug anything into their MacBook because a power cord." What's going on there?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
I would be very curious to have that conversation, it'd be really eye opening. I can think of different reasons for why perhaps Apple even knows that your dongle has a dongle and that you don't like that situation, but they've made some kind of decision that is about optimizing for other values.
Part of creating anything these days in tech and design it, really in any context, has to do with how are you prioritizing and balancing and making trade-offs between those different values?
As a consumer, I don't feel all of my needs are being met in terms of how they've made some of those trade-offs. In particular, it raises a question because the Apple brand has been so tied up with that experience of delight and of that brilliant design in which you feel those details are attended to and that they've made choices to honor the needs of their customer perhaps at the expense of the bottom line in the past. I'd be really curious to understand how are they navigating those kinds of trade-offs?
The other thing I'll say is that, a lot of cases, bad design that doesn't reflect empathy happens because lots of different people add bits and pieces to a solution over time, and that there's a kind of lack of a continuing practice around really understanding, what is the user experience?
I'll just give you one quick concrete example of that. So we had another team of alumni who has started an organization called Civilla, which is based in Detroit. Civilla is a social impact design firm, and they are working with the state of Michigan around completely redesigning the public benefit system.
One of the things that they did early in their design work is they really followed along meticulously as people tried to apply for public benefits and they saw all the moments where they got derailed from that process where the form asks very complicated, esoteric questions that nobody could answer.
They also followed along and observed people who were the case managers, who were trying to do the intake. So both sides of the equation they were trying to understand. One of the things - the story just has stayed with me because it's so crazy - is that they noticed that there was a piece of software that the case managers were using, and every time they had to multitask or do something else, they would get timed out of the system and have to go through something like fifty-eight clicks to get back to where they were in the process.
They were observing, and they would see somebody would be filling out the intake form for a client, and then they would get a phone call. Okay, well, the system would timeout – fifty-eight clicks to get back in. Oh, so then they get a little further and they're filling something out and then, oh, another client is downstairs and needs to be seen. So they go downstairs and they take care of that and they come back. Oh, they've timed out.
That glitch, that real design flaw in the system would have been captured in an employee manual that would not have been noticed because it probably happened in bits and pieces over time, but by sitting down and actually doing these observations, they found this part of the system that that form wasn't working for the people filling it out and it wasn't working for the people who were in taking into the system. That became this incredible point of leverage in their design work because nobody was happy with how it was working and so they were able to build this goodwill on this buy-in towards making some pretty radical changes in that particular part of this very complicated system.
That attention to, how are people experiencing this system? Whether or not you are the one responsible for designing it, whether or not you're responsible for designing the whole thing, being curious about how all of the different parts are working together can be this really incredible place to get started, particularly when you're trying to design or improve things in large corporations or in large bureaucratic systems.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. I'm going to give you three choices, you only have to answer one. Well, you can answer all three, I'd be happy to take it, but let's suppose that either Nancy Pelosi, Andrew Yang, or Tony Fauci reaches out to you and Nancy says, "Sarah, apply design thinking to Congress, how would we redesign Congress?" Andrew Yang reaches out to Sarah and says, "How do we design a new political party?" And Tony Fauci reaches out to you, "How do we design vaccination response?" Which one do you want to do? So it's Nancy, Andrew, or Tony.
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
I want to take all three, but I might take the Andrew Yang call just at this particular moment, those would be three incredible people to speak with. So I think one of the really interesting things about this question is, it makes me want to question “What is a political party?” And even more fundamentally, why do we have two political parties in this country? Two main political parties.
We have more than just two. I started reading a really interesting book recently about the idea of what it would look like in our country if we had six political parties and doing some mapping of the data of how there's just way more than just a binary kind of Republican or Democratic perspective and what would it look like.
Sometimes we hear about like third party, but the idea of having six, where could that lead us? So the way I would start is by doing something called assumption storming, in which you literally list out all of the assumptions that me, or Andrew Yang, might have about, what has a party look like? And how does it fit into the broader ecosystem?
So one of those that might come up would be that sort of, let's challenge the conventional wisdom that there's going to be a very small number and then naturally from there, you would think about maybe some of these assumptions are actually just customs or habits. We can challenge some of those. We can build around that. You could challenge assumptions around how money works in a party. You could challenge some assumptions about, where does the platform get developed?
I don't know where that design process would lead. That's really the theme of how I think about design. It's a really worthy design problem, you just don't know where it will go but having some of these approaches to challenge those assumptions, to connect with real people and understand what their needs are around political party, and then to try some small experiments and see what gets traction and see what actually makes the kind of difference that you're trying to create in the world, that is how I would approach that problem and any other.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. Give us a thirty-second analysis for Nancy and Tony to while we're at it because…is this the hardest interview you've ever done? The one that caused you to think the most?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
I love these provocative questions. These are the places where increasingly design is being asked to stretch and it's different when you're thinking about designing a vaccine response than designing a physical object. The implications are more significant. The complexity is more significant.
I'll tell you for the Anthony Fauci conversation, one of the things I was really struck by was some of the problems so far in terms of the supply chain issues and thinking about, what's the kind of experience that people are going to be having all along the way in terms of distributing vaccines? One of the assignments that I absolutely love teaching is called distribution prototyping, and in it, we use a practice called body storming in which we have students who are thinking about commercializing or distributing some product or service that they've designed, act out using some physical props, what it would look like to develop their distribution channel.
What turns out is that actually allows for bringing something into the world that often creativity is not applied. So what I would do is try to figure out, where are the places within the vaccine response that need the most creative thinking? Is it about that end user experience? Is it about the distribution or the supply chain? Is it about some way that there's someone missing in this picture? There's a role for clergy, there's a role for those family members of people who need to get the vaccine. I would start by looking for where those gaps are in terms of the least amount of creative thinking and I would start there.
