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What DSIL Global's Innovation Leadership Course Taught Me

Written by: Katharine Zaun / Writer & Educator | Global Grant Scholar

A week ago, I left Southeast Asia after a nine-day immersive course called Designing for Social Innovation and Leadership with DSIL Global. The course was held in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, where we spent time in community learning about human-centered design, and how to stretch ourselves to become better leaders. While there, I had the opportunity to get to know some of the smartest, most inspiring, and thoughtful change-makers I’ve had the privilege to meet. During our deep dive into design thinking and systems change, three things became abundantly clear: 1) suspending judgment is crucial to the design process (and to the health of our relationships and communities, in my opinion); 2) people take precedence over process every time; and 3) storytelling is the key to human discovery.

What suspending judgment really comes down to is listening with empathy—something we all need to practice more of. It’s also about letting go of solutions. This part I found especially difficult. New ideas are exciting, and when presented with a problem, it’s hard not to become attached to an idea and assume it's the only solution, or the right one. However, the more we’re able to drop our assumptions (read: projections) and hold space for the experiences of others, the more open we become to what follows. And nine times out of ten, it’s not the first idea that works, it’s the second or the fifth—or the thirteenth.

In a world were productivity reigns, people over process may sound counterintuitive. But if we hold to empathy, it not only comes more naturally, but also makes for better design. After all, creating solutions with human beings in mind is the point of human-centered design. So rather than clinging to a particular way of doing things, a certain method or framework, we gather around those who can speak to the problem at hand from personal experience. We stop and listen, again and again. We adapt to each context, every time.

The threads that tie DSIL’s design process together—and which encapsulate the essence of the wonderfully diverse and thoughtful community CEO Katy Grennier has curated—are our stories. In Bangkok, we spent a day with founders of the Zero Baht Shop, where recyclable trash is used as currency to purchase food and other household essentials. We rode around local neighborhoods, collected garbage, and learned about what innovation looks like in this unique community. In Phnom Penh, we sat with people with disabilities as they shared with us the challenges they face in their contexts, the ideas they have for their futures, and the innovative solutions they've found to meet those challenges so far. Throughout each of these experiences, designing and prototyping were rooted in discovering the stories that shape and give voice to our lives. Without those stories, the design process would be empty.

As a writer and a peace educator, I have always believed in the power of storytelling to teach us about ourselves, cultivate empathy, and bring people together. But one of my most important discoveries through DSIL has been learning how stories can also create very practical and positive impact within our communities through human-centered design. Our work is to show up and listen, and to suspend any notion that we already have the answer. Then, we can set about creating solutions with the communities we serve.

Learn more about Katharine Zaun here

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