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ReAppreciating Sid Parnes

Updated: Mar 28, 2021

Who Owns How Might we?

With the marketplace vibe around the term “How Might We?”continuing, we thought this might be a good moment to revisit the subject and post a further clarification for our readers, many of whom are leading innovation-culture-building initiatives inside large organizations.

Our clients will already know that, for many years, numerous innovation firms, including Humantific, have been using How Might We? and other invitation stem phrases as part of how upstream challenge-framing is constructed. Use of the celebrated phrase is, by now, widespread around the world. With thousands of good people already integrating the phrase into their everyday work lives, the global How Might We? collaborative language adoption continues to grow every week, month, and year. At this point, many, many firms have played a role in that common innovation language adoption advocacy. As far as we can tell, it remains an open innovation adoption wave.

The power of creative rebranding messages can be exciting, informative, or sometimes misleading–regardless of the most honorable intentions. With this in mind, and with all due respect to our colleagues at IDEO who seem to be involved in an impressive rebranding exercise, we simply point out that IDEO did not originate and does not own the invitation stem How Might We?. Recent creative rebranding efforts by IDEO, incorporating How Might We? directly into their branded promotional materials as their new tag line, might give a different impression.

In the interest of clarity and ethical historical crediting, Humantifichas already written extensively on this subject. See "Crediting How Might We?", on this Humantific site.

The previously published good news for everyone in the open innovation community is that thanks to the historical contributions of Sid Parnes, How Might We? is, today, an open-source phrase, rather than a branded one. Sid Parnes first introduced the invitation stem How Might We? in his 1967 book, entitled Creative Behavior Guidebook, so the phrase has long since passed into the public realm. What that passing translates into in the practical everyday sense, is that EVERYONE can make use of How Might We? without any corporate strings attached. Anyone doing a careful reading of Sid’s work would understand that widespread, unencumbered use was his intention around many of his contributions, including How Might We?. Sid was among the early advocates of what is known today as open innovation logic.

For those who might not know the story background: Dr. Sidney J. Parnes is an internationally recognized pioneer in the field of applied creativity. Parnes authored 17 books on the subject and founded The Journal of Creative Behavior. He cofounded, and later served as President of, the Creative Education Foundation.  Sid Parnes is up there with Alex Osborn, JP Guilford, and other applied creativity hall-of-famers. His contributions to the field are widely acknowledged to be huge, and are certainly well documented. Parnes is not a historical abstraction. Sid lives in California with his wife Bea Parnes… 🙂

From time to time, we do notice that some folks in the design thinking community act as if other communities of practice do not also exist. Often a conveniently constructed, blind side can be detected. Why not expand our collective recognition horizons?

At Humantific we appreciate that the applied creativity community has a very long history, is highly developed, contains very deep knowledge, and remains extremely active today. In that community of practice, the term How Might We? has been in active use for at least 46 years–and probably longer, since Creative Behavior Guidebookreflected ten years of hands-on learnings by Parnes and his associates when it was published in 1967. Let’s take a step back and breathe that in for a moment.

You might be asking yourself, “Why would a phrase that was first published in 1967 be on the front burner of relevance in the design thinking community today?” The short answer is: shifting scale and shifting starting points.

What is important to understand is that design thinking is not a stuck-in-time, fixed entity. It is, in fact, a bundle of ideas and skills in constant forward motion. Its changing nature is being driven primarily by leading practitioners, rather than educational institutions. What is driving change in the design thinking community of practice is the growing scale of challenges facing client organizations and client societies. Design thinking is, today, in a constant state of adapting–with some parts of that train moving faster than others.

While the old design thinking was focused downstream (around “briefs” and small scale challenges), the new design thinking, “The Other Design Thinking” is focused in the opposite direction. It is that shift from one direction to another that you are looking at in the marketplace today.

Within that shift, there has been, for some time, an enhanced interest in tools and knowledge applicable to the changing conditions of design thinking. Some of us began that quest for outside knowledge decades ago, while others are just beginning that journey today. As design thinking is scaled up to larger and more diverse challenges, (beyond product and service design), new framing tools that engage prior to so-called “design briefs” have become key. How Might We? is one of many, many knowledge nuggets that have been imported into design thinking.

Whether everyone likes it or not, many forms of knowledge from numerous fields outside of design are being adapted to, and often creatively redepicted as, design thinking– sometimes with proper acknowledgement and sometimes not.  The truth is, the design thinking community lacks a widely accepted and operationalized protocol structure for properly acknowledging importation of knowledge from other fields or from history. When it comes to the competitive marketplace, some believe in and model historical referencing, while others do not. Suffice it to say, the design thinking marketplace remains a wild-west-like scene out there, and that is likely to continue.

Apart from the often forceful dramatics of the marketplace, for us at Humantific, we find it to be relatively easy to make constructive use of and build on Sid’s contributions (including How Might We), while honoring his original spirit and open intentions.

We cannot speak for others, but this is how we explain How Might We?, where it came from, why it is important, and how we make use of it. Having studied Parnes closely, it seems to me that ultimately the “We” that Sid had in mind is all of us.

Ahead of your time in your open innovation thinking– thanks again, Sid Parnes!



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