The Importance of the Pie in the Sky

By Noah Geisel

I took part in a design thinking session today. During the ideation phase of the this particular protocol, the facilitator first had us produce a flurry of suggested solutions to our problem. He then told us to each dream up an impossible solution, one that could require a million dollars or even magic in order to be achievable.

In my team, we were confronting a principal's design challenge around traffic congestion during student drop-off and pickup at an elementary school. During the first part of the ideation phase, we came up with plenty of predictable (and a few clever) solutions for her. The final pie-in-the-sky-million-dollar-magical solution activity produced ideas such as a Star Trek-like teleportation system and helicopters conducting student airdrops. One idea called for establishing cafes that would provide free breakfasts and serve as satellite drop-off locations from which students could later be shuttled to the school.

At first glance, it's easy to dismiss this part of the activity as falling somewhere along the continuum of wasteful to fluffy. After all, none of them are even remotely feasible. However, if we allow ourselves to withhold judgement about why these ideas do not work, we can dive a little deeper and appreciate these ideas for the valuable insights that they do provide.

In this case, the impossible ideas have a common thread: rather than try to change traffic, they all seek to remove cars from the traffic congestion equation altogether. This produced an "ah-ha" for all involved and led our principal to favor strategies that would help her remove - rather than attempt to change - traffic.

The lesson I took away from this is that one value of giving ourselves permission to dream big and remove all obstacles is that absent our perceived constraints we may generate ideal solutions that help us cut through the fog. In this space, we can identify themes that get to the real heart of the matter. Though fantasizing about teleportation may not get us to a feasible fix, it may help us better understand the deep nature of our problem and that is when we design better solutions.

Photo credit - 3dPete on Flickr

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