In my previous post, “The Surest Way to Fail”, I gave a post-Morten for two unsuccessful grants I participated on. I drew some lessons, mentioned two simple mitigations steps for avoiding that kind of mistakes and I provided a tool, the Grant Hackers’ End-Game Checklist, to support the grant writing journey.
Having spent time discussing what does not work, I thought it was time to turn our attention into what surely does, and that is: Design Thinking.
But what is design thinking? There are several definitions out there for design thinking, but the one I prefer is that design thinking is a way of understanding the world, not unlike science itself. In design thinking, a person or a team follows a method to create new ideas, solutions or products to address a problem or need. The method usually involves several stages, which different design schools name in different ways. These stages generally include a process of empathy development, problem definition, solution ideation, prototype construction, testing and rapid iteration. In M. Tomitsch and colleagues’ “Design. Think. Make. Break. Repeat. A Handbook of Methods” the authors summarise a design thinking approach as one where a method of thinking and learning takes places, followed by the construction of a low-fidelity prototype which is then put to the paces, that is, tested and broken so it can be rethought, rebuilt and retested (the repeat) part. Theirs is an excellent and practical handbook that goes straight to the point, with examples of use, that may come handy to Grant Hackers.
Notwithstanding that design thinking has been around for millennia, over the last few decades it has evolved very rapidly as a discipline and in its widespread impact. Initially, design thinking was concerned with the artisanal creation of better products, what Tomitsch and co-authors refer as the “Craftmanship” stage. From there it reached into what they call “Detailed Design”, namely, the improvement of products’ appearance and the consideration of human factors, including bettering the performance of products. More recently, having consolidated its usefulness across various industries it has also expanded its reach into the “Concept Design” stage that includes the search and exploration for better ideas, integrations, broader societal considerations including social inclusion, not only for products but also for services, processes and organisational structures. Currently, design thinking has developed to encompass also more general “Problem Solving” for otherwise stubborn human predicaments, complex systems and -crucially- for identifying what problems are worth solving in the first place.
In his instructive and entertaining book “Little Bets: How breakthrough ideas emerge from small discoveries ”, P. Sims summarises a pattern of behaviour that characterises successful individuals. His insight is that success is designed by a meticulous and methodical process of -what he calls- “little bets”. I adapted P. Sims’ little bets process into a six-step approach for grant writing:
- Step One – Experiment: don’t wait to have a perfect grant but rather experiment; try lots of different things quickly, fail quickly, learn quickly.
- Step Two – Play: don’t’ snuff premature or preliminary ideas before they have an opportunity to shine; Maintain a sense of wonder and playfulness. Done is better than perfect so don’t perfect, give yourself and your team the time to make mistakes and explore.
- Step Three – Immerse: go out and see for yourself what the real problems worth solving are, who has those problems, who stand to benefit (or lose) from solving this or that problem, who may pay for a grant to solve it, how grants are reviewed, who reviews them, how, etc. That is, embed yourself deeply into your grants’ social networks and practice a bit of “Genchi Genbutsu”
- Step Four – Define: collect insights from the previous three steps to identify, clarify and sharpen what the real problems are and what is it you are trying to do in your grant. Go deep in understanding the foundation question you are gunning for before attempting a solution to an ill-defined problem.
- Step Five – Reorient: be nimble on your tactical approach and laser-focused on your vision and strategy. Change, pivot and adapt via small wins to achieve the big picture for your grant.
- Step Six – Iterate: repeat the entire process learning at each iteration how to do the process better, faster and derive more insight as you go forward. Whether your grant gets funded or not this process will enrich you and will enrich your team (see my previous post on this).
The six steps process summarised above is about doing things to discover what to do. For the Grant Hacker, in practice, this translates into unrelentingly applying a sort of “scientific method” to the very process of writing grants.
Doing things to discover what to do requires effort; it implies a change of attitude from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. The latter means that one is open to embrace new challenges, is more persistent in the face of setbacks and is more able to appreciate that –while the road might be harsh- the scenery is nonetheless inspiring. A person mindset is not fixed in stone and can –to a degree- be developed.
So go. Start designing your success!