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Rebutting Fast Company Firestorm

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

Happy summer Humantific readers. This week we are sharing some clarifications in reference to a bit of an odd firestorm that popped up recently over on Fast Company. Since Design and Applied Creativity are two of numerous knowledge communities we support and participate in, we were rather surprised and saddened to see the appearance of the highly forceful, tragically misinformed article on the subject of “How Might We?” entitled “The Most Popular Design Thinking Strategy is BS.”

Honestly, that article is so poorly researched, so factually incorrect, so misinformed that we hesitate to even acknowledge it. Since I know it will be read by many on Linkedin and elsewhere we are here, taking a few minutes, to simply point out, just a few of its factual errors and to share a small slice of historical context. I stopped counting the factual errors in the Fast Company article at 50. One wonders if anyone was counting them, or was capable of counting them at Fast Company? Clearly they need some help over there.


Contrary to what the "tech ethnographer" author states in the Fast Company article, the invitation stem "How Might We?” is not "a design thinking strategy,” nor does it originate from the design or design thinking communities, nor does it originate with IDEO or Min Basadur, nor does it have any connection to narrowing input, “white privilege”, reinforcing existing power structures or ignoring ethographic inputs. Nor does it come from “corporate innovation”. Nor is it a brainstorming technique. Nor is it focused on products and services. Nor is it restricting access to design participation. Nor does it have anything to do with Zukerberg's "Move fast and break things", on and on and on. All factually incorrect in that poorly written, misinformed, amateurish article. In addition to being factually off and misleading, the incendiary tone of the article is downright odd. Why the folks at Fast Company would publish such highly charged, uninformed drivel is a question for its readers I guess.

Many of our readers will know that for at least a decade it has been repeatedly pointed out publicly by concerned folks, including ourselves, that the invitation stem How Might We? came from Sidney J. Parnes (1922-2013), a recognized pioneer in the Applied Creativity community….also known today as the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) community.

With a PhD in education, Sid Parnes was best known as a pioneering Professor of Creative Studies at State University New York College at Buffalo and cofounder of the Creative Education Foundation. Author of numerous books on the subject, Sid also founded the Journal of Creative Behavior and was actively involved in the yearly CPS conference for many years. Sid was working inclusive cocreation with Alex Osborn, Ruth Noller and others beginning in the 1950s, long before the popular notion of “design thinking” came along.


Sid's research & development contributions to CPS methodology evolution and the teaching of those methods, probably cannot be over-stated. Having already begun to work in the 50s on how to make the world a better, more creative place, it would be fair to say that Parnes was ahead his time in many ways. Sid was an early advocate of what would be termed Open Innovation today.

In our earlier book Innovation Methods Mapping; Demystifying 80+ Years of Innovation Process Design we acknowledge that the early Osborn/Parnes CPS model is among the most influential problem finding/solving processes in the history of innovation methods. It cascades forward influencing many other methods. It was and is certainly not a brainstorming technique but rather an early, complete innovation cycle, logic and language.

Inside that method is something called Challenge Mapping or Open Challenge Framing (earlier versions were called Ladder of Abstraction) and inside that is the invitation stem How Might We?. To be clear that's where it resides. It's a question mechanism that nests within a learnable way to robustly cocreate systemic pictures of problématiques, not solutions, with multiple stakeholders. To be as precise as possible here: There is no equivalent to Open Challenge Framing in design, design thinking or any other discipline.

How Might We was first published by Parnes in his 1967 Creative Behavior Guidebook along with several other invitation stems still in use today. Thanks to Sid, How Might We is open for everyone to make use of (for better or worse) and is not copyrighted or owned by any individual or firm.


With so much interest in rising complexity today, within the design community, and elsewhere, it is important to appreciate that Open Challenge Framing differs from traditional discipline-based framing found in design / design thinking (product, service, experience) in that it makes no assumptions upfront that the challenge paths are known at the outset. In this sense, the community where it came from was early on, much more strategic and open than the then brief-based traditional design community.

CPS has a long methods history that predates the design methods movement, the soft systems thinking movement, the appreciative inquiry movement, the six sigma movement, the agile movement, the lean movement, the complexity movement, the systemic design movement and many others. Most importantly it has had a large global community contributing steadily to its ongoing evolution for many decades. CPS remains in motion.


Difficult truth is; Much of the design community still struggles with what it means to work upstream from briefs, where challenges are unknown at the outset and cannot be assumed to be product, service or experience related. Outside the design community it has been known for decades that upstream (from briefs) skills are different from downstream skills.

Sid Parnes was interested in and focused on methods that make no assumptions regarding what the challenge paths might be…ie: the upstream terrain. Parnes deeply understood that it makes no sense for individuals and teams to enter complex fuzzy situations assuming they somehow magically know upfront what the actual challenge paths or solution paths are. This open orientation is deeply embedded in CPS, not in design / design thinking…..not in UX.


