Journal

Zoom out! How to adopt a holistic mindset

zoomed out aerial view of high-rise buildings

Over the course of this series, we’ve examined the essential principles of design-driven organizations: empathy, collaboration, creativity and experimentation. It’s time to dive into the final piece of the puzzle: a holistic mindset. And an apt metaphor can be found in a five-year-old’s game.

Recently, my son and his two friends were building a system of bridges out of Legos to drive toy cars over, with a bunk bed serving as part of the foundation. The friends methodically built from one side each. However, when they tried to connect their contributions, they discovered to their dismay that their individual parts didn’t meet in height or width, and some of the toy cars were too wide to make the journey. Some hours later, my daughter couldn’t get into her bed thanks to the Lego construction blocking the bunk bed’s ladder. There’s a lesson in that experimental game: disparate parts must fit into a whole, and ripple effects must be taken into account. My son and his friends hadn’t adopted a holistic mindset.

Through exploring the larger picture, you can see where your efforts to create solutions have the biggest impact.

A holistic mindset lies at the core of design thinking and becoming more creative, human-centered and impactful as an organization. But what does it mean? As designers, we not only practice empathy to understand users, but we also take the wider view to understand our users’ surroundings and context.

Why using a holistic mindset is so vital

By looking at whole landscapes of actors, touchpoints and channels surrounding users and their journeys, rather than just studying fragments, you can get closer to the understanding you need to create cohesive, compelling, and unified customer experiences. A popular saying goes, “In the end, the only one who had some sort of overview of how the whole process flowed was the user,” – definitely not ideal!

Through exploring the larger picture, you can see where your efforts to create solutions have the biggest impact. Maybe what seems like the problem at first, and therefore looks like the right place to focus, is actually just a byproduct of a larger, more foundational problem. By making sure you are solving the right problem, you’ll create a bigger impact for users and get more bang for your buck. Because you’re investing in problem-finding as well as problem-solving, you run less risk of throwing resources at the wrong thing.

When thinking holistically, it’s common to discover weaknesses in the involved organizations regarding, for example, collaboration, communication, silos, culture, or team structures. Identifying these weaknesses can feel uncomfortable, but organizations that manage to take unsolicited findings to heart and change for the better are on a path to making a holistic mindset part of their DNA. They are propelling themselves towards a design-driven culture to the benefit of customers, employees, and profit alike.

Holistic thinking in the real world

A powerful example of the impact of a holistic mindset can be found in my Designit colleague’s project in Oslo, Norway. In 2011 and 2012, Oslo saw a sudden and dramatic increase in violent sex crimes, with the city’s main emergency room struggling to keep up in respond to victims. Upon being approached by designers offering to study the emergency room system, the hospital said this was not the time. Still, designers went ahead and interviewed a diverse set of perspectives: groups of parent volunteers surveilling the streets at nights, social services, police, and the crime prevention council.

Once the emergency room agreed to an initial meeting to share data, the designers could gather enough information to create a preliminary mapping and visualization of the system as a whole, with its spaces, roles, tools and breakdown points. Then, they added suggestions for where to make the most impactful changes. Days after that map was left in the emergency room reception, a lead doctor from the Sexual Assault Center called back, requesting a meeting. Officials said they had never understood how complex their system was and how the different breakdowns affected each other. Following further work involving police and forensics, the system of handling communication, artifacts, spaces and even the process for collecting DNA was changed.

Zooming out further with systemic design

As our society struggles with ever-increasing complexity and so-called “wicked problems” (social or cultural issues that are uniquely difficult to tackle) tied to sustainability, social bias, and more, we need to place “holistic” in an even larger frame.

Focusing on users or customers and their surrounding context can produce great results. Yet this “cult of designing for the individual” (or any one-sided view, for that matter) can have severe and unintended consequences for others. When we move fast in creative problem-solving, anything outside our users and short-term impact for them becomes blurry. This blurriness can affect the environment — think of the scourge of single-use plastics — or future generations’ mental health, as in the case of social media.

When it launched, Airbnb aimed to give travelers more varied, budget-friendly, and locally-immersed accommodation — and homeowners a chance at extra return on investment on their most valuable asset. In the shadows of this company’s major success is a double-edged sword: lower-income residents in popular destinations are pushed out of affordable rentals and neighborhoods for the benefit of tourists, while the same neighborhoods also become unattractive for residents due to the touristy vibe.

A holistic mindset enables us to benefit our users, our business, and our future alike.

Through this lens, “holistic” means something bigger than just users and their contexts. This multi-level view is often called systemic design. (In its deepest applications, systemic design focuses purely on the relationships and values within a system.) No matter what product, service or business-model we create, it will have ripple effects, so we should act with awareness of our larger responsibility and shrug off the proverbial blinkers.

How to adopt a holistic mindset

When using design thinking to solve and reframe problems, shifting your mindset will help you in tackling complexity.

Designit Oslo’s preferred approach often looks like the below process:

  1. Take time to figure out what perspectives and/or stakeholders you need to factor into designing your product or service. Find representatives, research them, and capture their relationships.
  2. Set boundaries for your mapping! There’s no way you can cover everything, so be realistic, practical, and actionable. With timeline as an sample boundary, if you’re trying to improve a cruise ship experience, think of what the passenger experiences not only on the boat but also in planning, booking, anticipating, and waiting to board, as well as in going home and talking about the trip to others.
  3. Using the network and boundaries above, build a multi-layered view. Alternate between focusing on the user in the present and checking against your multi-layered view. Going back and forth will uncover and answer questions, adding to your understanding as you go.
  4. Experiment to find the most appropriate way to visualize findings, such as concentric circles, a matrix, a subway map, etc. (color-coding is your friend). If you have too many details to combine in 2D, you may need to make a layered view in 3D, perhaps even with physical objects like blocks and string. To get started with your visualization, work in a physical “detective’s room.” Display all your materials as you gather them and move, cluster, and consolidate to represent them as accurately as you can. From the form this takes, you’ll often be able to see the best way to visualize it.
  5. Share your visualization! You can even invite people to your detective’s room to give stakeholders a chance to understand, relate, and comment. In this way you’ll paint an even richer picture.
  6. When potential solutions are on the table, create scenarios that describe what an immediate and more distant future might look like from different perspectives if this particular solution is brought to life.

By zooming out and looking at the whole picture, your organization will be much better equipped to innovate with awareness of how your product, service, or business model influences (and is influenced by) the world around it. A holistic mindset enables us to benefit our users, our business, and our future alike.

Want to learn more? Cooper Professional Education offers courses that illustrate the benefits and techniques of a holistic mindset, in particular, Design Thinking Immersive and Service Design Immersive.


This article is the final installment in Cooper Professional Education’s “Five Essential Principles of Design-Driven Organizations”  series. Read the previous pieces in the series, on collaborationempathycreativity, and experimentation.

Nina Volstad
Nina Volstad
Strategic Design Director

Nina Volstad is Strategic Design Director and Head of Professional Education at Designit Oslo.

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