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Feb. 3, 2022

130 How to Lead with Greater Curiosity and Creativity with Stanford D-School’s Sarah Stein Greenberg | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

130 How to Lead with Greater Curiosity and Creativity with Stanford D-School’s Sarah Stein Greenberg | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Sarah Stein Greenberg, executive director of Stanford D.school. Sarah leads a community of designers, faculty, and other innovative thinkers who help people uncover their creative potential and apply them to the world. She is also the author of Creative Acts for Curious People. In the conversation, Sarah Stein Greenberg shares ideas from the book and exercises that can bring out the creativity in any individual or team. Sarah also shares how design can help while leading through uncertainty.  

Some highlights:

- Leading with creativity in a world of uncertainty

- Navigating ambiguity: A whole new area of skill development

- Bridging creativity with curiosity

- The what, why, and how of Parallel Prototyping

- How leaders can become more aware of the world around them

- Forging connections with team members to nurture curiosity and creativity

- How to be more empathetic by understanding the different forms of empathy

- The role design can play in ensuring equity

Also mentioned in this episode:

Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create, and Lead in Unconventional Ways by Sarah Stein Greenberg

-Peter Senge, author of “The Fifth Discipline”

-Carissa Carter, director of teaching and learning at Stanford D School

-Leah Siebert, designer

-Chanel Miller, illustrator

-Michael Barry & Michelle JIA

-Omayeli Arenyeka, Senior Software Engineer, wrote about the creative savior complex

-Juliet Funt, CEO of White Space at Work, author of “A minute to think”

-Malia Rothchild Kita, researcher 

-Michael “Mike” Hirshon, Illustrator, Web Designer

- Azeem Azhar, author of The Exponential Age (Listen to Azeem’s episode on Partnering Leadership here)

Connect with Sarah Stein Greenberg:

Sarah Stein Greenberg on LinkedIn

Sarah Stein Greenberg on Instagram

Stanford D School Official Website

D School Books

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:


More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Sarah Stein Greenberg. Sarah is the executive director of the Stanford D school. She leads a community of designers, faculty, and other innovative thinkers who help people unlock their creative abilities and apply them to the world.

Sarah is also author of the book, Creative Acts for Curious People. I really enjoyed reading the book and absolutely love flipping through the hardcover version, which is a design masterpiece in and of itself. In addition to the fact that I'll find myself referring to the many exercises and many creative thinking ideas that Sarah has in the book.

I really enjoyed this conversation. I'm sure you will too. I also enjoy hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There's a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com. Really enjoy getting those voice messages. Don't forget to follow the podcast Tuesday conversations with magnificent changemakers from the greater Washington DC DMV region and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders like Sarah Stein Greenberg. Now here's my conversation with Sarah.


Mahan Tavakoli: 

Sarah Stein Greenberg, welcome to partnering leadership. I am absolutely thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

Thank you so much. I'm so excited for this conversation. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I love your book,Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create, and Lead in Unconventional Ways, Sarah. And can't wait to get to some of the insights from that book. But before we do, I would love to know whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person you are?

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

I grew up in Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania. And I grew up in a really interesting friendly neighborhood where neighbors looked after each other's kids and really fond memories of playing in the back alley and hanging out with all the kids in my neighborhood.

I grew up in a family full of people who like to make things with their hands. Whether that was really spending time and care in the kitchen and caring a lot about the experience and the enjoyment that you can get out of eating really good food. Or in the case of my dad, the whole time I was a kid, he had a side business as a photographer and he had a dark room in the basement that I used to go and watch as he developed the film and I had a real sense of what it is like to develop a craft over time to really build your skills and to be curious to learn how to learn on your own and how to improve over time. And how much enjoyment you can get out of that. Those were some of the, I think, key elements for me growing up that had a little bit of foreshadowing of where I've ended up.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

You saw creativity including with what your dad was doing. Now, what else made you so interested in the world around you, Sarah? Because you seem to have been fascinated, both growing up and now, with observing the world around you, seeing patterns of creativity all around.

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

That's a wonderful question. I'm not really sure I know exactly what it is that has made me so endlessly interested in close observation. But I really do think that the world is more interesting if you look at it closely. And that is really an endless source of fascination. So, I could be completely occupied for an afternoon, sitting on a bench in a city, watching people walk by, understanding how a neighborhood feels, seeing lots of different, interesting interactions. And I could be equally fascinated by a walk in the woods where anyone who's ever been on a hike with me knows that I cannot stop myself from exploring and examining every plant we walk by or stopping when I hear a really interesting sound. And I do tend to see things that are just outside my peripheral vision, or I don't quite understand how it is that I became wired to take it all in.

But that is something that I get a lot of enjoyment out of. And I think it has actually really helped me in my career to be able to notice and to be able to observe in a really mindful and specific way.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And I also find it fascinating. You loved Peter Pan and would read Peter Pan. What about Peter Pan was so fascinating to you, Sarah?

