When Carrying Baggage Impacts Change

There are times when I think General George S. Patton had an easier time moving his Third Army across Europe than I do getting my kids into the minivan for a trip. The kids are masters at prolonging the process: I start with a friendly announcement that we will be departing in an hour; 30 minutes later, I use my “dad voice” to order the kids to gather their things and head to the car. With 15 minutes left I do an inspection to make sure shoes and jackets are present. This experience is not unlike how we as adults carry baggage throughout the change process.

By the time it comes to leave, I resort to begging or bribing. I’m not proud of it; I end up in the driver’s seat, honking the horn only to be greeted with angry looks. The kids come laden with armloads of stuff, fully intent on wedging it in the already overpacked van.

What do they bring, you might ask? Anything, everything: swimsuits in the dead of winter, fishing rods, dolls of every size, books (which, by the way, are heavy). Nerf guns. A 5-foot long stuffed pink unicorn.

These items are important to them in the context of our home.  They provide comfort, but the trouble is, they don’t fit and the baggage slows them down.  They are distracted them from fully experiencing the new environment when we arrive.

Empathy is a core tenet of the design thinking methodology

As we head down the highway, listing to port because of dolls, books, and a stuffed unicorn, I realize we’re all guilty of carrying our comfort luggage. We bring along things from our past to wherever we are headed next. Sometimes, it’s exactly what slows us down.

We work in a world that demands continuous improvement and innovation. This means reconsidering old assumptions, rethinking old norms, and creatively applying new ideas to old problems.

We can’t do that effectively unless or until we teach ourselves to leave the baggage of our prior experience behind and focus freshly on the challenge before us. We need to fully invest ourselves in the goal without regard to everything that’s been done before. We need to do this to develop the empathy required for the stakeholders and customers who stand to benefit from the new normal we wish to establish.

Design Thinking is a methodology for creative problem solving. Despite its name, it is most certainly not the exclusive domain of designers. It’s an approach that anyone can (and should) consider for any effort in innovation, be it product, process, or experience. Empathy is a core tenet of the design thinking methodology, and it can only be achieved by fully immersing yourself into the customer’s perspective. You can’t do that if you’re carrying too much baggage. The d.school at Stanford is a leading practitioner in Design Thinking and their approach emphasizes “assuming a beginner’s mindset” when approaching a challenge (The d.school, 2018).

This means taking an approach that views the problem with fresh eyes, leaving judgement behind, and asking questions, and listening. As adults this isn’t always easy. Even though I’ve never heard anyone describe themselves as “judgmental, but also a poor listener,” just the fact that assuming a beginner’s mindset needs to be identified as a tool for Design Thinking tells us that it’s a skill that must be re-acquired. It’s not easy.

This is, at least, what I keep telling myself. It’s not easy for me and I don’t think it comes naturally to most people. Looking at old situations with fresh eyes takes practice and support from our colleagues. It’s risky, because we often rely on successful past ideas to lower our risk for future solutions. That said, it’s even more risky to carry our baggage forward and limit ourselves in our thinking.

As you consider your next opportunities for continuous improvement, make a concerted effort to consider the situation with fresh eyes. Look at the situation as if you’ve never seen it before and try to keep yourselves and your teammates from falling into the trap of relying on old assumptions. It will be hard. It will take practice. But like any skill, you will get better at time.

Go ahead – try it. Leave the stuffed unicorns at home. Consider how you can lighten your load. Take action, and let me know what steps you are taking to apply fresh eyes to old problems. If you’ve had success, I’d love to hear about it!



The d.school. (2018, April 19). Design Thinking Bootleg. Retrieved from Standford dschool: https://dschool.stanford.edu/resources/the-bootcamp-bootleg


Aaron Spak seeks to help your customers get the most out of disruptive technologies and navigate the changes your business. He is skilled in leading development and deployment of connected/IoT systems in a variety of applications: designing, deploying, and supporting embedded remote monitoring systems, PHM and CBM technologies, enterprise process improvement, and Internet-of-Things in multiple markets.

He resides in State College with his wife and children.  You can reach him on LinkedIn.

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