Chartering an Exploration of Discovery

This post is the second of a series dedicated to helping readers understand design thinking (or human centered design) and its application through the United Way Hub for Social Innovation. 


In this month’s post we will address the first stage of the design thinking roadmap called Chartering an Exploration of Discovery (or simply, evaluating the potential for a design thinking project). This is the first step that an organization or group takes before embarking on a design thinking project. You can equate this step to a group of pioneers who are organizing themselves and making determinations on where they want to explore and why they want to explore it. That “why” part is especially important. 

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

In our United States history classes students learn about the exploration of Meriwether Lewis and his colleague, William Clark. In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis to organize a team in order to explore and map out the western, and relatively unknown, landmass of the U.S.’s new territory. But their intention wasn’t to simply create a map. It was to learn about how best to set up a navigation system that could be traversed from one side of the land to the other and to establish the U.S.’s presence (and authority) upon any people groups whom they might encounter along the way. 

Lewis and Clark had a WHERE and a WHY to their journey, and were given direction by a senior leader (President Jefferson) who would want feedback and who would hold them accountable on any actions that would take place throughout.

It is quite fitting that the Lewis and Clark expedition is often called The Corps of Discovery. It indeed was a journey of discovery. This title correlates perfectly to design thinking. 

As was mentioned in the intro post to this series, design thinking (or human centered design) for social innovation is a process of identifying the pain points, needs, and desires of the members of our community that our organizations and city leaders want to impact through their services, products, and policies. It’s about discovering and considering the aspects and feelings related to our “end users” and exploring and driving creative solutions that might help to alleviate barriers to the various systems of care that might help them progress in life.  


When we embark on a design thinking project, we typically work with a sponsor, or organizational leader, who has the vision and decision making authority to guide, champion, and make determinations about the project team’s work. Without a top-level decision maker at the helm, the team’s discovery and solution development might not be able to be carried forward to implementation. Also, sponsors are often in the best position to leverage the support (financial, emotional, connective or other) the team may need in the project.  

President Thomas Jefferson

President Thomas Jefferson

While Lewis, Clark, and their band of merry men (apparently mostly volunteers) were more than likely very eager to explore the land on their own (in part, I imagine, to exploit what they discovered for their own interests and benefit), it was President Jefferson’s sponsoring that provided the Corps with the tools and resources they needed to carry out the plan, but also the direction and vision for what might be done with the learnings of their exploration.

Organizational Capacity

Equally important in chartering any design thinking project is taking into account the capacity for an organization to be innovative. Innovation, or trying out new ideas (products, services, methods, etc.), is a mindset and process that brings along the potential for risk

For Lewis and Clark, the risk was venturing into an unknown land that may host unfriendly inhabitants that would not take too kindly to their “treading” and invasion. They were risking their lives.  They had to have a mindset and a set of skills that would be useful in this time of exploration. 

They also needed the funds and resources that could be used, or that could be expended, simply for the pursuit of exploration. With the unknown of what could happen to not just the lives of the men, but also to the tools and supplies the group took along with them, Jefferson and the U.S. Congress had to show their commitment to risk enough money to be used for something that might completely fail or produce nothing in return. 

That element of risk and the organization’s capacity to take action on that risk is another key aspect that must be present for a group or organization to conduct a design thinking project. And while the risks might be great, so might the benefits for the potential solutions that could come out of such a project of discovery.

So, what was it that these men had to have inside of them in order to embark on this great adventure? Inspiration. 

Vince Lombardi was known for his inspirational style of coaching for the Green Bay Packers in the NFL.

Vince Lombardi was known for his inspirational style of coaching for the Green Bay Packers in the NFL.

Jefferson was known for his inspirational leadership. In the late 1700s and early 1800s in the United States, in order to be an effective leader, inspiration was a prerequisite. Inspiration is what drove the early settlers to fight off the British. Inspiration is what many athletics coaches have used to motivate their teams to play to championships despite the odds. Inspiration is a key motivator for action. Organizations must be inspired to innovate and explore new possibilities to take their mission to a new level of impact. 

With inspiration of what could be and some resources needed to “get the job done” on their expedition, the only other thing Lewis needed was the knowledge to fuel the project. Lewis, while often touted for his leadership, strength, resolve, and sometimes tyrannical methods, he was also a man of high curiosity. He was an intellect who gathered knowledge in science, medicine, astronomy, and languages. He was powerfully curious about what he might find in his discovery of the land and the people on his journey. 

Identifying the Problem - The Why of a Design Thinking Project

In its most basic approach, the first stage of a design thinking project is simply to identify the problem that the group is wanting to solve. In my intro post in this series, Starbucks wanted to solve the problem of inconvenience for their “on the go” customer base and the need to process orders and payments faster. For Lewis and Clark, Jefferson, the U.S. Congress, and the citizens of this new nation, it was how to expand their infrastructure and authority in an unknown land. 

Before jumping into a project and jumping off into solutions, it is essential to gain a deep understanding about the problem

There are two key aspects of identifying problems to address in a social focused design thinking project. 

  1. Data 

  2. Feedback from the Community

The Importance of Solid Data

In the early 1800s computers were not even a distant thought, yet the leaders at the time still made significant efforts  to collect data. They just had to do it the old fashioned way...going out into the geographical area, observing, tracking and counting. It just took a lot longer. Lewis and Clark spent up to two years preparing for their trip of discovery.  President Jefferson was known to have one of the largest collection of books and maps on the geography of North America. Over the course of three years, Lewis spent countless hours digging deep into those resources to gain an understanding not only on the projected direction of the travel, but also on the various aspects that he might encounter. 

Luckily, today we have advanced technology and methodologies of capturing and synthesizing data. But how often do organizations, businesses, and even the government at times just jump into solution ideation without digging into the data around a community or an area of need.  With the right tools and the dedication toward discovery free from assumptions, leaders have a greater opportunity to pinpoint key areas on which to focus. 

If a group of health advocates wants to positively affect the lives of senior citizens in a given area, they would want to analyze the current data about health outcomes and issues of the senior population from various data sources (hospital reports, the Census, research findings, etc.). Then, based on the synthesis of the data, they could better align their focus on the more detailed problem area they want to address in the project. 

Feedback from the Community

The importance of community feedback.   Photo by    Charles 🇵🇭    on    Unsplash

The importance of community feedback.
Photo by Charles 🇵🇭 on Unsplash

Data alone often can be assumptive. While data can paint a broad stroke over some of the major issues, design thinking intentionally takes it to a deeper level. In order to properly charter a challenge through the common design thinking framework, it is important to gain the perspective of those who are facing the challenges and barriers themselves. 

The qualitative data that comes from engaging the end-users (or the community members who are directly facing challenges) helps teams to better understand the problem. Too often, organizations and policy makers jump to new solutions without first gathering a deeper understanding from the community.  Surveys, organized focus groups, interviews, and other efforts can help teams to understand the deeper underlying issues around a broader challenge.


Conducting a human centered design project requires thoughtful consideration on the problems and challenges that our community members truly face. The combination of insightful data, the understanding of the pain points and desires of individuals impacted, and the right leadership and organizational capacity to champion an effort of discovery, teams can appropriately launch an innovation project. Without those elements, the team may experience frustration during the process or the project may hit major roadblocks before it even gets off the ground. But, when all of those elements are considered and put into play, a team is ready for the next step.

On our next post, we will dive into the important element of building empathy of our target audience in a social innovation project.