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'Design Thinking' can help you forge a new career path

Do you want a new job but don't know where to start? "Design Thinking," which includes five simple steps, can help you re-invent your career.
Image: Woman sketching out business plan
Woman sketching out a business plan.andresr / Getty Images

If you’ve ever felt stuck in a job and are considering a new career, figuring out exactly what you want to do — and how you’ll get there — can be overwhelming.

What if you could identify and test out different career possibilities, and even game out and compare how they would unfold over the next five years?

You can using a solution-focused method called “Design Thinking,” which helped product designers create Apple’s built-in mouse and other consumer electronics. Sound far-fetched? It’s not.

In fact, Diane Flynn of ReBoot Accel, a company that helps women return to work, recently told me that she frequently uses “Design Thinking” to help her clients think outside the box and quickly “try out” different jobs.

“Design Thinking,” which has its roots at Stanford University, emphasizes re-framing the problem, seeing it with new eyes, coming up with solutions, prototyping then refining.

“This is about discovering what fills your tank, what drains you, what are your peak experiences, your non-negotiable values,” Flynn said.

Here are the five steps to design thinking your next job:

Empathize: Think about what is important to you, said Flynn. “A lot of people I coach are miserable at work because their values don’t align with their careers or jobs.” Write down your non-negotiables, like if you need flexibility, a shorter commute, to work from home, a job with no travel, working with a great team, or benefits.

Reframe the problem: What’s the problem you are trying to solve? You may say, "I want to go back to work or change jobs.” But Flynn said you need to go further. “Maybe what you really want is fulfillment, or impact, or purpose, or income or benefits.” The better you understand the problem, the easier it is to solve.

Ideate or brainstorm: What do you love to do? Flynn called this a values alignment exercise, where you take your values and skill sets and think about how to apply them. What parts of your (past or current) jobs, hobbies or activities do you enjoy the most? Generate a list of ideas, no matter how wacky they seem, of all the things you love to do. See what themes emerge.

Flynn gave the example of one of her clients who said she could work in technology because that was her background. When they did this exercise, however, they discovered that she loved interior design, but did not want to work with clients. Through the brainstorming process, they combined the client’s interior design interests with her strategic corporate skills and came up with jobs that included working at Houzz or Pinterest in a strategic role.

Rapid prototype: Conduct small experiments from the list of ideas generated, said Flynn. Have coffee with someone in the field, try a class, have conversations with people who have careers that match those on your idea list. “You can learn quickly whether it’s for you if you prototype in this way,” said Flynn. Flynn added that one of the most important parts of “Design Thinking” is to have a “bias toward action.” In other words, don’t just think about it – have conversations and experiment.

Iterate: Take what you learned from your prototyping and refine your list. You may cross some ideas off completely. Others may change. Fine-tune the ideas that seem like good possibilities. Then, take those possible careers, from the safe to the blue sky, and game them out with an “Odyssey Plan.” More on this below.

“Design Thinking” works. Take it from Erica Galles, who previously worked in marketing for the pharmaceutical industry. After becoming a mom, she dialed back her work to part-time consulting for 12 years before taking a 5-year career break.

“I wanted to go back to work, but I needed guidance,"" Galles told Know Your Value. I wanted to be part of a great team, learn about something new and do something with impact.”The mom of three teenagers, who lives in Silicon Valley, also wanted regular hours. Galles sought guidance from Flynn, who used “Design Thinking” to help Galles figure out what she wanted to do, and where she could do it.

“Our discussions absolutely clarified my search,” Galles said. She is now happily working for JetBlue Tech Ventures, a venture capital subsidiary of JetBlue Airways. The venture capital and travel industry are both new to her, which Galles said she loves because she learns something new every day. But through “Design Thinking” she was able to bring her organizational skills to the table and join the team as the office manager.

What would you do if you could not fail and money did not matter?

Flynn said that the Odyssey Plan, created by two Stanford professors, lets you map out multiple ways in which your career and life could unfold by creating three 5-year career plans: a safe plan, a back-up plan and your blue sky plan if you assumed you couldn’t fail and money didn’t matter. (You can use the worksheet available on the Designing Your Life website.)

For most of us, of course, money will matter. But going through the process helps to uncover elements of a new career that you may not have previously considered, said Flynn.

“I had tried a lot of methods,” said Andrew Call, who told me he’d been struggling to figure out his career path and tried Odyssey Planning with Flynn. Call had worked at top companies including Facebook, Uber and Houzz, and while he liked the companies, he was dissatisfied with his job in legal operations.

He had gotten his career coaching certification and thought he might want to work in a job with a coaching component. As a new dad, he was also looking for a job that had some flexibility and balance. “This method gave me the opportunity to explore multiple possibilities with a specific process," he said. "I looked at what each would look like in five years and how they fit with my values.” When we spoke, Call was happily on his way to his first day of work as a senior recruiter at a small executive recruiting company in the San Francisco Bay area — the career path he found with his Odyssey Plan.

Flynn said it takes time and commitment to find your career path, but “Design Thinking” and the “Odyssey Plan” works. In fact, Flynn designed her own “Odyssey Plan” and is living it. “It’s about helping people find where their energy is. That’s when they are going to be happiest.”

To learn more about how to apply the principles of Design Thinking and Odyssey Planning to designing your best career and life, you can read Designing Your Life by Stanford University design educators Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.