This week’s conversation is with Sarah Stein Greenberg, the Executive Director of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (the “”).

For over a decade, she has helped lead the to nurture creative thinkers and doers and help spread the methods of design.

Sarah teaches at the intersection of design and social impact – she likes to tinker with old educational formats and adapt them to today’s learners.

She has taught the’s foundational class Design Thinking Bootcamp, an experimental course called Design Thinking for Public Policy Innovators, and the long-running, high impact Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability, whose students have gone on to design products and services that have helped over 100 million people worldwide.

Sarah is also the author of Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create, and Lead in Unconventional Ways.

It’s a timely, highly visual resource for people who seek to choose curiosity in the face of uncertainty, filled with ideas and 80 innovative exercises around the art of learning and discovery.

So, this is a conversation about learning how to better define the problem before you try solving it and I think you’re going to love it …

“If you already know the answer, or think you know the answer, it’s quite unlikely that you’re going to come up with something innovative.”

In This Episode:

Her take on optimism

I would really put myself in the “informed hope” category, which is described really beautifully by a writer named Rebecca Solnit in her book, Hope in the Dark. And she writes about if we just think about optimism and pessimism as our sort of only options for ways to look at the future, that there’s something that’s a little bit passive about both of those. Like if you just think pessimistically, it’s like, well, things are not going to go well. So, I don’t have to do anything about it or there’s nothing I can do about it. And by the same token, just thinking optimistically, you could also let yourself off the hook and say, well, things are going to go great. So, what do I need to do about it? And I think there’s a way to straddle that a little bit and say, I have hope for the future. And I am going to show up and apply my creative abilities, our design abilities to actually trying to see a better future. But I’m not going to take it for granted. And I’m actually not going to take my own role and dynamic in that for granted.

Creative agency and self-efficacy

A lot of the work that we do with folks who may not yet believe or understand how to use their own creative abilities is to start to actually develop creative self-efficacy, that creative agency that we want everybody to have and to be able to take into the world. It is the ability not just to notice things around you that you want to change, but to try to do something about it, because you have some belief that you can come up with something that’s better. And that self-efficacy, that gets honed over time where that gets developed or built or strengthened because you see some evidence that when you try using your creative abilities, you can actually make a difference.

Everyone has access to creativity

Many people come to creative work thinking, and kind of buying into some of the myths that we have in society, about who is and who isn’t creative. Like, “I’m not creative. I can’t draw.” Everybody’s heard that. Someone said it to me just yesterday. And that’s one thing that can really hold people back. So, you have to actually see some proof of your creative abilities in small ways.

How to start the design thinking process

Create the conditions or the context in which new information is going to come to light. So, if I’m in an interview with somebody who I’m designing for, instead of asking questions that are very close-ended like, ”Do you like getting a haircut? Rate on a scale of one to 10 what this experience is like.” That’s not actually going to give me new ideas or very much real insight. But if I prompt you with, “Tell me about the worst haircut experience that you had,” I get to hear a really interesting story. And from that story, I get not just the mechanics of what you didn’t like about it, but also probably a little bit about how you feel about your appearance, how you feel about relating to people in a service provider role. Lots of different stuff could come up. And my job is to actually stay with you and to hear where is there an emotional relationship that you’re expressing to the experience that you’ve had? Where is there actually emotion coming out? That’s often where people’s beliefs and worldview and needs really lie. 

Human-centered design

We really want to make sure that when we go to create something, we are creating something that is a benefit for someone else. That has utility for someone else. And that’s an important mindset shift from thinking about things like, oh, well, here’s this fancy new piece of technology or this new scientific advancement. We could make anything, let’s make something. I’m sure someone will need it. We go from the opposite perspective, we think about, “What do people need?” and then we figure out how to build it.