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

It was funny writing about that, cause it was just such a strong thing I identified with in childhood. And for me, I think, there was something just brilliant about this idea of a world that children were creating. Peter and all the other kids that were hanging out in Neverland, they were making up their own worlds. This land of make-believe. And I had a very vivid imagination, and I think I just resonated with this idea of being able to imagine a world in the way in which you want it to be. And I think that is actually a very powerful concept for adults to hold onto. 

If we can't imagine it, if we can't envision it, we can't change. We can't actually craft the future or the future workplace or the future of our home life that we want to see. And that doesn't mean you have the sole power to create anything that comes into your mind, but without the ability to imagine and envision you don't know what you're aiming for. It's hard to actually make change and make progress. So I took this very early cue from how powerful it is to be able to imagine and envision something different and new.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It's really interesting, Sarah, because a lot of kids have that imagination. And part in schooling, part parenting, part society, we train them not to have that imagination, not to step out of that path that you said when you go hiking with your friends to notice things around them and to get to the one right answer, which is a lot harder in a much more complex world that we live in.

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

That's right. And I think, all of us, in the past two years have experienced this pressure to come up with new ideas, new answers, new ways of doing things without actually knowing what the right answer is, or if there's a right answer, then things keep changing over time.

So even if you put a stake in the ground and start to orient your organization in a certain way, or just get used to the new rhythms of work and the new mediums in which we're working, all of a sudden things change again. And this idea of what does it look like to operate as a leader or as a creative person in a world in which there isn't a lot that's fixed and there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty? 

This is actually a whole new area of skill development for many people. And I'll say that this is an area where I think design and the practices that come from the world of creativity can really help. And perhaps that's linked to why I feel so strongly, that holding onto one's ability to imagine is actually quite vital at this particular moment.

And, the word that we often use when we're talking about this is around navigating ambiguity. I guess that's a phrase, right? Two words, navigating ambiguity. And we asked ourselves this question in my work at the Stanford D school. Can you get better at navigating ambiguity? Is that a skill that you can actually acquire?

And I think that through the practices of design, some of which I write about in the book, you can actually, that is something that you can become more adept at handling and dealing with. And that is the crucial skill that we need at this particular moment. And probably for the foreseeable future.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Through a lot of exercises that you have in the book, 80 plus exercises. And I love them. I think it goes to show that there is a growth mindset that we can all develop more creativity. And I love the fact that you say creative acts for curious people, and I believe that's an intentional phrasing. Why creative acts for curious people, not just creative people?

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

So, I fundamentally believe that everybody is creative. But as you said earlier, we have a lot of systems and norms in our cultures and our schools and our workplaces that have unfortunately led many people to believe they are not creative. So I'm trying to build a bridge to all those people who I know are creative but who have perhaps lost that as a part of their identity.

 And so you're absolutely right. The use of the word curious. It's like, if you don't see yourself as creative, I hope at least you see yourself as curious. I think fundamentally that act of being curious or being able to act on your innate curiosity. That's like the first step, it's that first tiny step towards learning anything new, really. And the ideas that are embedded in this book are in many ways, because they are unconventional. They come from the world of design. They're going to strike people as being a little bit out of the norm. 

And so I want people to already be in that curious frame of mind about how do I actually tackle these ambiguous problems in my life? How do I activate that creativity that may be buried in there somewhere? So hopefully that word curiosity is like a bridge. It's like the invitation to everyone to just act on something that is natural and human and make your way towards a rigorous creative practice that you can really use to tackle the kinds of challenges that we're all facing right now.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Now one other aspect, Sarah, that I'm curious about with your own journey is how come a person that studied history and politics undergrad ends up at one point running the Stanford D school? What was that transition like?

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

I firmly believe in the importance of the humanities and the social sciences. And for me, I was really interested in history, I think in part, because I always want to understand why. Why is the question I am always asking about just about anything and understanding, how our society has shaped the different historical forces that have led us to this point. And that's a little bit about economics. That's a little bit about politics. That's a little bit about power. That's a little bit about how societies shaped themselves and evolved. 

To me, all of that is, you can be unlocked through the lens of history and studying history. So I kind of gravitated that way. I could not have predicted when I was studying history and politics that I would have ended up in the place that I am today. And actually, I think that's very true for many people, right? Our careers make sense in retrospect. You can go back and connect the dots. 

But frankly, the D school wasn't around when I was in college, I couldn't have predicted that that was about to happen. So I think the overall theme in terms of how people are navigating careers these days, which is staying open, staying flexible, and being a little bit entrepreneurial. But I really think that ability to observe, to look at the world, to find patterns, to try to connect to people, to understand what they need. What's not optimal in their lives right now. And then to try to figure out, well, how do you bring your skills around making, creating something new, whether that's designing within tech context or within a physical product context. What can you actually do to meet the needs that exist in the world? That's how I found my way to design. 

