What Does the Wallet Say?

Last night in an MBA course I teach at Cal State, I witnessed the awesome power of storytelling in action and its unique ability to link us as humans.Build Prototype copy

We ran the iconic Wallet Project of Stanford’s d.School. It’s a Design Thinking exercise meant to be done start to finish in two hours, including debrief.

The project is meant to show how empathy and listening to story helps create more meaningful innovation.

Students were led through a series of steps that involved having their partner present the contents of their wallet, asking questions along the way. Then delving deeper when they heard something that piqued their interest: “So you keep a pic of your late grandmother there…down deep where no one will see it accidentally? Tell me about that.”

After more questioning, they got ready for the first walk on the ledge, framing the issue: assessing feelings and motivation. “What are his needs relating to his wallet but really about his life? What do you see that perhaps your partner doesn’t?”

Then the tougher “Taking a Stand”, as we called it. In coaching, we use “Naming It”. In the ad business where I had worked for decades, we called it uncovering the Critical Insight. “Paula needs to feel she has every card in her wallet at all times to be ready for anything but surprisingly, she almost never uses her cards”. Whatever it’s called, it’s the “aha moment” when a moment of undiscovered truth is found that leads somewhere.

It was then on to sketching out rapid ideas. Five in just five minutes. A bias towards action being key. No time to over think and ruminate. Then back to the partner for more review and adjustment, always giving something to react to.

This culminated in a more fully fleshed-out sketch that was a prelude to the moment of truth…the making of a physical prototype. With only rudimentary materials…bits of cardboard, post-its, colored paper, pins, clamps, pipe cleaners, duct tape and the like, in only seven minutes they started building a prototype their partner could hold in their hands.

At first they gasped as they thought of making such a prototype but we rushed them to action: “Just grab materials and start. And when the seven minutes were up: “It’s not your baby. Let them hold it and don’t try to sell it. You’re looking for more feedback.”

We ended at this stage asking all students to put their prototypes in one area for all to see. One by one, we asked them to present theirs as well as their problem statement that led them there.

All of the prototypes were outstanding. Several were even not wallets but rather systems that had come about–not solving for a better wallet per se–but listening to what their partners true needs were—and nailing that in the problem statement.

This was human-centric design at it’s best. As David Kelley, founder of IDEO, puts it: “Thinking with your hands”.

But to me the techniques of interviewing and delving ever deeper played second fiddle to what was really going on: connecting as humans through the stories of our lives. Even something as simple as a wallet is a window to a person’s life story if only you know how to look through it.

Ron Benza

© 2014  Benza Executive Development

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