Perhaps most importantly: Lets recognize that Sid Parnes was, for his entire professional life, an advocate of the notion that everyone has the capacity to be creative and that everyone can participate in cocreation. That inclusive notion DID NOT COME FROM THE DESIGN COMMUNITY but rather from the much more cocreation focused Applied Creativity CPS community. It was and is an inclusive notion with deep historical American roots, inspired by the "lets all pitch-in together” messaging popularized, and much needed during the second world war.

Contrary to the depiction in the Fast Company article, there is vast cocreation knowledge in the CPS community that ironically directly relates to many of the challenges facing the design disciplines in terms of evolving towards being more applicable to complex upstream and cocreation contexts. This was entirely missed by the Fast Company article author who was off in the weeds chatting up beefs with her UX friends.

Sid Parnes is known, for not just talking the talk of cocreation and inclusion, he walked the walk. Sid’s entire professional life was dedicated to helping thousands of people learn skills that would help them become creative contributors in their communities, organizations and lives in a forever changing world. His contributions to that cause are enormous. With such a legacy in place, I shuddered to think what Sid would think about the tragically misinformed, and frankly, quite nasty, Fast Company article.


It does seem clear to most of us who are familiar with this subject that the recent challenges being aimed at IDEO in social media, aggressively referenced repeatedly in the Fast Company article, have nothing to do with the origins, purpose or intentions of the process, not content oriented How Might We. Lets not get Sid entangled there.

Truth is, our friends at IDEO were a late arrival at the Challenge Mapping party, already long in progress outside the design community. Charles Warren used to work for me at Scient, so I am certainly familiar with that part of the misattribution story. Suffice it to say that IDEO’s depiction of How Might We, its use, its mastery or lack thereof, with or without the accompanying Challenge Mapping know-how should not be considered industry standard unless you are referring to the design industry.


This brings us here to the difficult realization that truth be told: The use of How Might We in the design community in general is not only a late arriving, often dumbed-down adaptation but not always fully understood as is evidenced by the misdirected Fast Company article. Busy talking to itself, the design community is often not only misinformed but unfortunately engaged in misinforming on important innovation related subjects. Often seen coming from that community direction is conveniently truncated views of history which tend to be misleading to readers. As a member of that community for many decades I know many smart, ethical professionals exist there. I know we can and must do better.

Since Google was referenced in the Fast Company article, I hope everyone understands that the depictions of How Might We seen in the wildly popular designerly publication; “Google Ventures: Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just 5 Days” is at best truncated, some might say straight-up misinformed. Let us please note that Open Challenge Framing does not appear in "Sprint". How Might We is depicted as a note taking exercise...:-) Those truncated, dumbed-down views tend to cascade across the talking to itself community, as is evidenced by the Fast Company article. Please do not take such truncated depictions as best practice. Copying or complaining about what you see in the "Sprint" book regarding challenge framing and How Might We is not likely going to help you.


Truth is outside the design community, Open Challenge Framing inclusive of How Might We continues to be used to cocreate systemic pictures, challenge constellations with multitudes of stakeholders particularly in complex fuzzy contexts where the challenge paths are unknown at the outset. Contrary to what is stated in Fast Company there is no default “We” in How Might We.

Frankly speaking Open Challenge Framing blows the doors off the traditional design community notion of framing and briefs, still being taught in many graduate design academies. This was among the many opportunities missed by the tragically misinformed Fast Company article. That miss served only to deflect a serious need that exists in many forms of design including UX.


For us there was giant irony in the fact that we have, over the years, worked with numerous internal UX groups seeking help to become more useful upstream, more strategic in their increasingly complex organizations facing external VUCA. Instead of waiting downstream for someone to have a UX problem they want to be equipped to go out into their organizations to help diverse others. In that quest to be become less narrowly focused and more proactively useful, Open Challenge Framing is among the most powerful skills we teach them. Its also among the most difficult cocreation skills to fully master. If you want to move towards operating upstream from briefs, forget discipline-based challenge framing.

We do see a lot of grumblings in the design community regarding some folks not being invited to the strategic thinking table. From our perspective, the presence or absence of applicable strategic skills has a lot to do with that. It's a set of skills that is growing in need as organizations of all types face complex situations that cannot assume to be resolved by pursuing product, service or experience assumptions.


In closing: Not so surprisingly, the somewhat comical bottom line is that there is unfortunately a lot of “BS” in the Fast Company article purporting to be about ferreting out “BS”…:-)

Always good to have a sense of humor in this crazy business. All things considered I would advocate for an apology for Sid Parnes from the Fast Company author who clearly did not do her homework.

In all seriousness, I can tell you that I took a walk around the block after reading the Fast Company article. Sometimes I do weep for the myopic nonsense seen within one of my favorite professional communities.


For those practitioners who are already masters of cocreated Open Challenge Mapping out there, inclusive of How Might We, please do not take what you see in the Fast Company article as indicative of the entire design community. It is not.

At the end of the day, if there is a choice to be made between the mish-mash of rambling distorted views expressed in the Fast Company article and Sidney J. Parnes, we stand with Sid.

Hope this is helpful Humantific readers. Big thanks again to Sid Parnes for his many enduring contributions. Let’s have a good summer where ever you might be working or not working from…:-)

Good luck to all.

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