Guy Kawasaki:
I think if you're Amazon Prime, they should just come to your house and give you the vaccine. I'm not going to let you off the hook though. What about Nancy?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
Nancy - I will say I want to get a lot closer to some of the behind the scenes conversations that I think we don't always have privy to, because there's probably a lot of insight in how those actually go, they are part of helping to address this.
I will tell you, I ran a class a number of years ago, it was about designing for bipartisanship, which I was, as we know, imperiled at the moment. The class was called: Where did you go, Olympia Snow? And it was an experimental class in which we're trying to really surface, what are some of the human values and human experiences that could potentially lead people who are going to be in Congress or be in the apparatus around Congress - congressional staffers and legislative aides and that whole enabling ecosystem to behave in more bipartisan ways throughout their careers?
There used to be much more socializing that would happen between members - leading members of different parties. There used to be that you were in completely alienated if you happen to work for one or another person on the hill, and a lot of those social customs have really faded. So you might begin by asking, what's the way to have a whole cohort of new - of young staffers who are arriving in Washington for the first time have a truly bipartisan experience? Is it some kind of professional development experience? Is it some kind of joint living arrangement?
I don't know what the answers are but I would begin by looking at, where is the breakdown into human relationships and the empathy and the understanding?
There's clearly other challenges to be solved. The role of money, the role of how fractured our exposure to different points of view is, and all of the media bubbles that we're in separately. Each of those is an area for where we need to apply more creative thinking, but for me personally, I would start with those human relationships and try to think about, what could we design that could interrupt some of the really negative patterns that we're in right now?
Guy Kawasaki:
I forget who, but somebody that I interviewed about this told me that in the past, when you were a member of Congress, you were required to live in a limited physical area in, I don't know, Washington, DC or something. So what that meant was that you would run into each other at the coffee shop, at the restaurant, your kids would be on the same baseball team, and that is gone. That's not the single cause of the fractures between parties, but it would be better if they were living together and their kids are on the same little league team. No question.
Two more questions for you. Question number one: The future of design in a world with artificial intelligence and machine learning, what happens?
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
One thing design is starting to incorporate and where we are working really hard and need to really make progress is figuring out what is our responsibility as designers when the mediums that we're creating with artificial intelligence continue to change and evolve, or it's hard to understand what kinds of decisions are being made by algorithms, for example, after you release those into the world? If you think about the kinds of mediums that we used to create with.
If you think about building a chair out of wood, you fully understand the properties and the effects, what's going to happen to the wood in that chair over time. It might degrade a little, it might need some cleaning, but it's not going to have a whole lot of unintended... maybe a splinter that could be an unintended consequence. But for the most part, you can design a chair that for sure isn't going to do harm.
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
With AI, you don't necessarily know and so we have to get better at thinking about what are those unintended consequences? How can you stretch your moral imagination to consider all of the downstream effects of materials that will continue to change and evolve and affect the world and be affected by the world after you actually are "finished" with designing them?
We have a bunch of tools that we're experimenting with in our classes, just to start to really bring that consciousness in. One of them is a wonderful tool my colleague, Chris Carter, created called Map the Design Space in which you really think systemically about all of the different things that might happen once you do your design. You think about the technology piece, you think about the data piece, you think about the user experience and the systems behind it. And you also stretch to think about, what are the societal implications of the work that you're doing?
You really try to think about, “How could this go wrong? And what would I do if that happened?” It's incredibly important that we just start to rehearse what that could look like because things scale so quickly now you don't often have a lot of time to react. So I think that's a really important part of the future of design in a world where we're working on products and services that include things like AI or even in the future I could see more collaboration between folks in the synthetic bio world and designers.
There are lots of technologies that are emerging that designers will start to see as mediums for design. We're stretching and trying to get better at thinking about what's our role in that ecosystem with these materials that have so much promise but also can continue to evolve and change rapidly after you release them?
Guy Kawasaki:
Let's assume that a teenager is listening or watching this, and he or she wants to know, “Sarah, what can I do? What's my path? How do I prepare for the future of design?”
Sarah Stein Greenberg:
I'll say, on a personal level, be curious about everything and actively engage in a world as opposed to just passively consume it. A big part of acting on your creative abilities is making things, seeing what happens, adjusting, course correcting. So there's a posture, and we talked about it, it's hard to do that if you're in an educational environment where it's being taught to the test where you're drawing within the lines, filling in the blanks. I do think that, particularly for folks who aren't in that environment, finding ways to run small design projects on your own or challenge some of those constraints are going to be really important.
The skills around physically making things or digitally making things are really worth acquiring even if those mediums continue to change and some may become obsolete, the connection between your mind and your hands and how you physically interact with things as you're putting them out into the world, that is part of unlocking your creative abilities. So that could be you love to play with Legos - keep doing that. That could be getting into woodworking. That could be getting into photography.
Having something in which you're making something and putting it into the world is incredibly important and useful. I would just say, again, the types of challenges that we're going to be facing and design in the future, they do require that kind of multidisciplinary perspective. So having some kind of depth, but then learning really early how to collaborate well with people who have different backgrounds and different skills from you, that is another critical competence that is worthwhile for everyone to develop.
Guy Kawasaki:
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Sarah Stein Greenberg, and you learned about the future of design and how it can help you dent the universe.
My thanks to Peg Fitzpatrick, all-around podcast goddess. Jeff Sieh and Shannon Hernandez, all-around sound design gods. Luis Magaña and Alexis Nishimura, ace transcribers. And last, but not least, Madisun Nuismer - researcher, transcriber, editor, and drop-in on Guy surf artist.

Until next week, I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People. Mahalo and aloha.