Over the past two years, life has not ceased to present me with opportunities to apply lessons I learned as a 2014-2015 HFA fellow. Last year, I started my master’s degree in mechanical engineering and worked part time as a human-centered design consultant at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. Most recently, in my job as a course assistant for Stanford’s graduate-level design methodology course series, I am frequently called upon to relate some of my many HFA takeaways to students in search of guidance on their own design projects. I will share some of the advice I give them and how it has helped me in my continued work.
Any undertaking with real potential to go anywhere is going to involve teamwork at some level. Most of the time, it will be pretty integral to the project as a whole. Understanding team dynamics is, therefore, a critical skill in not only getting things done but in actually coming up with innovative things to do. I often reflect on how my HFA compadres and I exemplified a good design team dynamic: one that has moderate levels of idea and work-level conflict (which is good for idea generation) but gels smoothly on the social side with minimal interpersonal issues. By being conscious of each other’s end goals and expectations and by monitoring the barrier between vigorous debate and animosity, one can foster the atmosphere of psychological safety and intellectual vitality that are the hallmarks of successful teams.
Any Health for America fellow is well-acquainted with ambiguity. It is embedded in any design process and something I engage with daily. During my fellowship year, it manifested itself in the acronym LOC, or “land of confusion.” Walking through the LOC is like entering an uncharted territory, where the shroud of fear makes every unknown look like a risk. The ironic lesson is that because the unknown is everywhere, very little is actually risky – every new thing explored is a new thing discovered. And just as we don’t blame Columbus for failing to reach India, confusion-explorers are always heroes. At Stanford, we teach this as “dancing with ambiguity.” The phrase represents the need to engage the unknown actively with both care and purpose so as to arrive at well-defined, meaningful solutions.
The only way not to get lost while neck deep in ambiguity is good organization and management. To this end, one of the most important things I learned from HFA is the ability to define internally-motivated, personal goals and set arbitrary deadlines to meet them. Deviation is to be expected, but without a plan to stray from, there’s nothing holding you back from straying right off a cliff. The same goes for budgeting, where without a plan you risk spending too much too fast, or none at all.
These HFA lessons have led me well thus far in my work and are poised to do the same for my students this year. I look forward to posting again on where they lead me in the future.
Nick Azpiroz is a current Master’s student in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, focusing on the study of design methodology. Check out other Alumni Voices posts here and here.