So I was just very lucky that when I was in grad school studying business at Stanford was when the D school got started. And I took some of the very early classes and I really felt like it helped me connect all those different threads, caring about the state of the world. Wanting to be equipped to make change. And really having some ways to interpret and understand the current patterns, the past patterns and let it speculate about the future patterns, which is where that imagination comes in. And then build something and see if it works and test it and actually get real feedback on it as a way to iteratively progress and create new to the world ideas.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Those new to the world ideas are very helpful across industry sectors, stages of our own personal and leadership lives. Now, one of the things you mentioned, Sarah, is that we need to become comfortable with, starting with not doing. And when I reflect on my career and many of the leaders that I coach, they have risen up through the ranks in part, because of the certainty that they've had and jumping into doing. So it's even a compliment. They say the person is a doer, not a thinker. So when you say comfortable to start with not doing, what do you mean?

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

Well, sometimes doing actually is a useful way to get started. But I think for me, the idea that I want folks to wrestle with is actually about not knowing. Sometimes actually doing, being willing to do small tests, as long as you're not totally convinced that you're doing exactly the right thing, but that you're doing in order to learn, that's exactly what you want to do. And in some ways I wish more folks thought about taking action in that way. The big shift that I think we need is to be able to know, and be confident that when you stay in a problem space for longer and you allow it to remain ambiguous and therefore you can take in the complexity and the nuance that is often when you actually find the real underlying challenge worth working on or where you start to actually get a sense of this is where the market is headed.

And the instinct that many very successful leaders have to spot a problem and then immediately spring into action and start shipping that new product or jump to the solution. That's the habit that I'm trying to interrupt a little bit. And the ability to really stay in, to stew in that ambiguous problem space. I think what's needed now, particularly because the old ways that we've solved problems, clearly aren't always working. And that principle of being able to start out when you're working on something new and say, whether it's out loud or it's just to yourself, I don't know the answer. That's not something most of us are super comfortable with and it's really hard if you're also leading a team and you're trying to model what that behavior looks like. 

But if you go into a creative project and you think you already know the answer, it's very unlikely to be an innovation. It's very likely in fact, to become based on your own, internal worldview, and that might be a piece of the right direction, but it's also quite subject to bias. It's subject to just being filtered through your own life experience. And at a moment when we're getting, so much noise compared to the signal. There's so much that's shifting. Being able to actually start any piece of work by saying okay, I don't know the answer, but I know I have a process and a way to actually move forward and uncover both what's the real question that I'm working on as well as what's the answer is super important. I don't know. I mean, is this resonating with any of the kinds of challenges that you personally have faced over the last couple of years?

Mahan Tavakoli: 

One of the interesting things, Sarah is that I'm out of Washington DC, and some of my clients are top level policymakers in politics and some in business. And in many instances I share similar thoughts with them. Part of their pushback is people are looking for certainty. And especially when there is chaos, there is fear whether on the political front or in the organizational front.

So that's the pushback that I get when I say you do need to be authentic when you don't know what to say, we don't know let's work together to solve it. But their pushback is that's not what my board of directors wants. That's not what the people that report to me want. 

So where is the balance, whether on the political front, or even in the organizational front, when you have a board of directors with expectations of a certain level of certainty and team members with the expectation of a certain level of certainty, which our human primitive minds still seek?

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

I think there's a lot that's connected with certainty and feeling safe. And so in particular, for employees that have relatively less power or control with an organization, they want as much and need and deserve, frankly, as much certainty and predictability as you can offer. But I also think it rings really hollow when you hear someone saying, “Oh, it's all going to be okay. Or I know exactly what we're going to be doing in the fourth quarter next year.” Who could possibly authentically know. And so being able to say, I'm certain about our values. I'm certain about our goals or our mission. I'm less certain about how we're going to get there. That's I think an important part of just showing up authentically in the moment. 

I hear, and I empathize with the need for many people to have certainty. I think it's interesting to think about the board of directors context, because ideally the leadership of an organization should be the most capable of holding in that discomfort. And really understanding we're facing unprecedented and challenging times. What can we truly be certain about? And then actually being able to say, we're going to leave space for this ambiguity over here, because actually we are reinventing our organization. We are reinventing our business model to face these new challenges over here, perhaps in terms of employee policies. In terms of how we're treating each other. In terms of some of the things that you can be more certain about.

That's where you can try to act to help people feel secure within an organization. And I think, unfortunately it is, the job of leaders to be able to both educate, up and down in terms of dealing with all those different stakeholders and put certainty or identify, articulate certainty where it does exist, but not pretend that it's, pervasive when it's just, not at this particular moment.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is important that at the same time it does cause a lot of additional pressure and stress on many of the leaders that I interact with in that they keep saying, I don't know how much certainty is too much certainty and how much certainty is too little, how much authenticity and vulnerability is too much. How much is little. It is a balance with respect to what you're saying. There are certain things that people look for that certainty on. And you also mentioned the fact that there needs to be a confidence with respect to knowing how to get to the answers, but not necessarily a confidence or certainty in having the answers. And that's something that you differentiate that I found a lot of value in reading your book.