Acknowledge you are not the expert, and you may not know the answer

If you already know the answer, it’s quite unlikely that you’re going to come up with something innovative. And it’s also probably unlikely that you’re going to come up with something that’s truly for others or could meet a need in the market. And so having an iterative process where you’re listening, you’re discovering in a structured and robust way, you’re experimenting, you’re testing your ideas, you’re getting feedback and improving them. That actually frees you up to walk in with this open mind about the nature of the opportunity you’re going to be designing for as well as the nature of the solution you’re going to be creating. And I will say that that is quite a hard thing to shift to for many folks who come from like a very expertise driven culture. We start with a posture of acknowledging that we don’t know the answer. And that’s actually quite an unusual discipline. But it’s really, really important in terms of getting to some place that’s creative and getting to some place that’s innovative.

There’s not just one model to design thinking

As design has increased in popularity, people have, it’s gotten simplified in a way that is really useful for new learners to start to pick up these practices, but also can become a little bit too rigid. And so I’ll talk about the way the sort of main phases. But I just want to offer that caveat, which is, these are all great ways to learn and to have a mental model and to have an orienting mechanism in your mind when you’re going through a foggy, messy iterative process. But there is no one right one.

Setting up feedback loops

How do you share unfinished work in order to get good feedback on it, because if you don’t and you only share that perfectly finished thing that you’ve spent the last two years creating that no one’s ever seen, you are so invested that you are quite fragile if that does not succeed. Now it still hurts if somebody’s like, oh, I really don’t resonate with that thing that you made or like, eh, I don’t know this isn’t landing for you. Or I would never use that. But doing that very early in your creative process, that is a way to recognize that actually it’s quite hard to put yourself out there and put your work out there. And the earlier in your process that you do it, the more likely you are to be able to refine that thing into something that actually is going to be useful, that you could put into the world, you could implement. So, I will say that I think just as a human, I really love the design research process.

Design as a process of learning

Design thinking is a process that you can use when context has shifted around you, or when you are trying to solve a problem that you haven’t seen before or a need that hasn’t been met before. And having those skills and those practices to be able to navigate an ambiguous context, but not rush to closure. Not rush to try to find that perfect end state, but actually stay in the problem space long enough to find those truly unique opportunities. That is both very difficult, but I think very, very necessary in terms of what we as whether educators or problem solvers or leaders actually need to become better at right now. It is really, the ability to navigate ambiguity, the ability to hold space for others to do that, and the ability to embark on a learning process rather than a, like I’m going to nail it today process, I think is quite important. And not something that enough of us have been trained in. That’s part of what I’m trying to do here with Design is to really help people have those skills to be prepared, to face those kinds of unknown challenges.

Understand your relationship with ambiguity

There are moments when the folks who are like, get me out of this ambiguity really need to sit with the problem and take the time to explore and to consider multiple directions. And there are times when the people who are like embracing ambiguity perhaps to a fault need to actually, as you just said, put a stake in the ground. So, I think that having a balance can be really useful. But one of those skills that you need is just understanding what is your relationship to ambiguity. For many people who have a hard time tolerating ambiguity, it is quite an emotional relationship. And that can manifest in teams in ways that create a lot of tension, particularly if there’s unexplored differences in how people relate to ambiguity. So, that’s one of those skills is naming and acknowledging, and keeping that alive.

Mindful reflection is essential

Being good at reflecting on what you’ve just experienced or what’s happened is not necessarily something that everybody is just naturally skilled at. So, having some prompts to structure the way that you’re really breaking down and understanding what was happening in that learning experience or what was happening in that moment of tension with my team. And what does that mean? What do I actually think about that? And then what do I want to do about that? Do I want to get better? Do I want to change how I’m showing up? And that kind of reflection, I think, can then create more of that mindfulness in the moment. We often talk about mindfulness of process as one of those underlying skills that we want to see our students acquire… Being able to understand where you are is a really, really important skill, but you have to develop that for yourself.

Cut out the noise, find the signal

When you are trying to create something, you want to make sure it’s going to really sing for at least some portion of the population. And often that means that you have to dampen down a bunch of the noise that comes from the averages and hone in on a particular group that’s truly experiencing this challenge in a unique way. Often what you wind up designing for that group then is useful for others. But having that discipline to focus, focus, focus on who and get some rigor around the patterns and the stories that you’re hearing from that particular type of group is super, super useful.


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Executive Director, Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at

Sarah Stein Greenberg is the Executive Director of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (the “”).