Features of Design Thinking: Intent?

To even start writing in this space, I have to introduce my definition of “intent” that I am working from. It is this:

“Intent is the articulated entry of care into a work system”

In most designers this care is present as love or even passion, but I have learned to be content in business if I can just get a sponsor to care, and to make that care explicit by saying clearly “This is what I want….”

I can of course enter into conversations where we talk about intent in much wider terms – as something foundational in our frontal lobe activity that is necessary to our capacity to stay on topic in generative acts of language. But let me reign in the scope here for the purposes of this series.

To understand the place of intent in design thinking, I have to introduce you to another heuristic – the knowledge development pathway. You can read about this at length at (insert blog address), so I won’t labor the topic here. My contention is that the epistemic act we have been describing here is so foundational that it actually patterns the way we approach generative acts on every scale. In simple terms, this:

maps onto this:

when we scale up our personal epistemic acts to social and systemic dimensions.

We are then able to see something really important about intent:

So I don’t think I would call intent a feature of design thinking, but rather a necessary concomitant. If you find acts you recognise as design, you will find intent at work. And if you find people with high intent, you will usually find the eruption of generative thought that matches the description of design.

Equipping design thinkers inside corporations, who have grown up in other traditions of work that those requiring design activity, will require the cultivation, the re-energising of their frontal lobes.

The early days of my consulting career were with Golsby-Smith Associates. One of my associates had a background as a speech pathologist, and her research and clinical work had been specifically around the language patterns of individuals with frontal lobe trauma (such as car crash victims in the days before compulsory seatbelts reduced the risk that your body was going to use your forehead as its way to force through windshields and other car parts). Anne famously reported that many CEOs she worked with showed the same incapacity to stay on topic and sustain intent that she observed in her brain-damaged clients. This echoed intensely for me with Ian Mitrof’s quote (as president of the International Systems Society, or some such, somewhere around 1993):

The “extent of fragmentation in the minds of trained scientists is such as to require therapeutic invention”

There is much about the education we have received, the work we do, and our stock-standard thinking processes in the modern world that does not activate intent. We are trained to NOT care, to take ourselves, our personal presence out of the equation. Oh sure, we are supposed to worry things through, to care in the way it takes to care that I produce the right answer in the algorithm I have been set, to persist. But these are shallow echoes of the agility and subtlety of intent that needs to be exercised in designing for corporate messes. We are unexercised in its presence, and unskilled in its use. This is the challenge design thinking faces.


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