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

I think that's right. And so for example, in an organization context, you can imagine that one of those things that gives you confidence around having a process for example, is knowing how to test out ideas before you lock onto a particular policy. That actually allows you essentially to say, we don't quite know the right answer.

For example, we're going to try a pilot. We're doing this at Stanford right now around hybrid working arrangements. So you can opt into one of several different variations and there we're measuring and seeing what the actual impact is going to be and what people are preferring and how it's affecting our work. And you could imagine a company saying either everybody's going to do it this one way, even though we haven't tested things, cause we just have a belief or a philosophy. You can also imagine people saying, or an organization saying anyone can do it their own way. But then there's absolutely no structure around that.

So I think having a way to say we're going to have a small set of options. People can try out, we're going to rigorously measure what the results are. And then we're going to be able to make a better informed decision about how hybrid working arrangements or people commuting, or people being colocated is actually affecting how we conduct our work. And it's informed by data that you can make more transparent. That's the process that we think of in design as what's called parallel prototyping. So we're actively saying we don't yet know the answer. We're moving in a particular direction. We have a way to test our ideas out and get real feedback and real data. And then actually people can look at that data together and interpret it and be part of the decision making process. 

So this is one of those examples of, where understanding a way to preserve ambiguity in the early stage. But then act your way forward and generate new data where none exists yet can really help you as a leader to figure out how you tackle these very uncertain challenges.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And part of the way of doing that is for us to become more aware of the world around us, Sarah. I love many of the exercises that you give in the book. And you mentioned that our brains constantly filter information. So we end up missing the subtle changes in the world around us. And you had mentioned even keeping your phone in the pocket.

And I tried going to our local grocery store and taking a look around. First of all, almost no one stands in line anymore without staring at their phone. So people are oblivious to what's happening in the world around them. And just by noticing the people around, by itself, you can start seeing the way people's behaviors are changing, whether because of COVID or other factors. So it's important, as you mentioned, for us to go through those micro mindfulness exercises to train our own minds, to pick out subtle signals in the world around us. 

One of the books that I loved reading in business school was Peter Senge's fifth discipline. So Peter Senge gives the example of the frog in a pot of boiling water. And it's an analogy, but the point is being aware of the changes in our environment. And you make a big point of that. And I think technology and other factors have gotten in the way. So what can leaders do? Overstressed, overstretched with more emails than they know how to handle with more meetings on their schedules that they know how to deal with. How can leaders become more aware of the world around them to be able to pick up more patterns?

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

Well, I think you're just, describing in very vivid terms, one of the big challenges that we're having now. Particularly if we're still working in an online context. Our worlds are shrinking to just this square on the screen that we're all experiencing. And even just getting out and going to the grocery store. And having the discipline, which is hard, right? Because we're so habituated just to keep your phone in your pocket while you're waiting, that's a wonderful practice that can help reawaken you to recognize I am immersed in data all the time. And I am ignoring it, I am actually, filtering it out. I'm not letting it affect how I understand what's happening in the world today. And that might be true in terms of customer data. It might be true in terms of understanding, from a policymaker standpoint, what different citizens are experiencing. 

And so a lot of the practices that we use in design are really about getting out from behind your desk and going and experiencing the world of the challenge that you're trying to design for, of the problem that you're trying to solve. And those micro mindfulness exercises are the way in which I sometimes think like busy leaders can be convinced to start to recognize that they are having a deficit of new information coming at them in an intentional way.

Because just that observation you made, wow no one else is in here not looking at their phone. It's like, okay, well, let me think about what to do with that. And when you sit in that and you actually feel it, that actually gives you a different, deeper, a more emotional understanding of perhaps how that's affecting us than just cognitive, just intellectualizing what that might be. Or even recognizing just how hard it was to overcome that behavior. Then you might be like, if you were, for example, actually trying to design for that issue, have a deeper and more empathetic understanding of how hard it will be to overcome and to create a behavioral shift around that.

So one of the practices that I just love that's in the book was introduced to me by Carissa Carter who's our director of teaching and learning at the D school. And it's called The Derive. And the derive is a practice that you only need, 45 minutes or an hour, but you take a very intentional walk around your neighborhood or any environment that's convenient for you. And instead of having a plan for how you're going to maneuver around, you simply follow a particular quality. So for example, you might choose to follow the color blue and you might walk up to something that's blue and you investigate it, look at it. And then the next thing that you see, that's blue, that's where you go next and that on and on. And each time you might make a sketch or you might just digest a bit. And what's really interesting is that people come back with some really interesting reactions from having done this exercise. So people talk about it as a very meditative experience, right? It's just literally calming some of that noise and frenetic energy in your brain, which is helpful for anyone, no matter what it is that you're doing.

Secondly, people often report that they see something that they have been walking by for 20 years and not noticing or taking in. And that is one of those powerful reminders of well, what else are you filtering out? In this crucial moment when things are changing so much, what else are you missing?

