This year, I was fortunate enough to have Zion & Zion send me to an executive program at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, also known as, with two of my colleagues from Zion & Zion. Stanford’s Design Thinking Bootcamp is an intensive four-day program which helps people develop their creative abilities.

As a Public Relations lifer, I thought I would come back with insightful knowledge about public relations. And I did. But overall, I came back with knowledge to put into practice in everything I do, not just PR. The program is not just a course that teaches you how to brainstorm; it teaches you how to think, act, and execute everything you do differently. Whether it is for a client, or for life in general, the Stanford has made the light at the end of the tunnel quite bright.

Below are the six crucial practices that will help you become a design thinker.

1. Yes, and…

yes and rule

One of the first things I learned is how to say “Yes, and…” during brainstorming sessions. This means always building on someone’s idea rather than shooting them down. I have been in many brainstorms and ideation sessions over the years and learning this skill has made a huge difference. Here is an example of what not to do. The task is to develop a fun party idea, ready? Go!

John: Let’s have a pool party.

Stacey: No, let’s go to the beach.

John: No, why don’t we have a party at the marina.

Stacey: No, let’s do a scavenger hunt.

In the above example, you’ll notice that when everything is shot down, it limits creativity and keeps ideas from progressing. What we do on daily basis is not rocket science. But, it is important that we constantly think about how we can do our tasks better. What could we do today that would be game changing tomorrow? To change this way of thinking, you must have a “Yes, and…” attitude.

I am not going to lie, this is not an easy practice. We tend to discount ideas and only focus on what we think will work. However, when you change to a “Yes, and…” mindset, you’ll find that ideas come quicker and easier. For example:

John: Let’s have a pool party!
Stacey: Yes, and let’s have fun games to play in and out of the pool!
John: And maybe we have a live band in case people want to dance!
Stacey: Yes! And we could also do a big party jam where we invite all our friends to play in the band!

2. Empathize

empathize rule

Now that you have a shift in mindset, it’s time to really get deep. In today’s world, it is all about empathy—it’s the foundation of human-centered design. It’s crucial to understand the emotion your end user is experiencing. Whether you’re understanding a commuter on the bus or your 11-year old son, you must observe the end user in the context of their own lives, engage with them by speaking about their experience, and immerse yourself in that experience. Say to yourself, “What would it be like to walk in their shoes?” Learning how to empathize is critical to developing game changing ideas.

Part of empathizing is asking “why?” Three easy ways to ask why, include:

  1. “Why did you feel that way?”
  2. “I noticed than when you spoke about your best friend you rolled your eyes. Why?”
  3. “Why did you make the decision to plan this party?”

Understanding the why and identifying the highs and lows of human experiences will help you focus on developing insightful ideas.

3. Define

define rule

Now that you’ve put yourself in the shoes of your end user, it’s time to unpack and define a problem statement to address. Unpacking your findings means identifying needs and insights to determine a meaningful challenge. When you understand your user and their environment, you can come up with an actionable point of view. A good point of view preserves emotion, includes strong language, uses sensical wording and strong insight, and generates a lot of possibilities.

The exercise surrounding the topic of define at was the most difficult for me.  Everything else seemed simple, but when it came time to develop a point of view, it felt unbearable because there was so much information to “unpack.” In the end, I was able to create a unique point of view to effectively create a game changer to approach my end user’s problem.

The interesting thing about defining and creating a unique point of view is that you can truly use this for anything in life. For example, when my son is upset that he can’t use his iPad on a school night, I put myself in his shoes and help him identify ways he can fill his time without being on his iPad. I ask why he is so upset, search for high and lows in his answers, and then define the problem to create a game changing solution. The actual game changing solution for my family is to play board games. We spend more time together as a family, having fun and laughing, rather than everyone siloed on devices.

4. Ideate

ideate rule

Now it gets fun! This is the time to come up with as many ideas as possible to create your game changer. Remember “Yes, and…”? It’s time to use it. Ideation is used to drive innovation, not to come up with a solution. Idea generation is a moment to “go wide,” while the evaluation and selection of ideas is a time for narrowing in. Make sure in this instance you avoid the need to evaluate. This is saved for later.

5. Prototype

prototype rule

At this stage, you’ve empathized, defined a point of view, and ideated. Now it is time to prototype. This sounds much harder than it is. Prototyping gets ideas out of your head and out into the real world. Remember arts and crafts in elementary school? That’s all prototyping is. Bringing your ideas to life in the cheapest way. This can take many shapes: a wall full of post-its, a role-playing activity, a sandwich board you walk around with on the street. It doesn’t matter; if it can convey an idea that can be tested with potential users, that’s your prototype.

6. Test

test rule

Now it’s time to create an authentic experience for your users and test your prototype. Testing gets you into the real world with potential users. It allows you to learn more about the user, often finding unexpected insights. You can refine your prototype and make iterations. You may even need to go back to the drawing board. And finally, you can hone your point of view. You may have framed your problem incorrectly or just got the solution wrong. Going back to the drawing board is the best thing you can do in this situation. Your end goal is the game changer, and if it doesn’t change the game, don’t be afraid to throw it out and start over.

In conclusion

This all seems like a lot, but with practice, it gets easier. The hardest thing to remember in all of this is to change your mindset from “No, but…, to “Yes, and.” If you can master that, you can do anything!