social movements + innovation lab


Critical Thinking vs. Design Thinking

At an exit interview, a boss once gave me feedback that’s stayed stubbornly stuck in my head. At the time, I put on my polite listening face to mask my vigorous denials of her assessment. And yet, her words clung, a piece of sticky bubblegum on the bottom of my shoe, creating a slight but inescapable unevenness that’s had me return to interrogate that feedback again and again. She told me that when a new idea was presented, my first reaction was to criticize and enumerate all the ways it wouldn’t work. This default setting, she cautioned, would hold me back in my career.

Without recognizing the irony, I left our conversation cataloging the ways her idea about me was wrong. Somebody needed to be the rational, pragmatic voice in meetings, and besides, how will we know that we are doing the “right” thing if we don’t consider all the ways it could go wrong. All ideas need to be analyzed and interrogated before we act on them. Otherwise, it’s too late.

As somebody steeped early in social justice and feminism, and then plunged into academic sociology, critical thinking is second nature to me. And so is critiquing. I’m well versed in deconstructing, analyzing and scrutinizing every thought and utterance, every angle and approach. If you’d like a list of the ways in which something won’t work, can’t work, is implausible and generally hopeless, I’m your source.

I paid little attention to this default mode of negativity until I began running an organization. Only then, I started noticing how often others would pick apart without suggesting alternatives. Meetings would go ten rounds on every way everyone was wrong, me biting my tongue and bidding my time, but would end without even one interesting possibility for addressing issues.

At a recent CoreAlign retreat to talk about creative ways we could bring people together to develop a 30-year strategy for the movement, somebody called out the cynicism of critical thinking. Poonam Dreyfus-Pai identifies it in her blog as a shift from “nothing is working” to “nothing will ever work.”

I’ve been noticing more how, whenever we gather in groups, we ever so easily slip down the rabbit hole of “no idea is good enough”. This holds us back from imagining anything new or suggesting anything innovative: There’s no light to see and no way out from there.

Attuned to this mode, we self-censor, not giving voice to new ideas. After all, as soon as we make it, we’ll get back a long list of the problems and inherent failures of our suggestion. It seems like we’ve lost the ability to generate alternative solutions, so habituate are we to our ideas getting torn down.

CoreAlign exists to be an antidote to this cynicism and critical thinking. At its heart, it is about creative alternatives and proactive solutions. It is not about the pragmatics of what is possible today, but about what could be 30 years from now if we place our passions in making it so.

I can only imagine what my old boss would say about me — of all people — leading this charge. I’ve had to develop a whole new set of skills and capacities, exiting my critical thinking comfort zone. Offering up my own and flying with others’ alternative solutions has been where I lean most precariously into risk. Most often, these ideas have not worked, but with each away from a culture of “no”, I’ve gotten more insight into what a better, more workable, idea could be.

Design Thinking has been a helpful tool to keep myself headed in the direction of creative, proactive solutions. Developed at Stanford University, Design Thinking conditions a practice of coming up with multiple possibilities, defaulting to action, and embracing failure in iterative attempts to approach better solutions. While initially developed for product design, this methodology is applied now increasingly in a range of areas, including social change, and in CoreAlign’s case, movement building.

Now, rather than letting my brainstem default to rational analysis that’s problem-focused, I’m more willing and able to move into a generative space. Failure and imperfection are part of the process, but now, unlike those many years ago, I’d rather be wrong than stuck.