And then the third thing that often happens is that people either start to relate or almost find a metaphor for something that they're actually working on at work. So recently I had someone do this who works in retail and she's a process engineer. And she was describing that she followed trees and root systems. And she started relating to this in terms of thinking about how convoluted and twisted lots of root systems are, but they're supporting. And most people don't notice them. They're supporting the beautiful tree with its beautiful foliage. And her job is similar. She was like, “I spend all this time debugging and dealing with these complex systems that are behind the scenes, but then it's in support of the smooth, simple user-friendly experience that we're trying to provide.” And she got a lot of meaning out of that, of reminding her, why she loved the work that she was doing. 

So people come back with all these different experiences, but it just always puts you into a slightly different state of mind. And, if you've done the micro mindfulness exercises, which take no extra time and you're ready to do something where you're like, okay, I'm going to commit an hour. That is a great practice to remind yourself that noticing in an intentional way puts you in the way of opportunity to see things, to see the world as it's changing in a very, very important way.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And at least a much better conversation. Sarah, I know you are also not a big fan of small talk. Sometimes we have to have small talk. But one of the frustrations that I hear from a lot of people that have gone through a couple of years of virtual and hybrid is that there is a level of forced small talk and the teams are tired of those forced water cooler conversations rather than deeper conversations.

So with the derive, which I love, I have two girls and my girls and my wife and I went along a journey of smells in our neighborhood. Everything from the ethnicity of the different foods that were being cooked, some heavy garlic and trying to guess what they were to the smells of fall, which are very different to the smells of the Creek, to the smells of the amount of trash that every house puts out with tons of food in their trash.

So it can change the flow of the conversation, whether it is on those walks around the neighborhood or the ability to have more meaningful conversations for team members. So I want to ask you about that. Because as I mentioned, a lot of my clients and people I interact with are tired of forced water cooler, small talk chit-chat. How can leaders have more engaging conversations with their team members to maybe nurture some of the curiosity and creativity that already exists in their teams?

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

Well, having the deeper conversations is not just emotionally rewarding, in a sort of important, but generic way. It's actually a really important precursor for being able to then as a team navigate these moments of ambiguity and the uncertainty that you're inviting in when you're doing creative work, or you're trying to come up with something new. So I see that as quite fundamental.

 And you're absolutely right. I'm not a huge fan of small talk because I think it just wastes our time from getting into those deeper conversations. 

So one great example of a practice that I think just about anybody could adopt is called what's in your fridge? And what's in your fridge was actually developed by this amazing designer named Leah Siebert. In fact, she was running a design workshop for folks who came from healthcare and we're tackling quite a serious issue around obesity. And so she was trying to figure out, well, how do I get this group started and bring in a little bit of that personal experience into the room. So she had everybody bring in a photo of the inside of their fridge, which is like, wait, really? What am I going to be telling the world about myself? But it's not too personal that you can't convince people to do it. And you could do this, maybe with the inside of your closet or maybe your medicine cabinet, your pantry, certainly. But it then allows two people who maybe know each other well, or maybe don't know each other at all to exchange photos and be able to then say, “Oh, well, I notice you have three different types of milk. Tell me more about that.” Or “Wow, when I look at these two photos, one of them is really organized and it's not mine.” 

And you actually get into, if you stay with, where there is some emotion in this conversation, what's actually really genuinely interesting to you. You can forge a connection and you can sometimes hear about like, I do this because this was important to my mom. Or here's hints that my family's culture comes through in the ingredients that I have in my refrigerator. And in the case of that particular design project, here's how some of the ways that I think about food and food preparation might actually be linked to health. And really important in terms of understanding, how can we think about designing for serious health issues like obesity, for example.

So that's just one example that you can use and you can do it virtually, or you can do it in person. And it's about forging those connections. And the reason you need those connections is because, if we're working together on a team and we're working in some kind of unknown space, I'm going to try to get some ideas out that are really half-baked. And I need to trust that you are going to honor that and build on that and say oh, well, what if we shifted it this way? And have a mentality of that kind of, yes and. That ability to defer judgment and fundamentally we have to exhibit some trust, and some grace.

So that is the power of some of those activities that help you forge those connections that allow teams to really stick with it when things are uncertain, when things are a little bit hard and sometimes even tense when you're working on something that grapples with uncertainty. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I love that example, Sarah, because I think many leaders have learned the importance of asking me questions or attempting to make those connections happen. However, they don't necessarily know how to do it. So many of these examples that you share, including the inside of your fridge, it allows for deeper connections. 

One of the lessons I learned from a friend was that there aren't too many boring people in the world. There are boring questions we ask people. And if we ask them the same boring questions, we get the same boring answers. So the exercises you give, including what's inside your fridge, allows people to have deeper conversation than the typical conversations we have for that human connection that is necessary, as you said, and some of the trust-building that's needed for us then to be able to challenge each other, work well with each other, whether in a virtual hybrid or in person environment.

