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Humanizing Wicked Business Problems - SFU VentureLabs Workshop

The last few months have been challenging on multiple fronts – professionally and personally after my health scare. I had to take some time away from work to get better. Talk about resilience, burnout and something I recently learnt about was compassion fatigue - story for another day.


However, taking some time off from work meant that I was able to reflect on a number of areas of my life and start my path to recovery. It also made me question my values and belief systems and what was important for me. In addition to several doctor visits and practices of yoga, pilates and meditation, I needed some creative work to refuel me. This is where SFU VentureLabs® comes in.


I have greatly admired SFU as a world class university, being involved with the school as part of my WXN Wisdom program, my own friends and family who graduated from SFU. However there is a whole wide creative and magical world inside the VentureLabs® where innovation and technological advancement happens. I met Ian Hand and Virgina Balcom a few years ago and I knew that I had to get involved with this team. One of the ways was to share some learnings in an event that brings the entrepreneurial community together. Lots of brainstorming later, this took the shape of a small workshop at the lab. The topic I had selected was “Humanizing Wicked Business Problems using Human Centered Design”.


This is an area that I am deeply passionate about - its gets me up in the morning and fires me up. When I first thought about this topic, I initially felt like this phrase was laden with buzzwords. However, these are very real. So many times I have seen teams jump into brainstorming; however on solution ideas versus brainstorming on defining the problem correctly. I have been guilt of this myself earlier on my career as well. So why is it so easy to fall into this solution trap? I believe solving problems is hardwired into us humans. Those who relate to the maker/builder mindset often will find it much easier to think straight into solving the problem. What I tell the teams now to stay in the problem space and look at it critically.

"Fall in love with the Problem"

My attempt in the workshop was to unpack these concepts but keep them at a high level since I only had 40 mins. So what exactly do we mean by “Humanizing Wicked Business Problems using Human Centered Design”?


Human Centered Design or HCD and Wicked Business Problems go hand in hand. HCD is a highly effective way to look at and solve complex problems creatively, collaboratively and quickly. It is a great way to reach alignment and shared understanding among the teams and customers. HCD helps this process naturally by creating a safer environment to ask better questions. This is really the key to making the magic happen - when we seek to understand each other, the problems at hand and the broader context via empathy and curiosity, we are better able to solve these problems. In the age where Google has all the answers, Human Centered Design aims at looking at the problems with multiple lens, with empathy and most importantly a curious mind.


Wicked Problems are the very hard and complex challenges - be it for wider social good and/or real life business challenges. These challenge us for sure; however they are packed with uncertainty, several unknowns and constantly change so what we might know very quickly becomes old or irrelevant. These are problems in our businesses and societies at large that are not linear and their definition itself is convoluted; if at all they can be defined accurately.


The goal of the workshop was to introduce these concepts at a very high level with of of my favorite case study that reinvented the business model using human centered design. This is a very wide topic and hence condensing it to 45 mins was a challenge in itself. However it was loads of fun with several audience insights that were uncovered. The introductory level was intended intentionally since the baseline of familiarity of human centered design was basic. However the wicked problems of the workshop attendees widely varied as can be seen below:



All of these business challenges can be solved surprisingly using tools from the discipline of Human Centered Design. I consider these as designing your business using creative and analytical approaches. We briefly outlined the plethora of tools that are at our disposal when wicked problems show up. I shared some of the lessons I have learned along the way practicing human centered design such as:

  • Do not assume the solution is in the problem immediately

  • Explore analogous situations

  • Make a research plan

  • Look for patterns

  • Be open to reframing the problem

  • Think AND vs BUT when ideating on “How Might We”

Reflecting back on this workshop, I wish I had tweaked the contents to include a couple of activities in the case study itself. This would have brought about much greater clarity. How have others introduced Human Centered Design in 40 mins or less - would love to hear from the community.

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