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You’re not solving the problem. You’re just building bathrooms.

Tap into this before you start your next project

By Kim Furman, Synthesis Marketing Manager

Certain stories stick. In my case, the sticky story was shared with me in an MBA class in Madrid in 2019. An American Design Thinking Lecturer, whose face has blurred in my memory, gave over his story to our small class in one of those rooms purposely designed to encourage innovative thinking – glass walls for writing, ample space, modern wooden floors, and the quintessential Lego.

As he paced across those wooden floors, the story he shared went like this: An airport hired him as a consultant. They wanted him to oversee a new project – building more bathrooms as theirs were over capacity.

His story was not getting off to an exciting start. However, the twist was on the way. The reason the bathrooms were over capacity would not be what they thought.

The airport managers had noted that the passengers they defined as “elderly” were often in the bathrooms, more so than other passengers, leading to this overcapacity. They assumed that this was because of these passengers having weaker bladders at their “age”. Building more bathrooms would fix the problem.

Their first mistake was making an assumption. Yes, sometimes assumptions are necessary. However, as someone once pointed out to me, there is a reason the first three letters of assumption spell the word that they do – that is what we make of ourselves when we make them.

We assume A equals B and we behave as if this is a fact. The airport managers assumed passengers over a certain age frequently being in the bathrooms equalled their using of the toilets, which meant they had weaker bladders. Assumptions are also often based on our own preconceived notions and biases. In this case, their assumption may have been that the so-called elderly are frail. Perhaps some ageism was present.

My lecturer asked them to pause the project so he could follow a design thinking process. This starts with empathising to define the problem, followed by ideating, prototyping and testing. Empathising is an immersive experience where the people involved are questioned, engaged with, and observed to truly understand and define the problem. The design thinker would do everything possible to experience the other person’s journey. This can go as far as the design thinker getting on the floor to be the same height as a child when planning a shop that sells children’s clothes.

Ideas are then generated and prototypes are created. The testing of the prototypes leads to further ideas which are then tested, and this leads to new insights about the problem and about the individuals involved which can lead to new prototypes. It is not a linear process by any means.

Empathising is often thought of as a soft skill, yet this so-called soft skill led to hard facts. The passengers being empathised with were not, in fact, visiting the bathrooms for the actual toilets. Their many trips to the bathrooms and all the time they spent there was because they could not hear the announcements. They were using the bathroom as a quieter space to ensure they were not missing their flights.

The airport managers would have wasted ample money on basins, taps and toilets. They also would have reported that they fixed the problem – there would be enough capacity for all passengers.

Through talking to the passengers, this lecturer discovered a radically different problem that could then result in a radically different solution.

So why did the bathroom story stay with me? So often we dive into the problem regardless of our field or function. We want to solve and we actually think we have solved it. However, if we do not truly understand the problem and the people, then all we are doing is building bathrooms.

I may be miles away from that glass classroom, but the man whose face is now blurred message is still clear. Since then, I ask myself: Am I making assumptions and, in turn, other things of myself? Am I prematurely diving into the solution before giving ample time to the problem and solving the wrong problem? Am I understanding the stakeholders involved and empathising with their needs? Or am I just building bathrooms?