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

So, I just want to pause on this topic of questions for a second, because the way in which we ask questions has so much to do with not just the quality of the information we get, but the experience that the other person has of being in that conversation. 

And as you were speaking, I was thinking about a wonderful piece that I saw by Chanel Miller just this week who's an amazing illustrator. And she was doing this wonderful piece about all the questions that she's getting as she's approaching the age of 30. And they're questions that are really laden with value judgments. So, when are you getting married? When do you think about having kids? All of these, quite prescriptive questions that really are about the values of the asker, not about trying to get to and understand the person who they're speaking to . And she just did this delightful art piece around that. 

But I think, one of those ways that you can start to practice the art of asking questions that are really open-ended and that are really about exploring what's meaningful for the other person is around not asking, yes or no questions, not asking leading questions, but learning how to get to questions that are really about the why.

And there's a brilliant set of ideas that come from Michael Barry and Michelle JIA. And they talk about how you create the space and hold the space when you're interviewing someone, or just when you're talking to someone that allows them to really show up authentically. And the reason that's important in design is because we get a lot of important information about needs and desires and challenges and problems and opportunities from the practice of interviewing. And so we really, really practice. How do you hold that space and create those opportunities for people to tell you what's really important to them?

That's how you wind up designing things that don't exist yet, but actually meet people's unmet needs. And they talk about it as, if you're working to actually solve a particular problem, you have an agenda, you're trying to learn specifically about whatever that issue is. But you create the space for someone else's stories to emerge by basically trying to get more detail, trying to advance the conversation towards the next topic in a really gentle way. And then really asking the person to reflect back on their own experience.

So these practices are in the assignment that's called the arc of an interview and it's the assignment that you can absolutely use in creative work, but you can just use it at the dinner table, or at the next, holiday gathering that you're going to with family. And it really helps you in a very structured way to actually get better information, better connections and better ideas about what you might want to do next. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Yeah, it's a structure along with a sincere curiosity about that other person that allows you to learn more and connect deeper, which is important for that creativity and design. And it also requires something you repeatedly mentioned, which is a mindset of humility in leadership. So what I wonder, Sarah, is as leaders are trying to tap into collective creativity, because most of the solutions are not known to one expert or another as the world is becoming more complex. How can leaders get more creativity from the collective team and the entire organization?

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

The way that I think about this as a leader is that my job is to set the conditions within my organization for other people's creativity to emerge. Because I'm keenly aware of my own limitations and just the limits of my individual perspective and my ability to solve every possible problem that we might have. So I spent a lot of time thinking about what rituals that we have on our team that create that sense of openness and permission. What are the particular practices that we have around evaluating work and at what stage? 

And one of those, for example, is around critique. And we borrow heavily from the world of art and design in terms of thinking about how you create an experience where you're evaluating the work that your team is doing. But the answers are not just coming from you, the leader, as the single arbiter of what's good, or what's not good. And you can really learn how to design a critique in which everybody participates. And you're not sacrificing any kind of rigor. In fact, you're almost getting a higher degree of rigor from the team. And it allows people to then focus their creative energies, in a meaningful direction. But to do that, you have to make sure you're also not squashing people's confidence. 

So critique is this really powerful balance of being quite honest and real about, is the work good enough? Are we on target? Are we on track? But also doing so in what we often use the phrase benevolent critique. And so practices like everyone's sitting on the same side of the table and putting the work that you're evaluating all up on the wall at the same time. You're literally embodying what it's like to be on the same side of the process, as opposed to one person's perspective, being the arbiter. Using specific phrases around separating the individual from the work. So instead of saying “Oh, I didn't really like how you put that spreadsheet together. It didn't really work for me.” Which is both vague and also subjective and also accusatory at the person. You would say, “The way this spreadsheet is structured gives me the following impression. I walk away with this particular confusion so it's really about the work.” 

So everything from the physical environment that you might design for that conversation to the posture that you have, to the way in which you would ask for everybody to give their opinion, before you have a group conversation, you might write it down so you avoid groupthink. 

There are these incredibly practical approaches to creating the environment in which you can all be exercising your creativity at a high level of rigor and quality without people feeling like they are risking everything when they put their work out to be evaluated. That's one of those many leadership practices I think is just super valuable. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I absolutely agree. In my view, in a much more complex world that becomes a superpower of leaders that can tap into that collective intelligence of their teams, creating the kind of environment that brings that creativity out of the group rather than looking for the individual or even a group of individuals as having all the answers.

Now, another piece that is really critical Sarah and you also talk about is empathy. And I love how you broke down empathy into three different forms of empathy. It's one of those words that we've heard a lot since the beginning of the pandemic. Some leaders have done a good job in showing certain levels of empathy. However you break it down. And I think it's really important, both with respect to leading our teams and with respect to interacting and designing for our clients and the community at large. What are those three forms of empathy that you talk about?

