Design Thinking, and Opening up the Solution Space

One of the core tenets of the Design Thinking methodology for creating innovation is to “open up the solution space” by always asking “why” as you are thinking about the problem you are trying to solve. 

A classic example is that if a client hires you to build a bridge you should ask the client why they want a bridge because if they answer “to get to the other side of the river” then that opens up the number of solutions that might be built. Maybe they don’t need a bridge at all.

Unwanted shelter pets are a big problem in this country. You don’t have to be a pet lover to feel bad about the fact that almost 4 million dogs a year enter pet shelters in this country and many end up euthanized. It’s a big problem.

Historically the way this problem has been addressed has been to make it harder for families to adopt pets. If you’ve adopted a pet from a shelter then you know that they make you submit all kinds of paperwork, get a letter from your landlord, do a background check, etc. The assumption has been that the reason pets get abandoned is that some owners aren’t committed enough, so if we can make it harder to adopt then we will only put them in the hands of really committed owners. 

But a Southern California woman named Lori Weise asked pet owners who were surrendering their pets to the local shelter why they were surrendering them. And she found that the answers were often “I barely have enough money to feed my kids”, or “We lost our house and the new landlord wants a larger security deposit if we have a dog”, or “I can’t afford to get the shots for my dog”.

The important insight, learned by asking “Why?”, was that often pet abandonment is often an economic issue, not a lack of commitment issue. 

So Lori founded a new nonprofit called Downtown Dog Rescue, to provide low-income pet owners with referrals, services, and small grants. The euthanasia rate for Pitbulls at the county shelter dropped thirty percent one year, proving that free-to-low-cost services are an effective solution to the problem.

I’m sure that Lori didn’t know that she was using Design Thinking methodology. But it’s a great example of how asking “why” can open up the solution space, revealing new ways to solve old problems.