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

So empathy is actually a really fascinating area of study and it's really changing quite a lot right now. And we use the concept of empathy in human centered design in particular, because we're trying to really understand what those needs are that we might be designing for whatever it is that we're creating and making. But, it is more than just understanding how someone's feeling. There are those three components. 

So one of them is more cognitive. It's called mentalizing. And it helps me to think about it as perspective taking. So it's like, can I understand what guided your decision-making? I may or may not agree with it, but I can understand the worldview that you might be coming from. 

Then there is a facet that is about experience sharing. It is that emotional, effective component of empathy. And that's like, when you drop your ice cream cone in the middle of the street, I'm going to have that pain of feeling like, oh, I feel so bad for that guy who just dropped his ice cream. That's the feeling part. 

And then the third part is fascinating. It is called pro social motivation. And it comes from some research that actually indicates that if you understand those other pieces where someone is coming from and what they might be feeling, you feel an obligation or a dedication to help. And that one, I think, is very interesting for designers or technologists or anybody who is trying to make something. Policymakers, people who are actually trying to create a better world, a better situation. Because it shows that actually, when you feel for someone, it propels you, it gives you a sense of mission. It gives you a sense of purpose.

And I have to say, I think that it's important to understand as a society, but it's also really interesting from a leadership perspective, because as people are, going through these waves of up and down feelings, or, as Adam Grant was writing a while ago about languishing, it's like, what keeps you connected to the work that you're doing and how can leaders actually make sure that you are in a work environment in which people feel connected to the mission?

People actually feel continued, especially as we're seeing so many people shift roles or leave their organizations. What, if anything, does that have to do with a lack of motivation and inspiration?

So I think that it's an important moment for leaders to be thinking about do I have empathy for our team and our employees? But also does everyone, in our organization feel connected to the thing that we're trying to collectively accomplish because they're having a human connection with the folks whose lives, hopefully we're making better, whether it's because we're developing a great new product or whether it's because we're providing some really important social service.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And understanding empathy the way you described it most specifically, the prosocial empathy, I think can connect very well to purpose within the organization and having the team align around that purpose. Now, one of the other things that I know and you also mentioned with respect to design is the potential impact of that design and the greater empathy that you talked about for greater equity in society. What role can design play, Sara in greater equity?

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

It's really interesting because design as a field and as a practice is, I think, in many quarters looking closely at our own role in either creating greater equity or holding that back. And I think that, it's very clear that in all kinds of companies and organizations, we all need to be spending a lot more time understanding both, what are the immediate effects of our work, but also potentially what are the longer term effects?

And so I think that one area where design really actually has to build a whole new set of tools for designers and for really anyone who's making things to be increasingly aware is to be thinking about the long-term consequences, both the unintended, as well as the intended consequences of our work.

So for example, we're seeing the use of technologies, but by designers and by, folks who are building any kind of new products or services AI and machine learning, where if you embed an algorithm in the product or service that you're creating. And a famous example of this is looking at the ways in which some states are looking to algorithms and machine learning to help try to bring greater equity into things like judicial decisions, whether people get early parole, for example. And then discovering, well, actually a lot of those systems are either not better than human judgment, or they're worse because they're codifying the kind of bias that's embedded in the preexisting system. 

So as we start to use some of these amazing and powerful technologies, being able to envision first order effects, second order effects, even third order effects, and really be thinking about the long-term as we're designing, that is an increasingly vital skill for anyone who is designing with these kinds of technologies. And this gets back to those three different facets of empathy.

There's a little bit of a trap sometimes that designers can fall into, which is when you care about someone and you feel so concerned and you're like, I am going to design something to really help that person. Sometimes you also feel a little bit like a savior, right? 

And this phrase that I came across from this technologist, so there's this great technology named Omayeli Arenyeka who writes about the creative savior complex. So you can feel so motivated to help that you think you have the most brilliant solution. That is a good moment on the theme of humility, to say, I feel for this person, I feel for the situation, I want to create this new thing. But you also need to make sure that you're really testing and that you're importantly testing with diverse perspectives to make sure that you're not just so in love with your own solution, that you're actually putting something in the world that maybe even could create harm, or maybe it's just not as powerful as you think that it is.

So I think that design as with so many different fields are, really in a moment of stretching, of trying to actually embed ideas about equity at the center of our practice. And we have ways to go really stretched to the point where we are actually considering all of these longer term and bigger social impacts. And part of that is because we see the role of design expanding. Design has now made its way into the social sector, into government work, into the corporate space. And so we really have a responsibility to make sure that the tools that we're using and deploying are creating as equitable a future as we can.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

As you mentioned in part with design, it's the opportunity for us to see the hidden threads and be able to notice the world around us in a different way than we did before. I know even for myself over the past couple of years, I've started noticing things in the world that I did notice before whether, it relates to equity in society or as it relates to leadership in organizations. So there is a certain receptivity to the world around us that is really important for us to be able to design more equitable systems and organizations. 

Sarah, you have 80 exercises in the book, each one of them, we could spend a couple of hours talking about, but in addition to your own book, are there any other leadership, resources and books you typically find yourself recommending?

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

One that I've just started reading that I just think is absolutely spectacular is called A Minute to Think by Juliet Funt reclaim creativity, conquer business and do your best work. This has really landed with me because in talking to folks about the practices in my book, often I get that response of well, I'm just too busy, right? And the reality is if you're too busy, then you're just not putting yourself in the way of these creative opportunities that I think are incredibly important at the moment. So I love this book because it has all of this practical advice about how do you create the space from this wide range of different fields and perspectives.

And I think that is for many people a precursor to then being able to make the time to work on some of these other creative skills and abilities. And as I said at the beginning, I just think that the kind of work that we need to do right now is happening in this context where things are shifting. There is a lot of uncertainty. And so making the time to actually burnish your skills to navigate these challenging open-ended contexts, no matter what line of work you're in, is really quite vital.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It really is Sarah. And before I ask you where else the audience can find out about you, connect with you and your book, I have to mention to you that I read books primarily on Kindle. I read the book and I loved the different exercises. I was like, this is great. This is also a great reference, whether in conversations with clients or organizations or even personal thinking exercises.

So I said, I have to have a hard copy version of the book and I ordered it and it is beautiful. So did you have a little extra stress on your shoulders in trying to put this book together as the head of Stanford D school?

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

Yeah. I mean, There's definitely a high bar in terms of wanting to make sure it's incredibly appealing and people can get right into it. For sure. I think probably partly that's just because I really want it to be useful, as much as, yes, there's sort of like the brand on my shoulders. But I will say I worked with an amazing team on this book and we really do a lot of work in teams.

And so even though it feels very personal in certain areas and there's a lot of me and my particular thinking in it. First of all, a lot of these assignments come from so many different people across our teaching community. We started and I worked with an amazing researcher Malia Rothchild Kita to interview over a hundred people at the beginning and get so many diverse perspectives in the mix.

And then I just had the enormous pleasure to work with an incredible illustrator named Mike Hirshon . And that for me was really important because what I want folks to get as a part of this are not just these practical techniques and exercises, but also the joy and the fun of learning and of trying new things and particularly things that might feel a little unconventional or a little playful, a little bit outside of the norm.

So Mike just had this incredible way of interpreting the core ideas and then, drawing in a way that I find extremely appealing and it's wonderful to hear that they're drawing and other people as well. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

There's a lot of joy in it. Couple of other quick thoughts about the book on my end, Sarah. Number one, the Kindle version is outstanding. From my side, I would highly recommend for people to actually get the book because there is an additional beauty element to it. And it is 80 exercises, almost like 80 different books.

One of the things that is important as we go through a faster pace of changes for leaders to learn a lot. However, on another hand, there is a ton of content. I think it's better to reread a great book twice, three times to fully understand and start doing things differently than to read dozens of books, just to get highlights from them or the book summaries. This is one of those that I know I will personally be reading and rereading because I don't think in one or two readings I have grasped it fully. So I want to continually grasp it as I look at the world around me differently. Thanks to the design concepts and exercises that you shared. 

So Sarah, how else can people find out more about you and this brilliant book?.

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

Well, you can find me on LinkedIn or on Instagram. I try to follow in my dad's footsteps. I am a photographer in my spare time. So that's my personal creative hobby peeking through there. But you can certainly find me on LinkedIn. And the D school has a website that is full of these kinds of resources.

And actually we're going to be publishing a whole series of books around many different topics relating to creative abilities. So you can find those at D school books.com. And that is a great way to, I think, really build out the set of skills that are just really vital for our times.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Sarah Stein Greenberg. I really appreciate you joining partnering leadership for this conversation. And most especially, putting together a book that I know is a collection of work by a lot of people, but you put a lot of your heart and soul into it. And I truly appreciate it because it's one of those books that can frame our thinking and help us see the world differently and have a greater impact.

So I truly appreciate both this conversation and the countless hours that I know you've put into the book. Thank you so much. Sarah Stein Greenberg.

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

Thank you. I just really appreciate your strong endorsement. And thank you so much for sharing the example of taking your family through the derive. I love hearing how people are interpreting and internalizing and adopting these practices and making them their own. And that is just a beautiful example. I'm so glad you had that expense. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I appreciate it, Sarah. A couple of thoughts and that I think our education system still channels people into having the right answers. And especially one of my girls is one of those that likes to color outside the lines and I try to encourage her, but the education system doesn't encourage that. So she is forced to color inside the lines. So the conversations as a result of the derive were outside the lines of conversations. And then on the other side of it your book along with Azeem Azhar, I love his work also. He is brilliant. Really has helped me see the world around me differently. And I think that that is lacking in leadership content. In that a lot of leadership content is good thoughts repeated by different people with different examples. Yours are frameworks and exercises that can help us come up with the answers we need and see the world differently. So thank you so much, Sarah Stein, Greenberg. 

Sarah Stein Greenberg: 

My pleasure. It's been great to talk with you today.