Design Thinking’s Three Modes of Thinking: Open, Explore, Close

If you do a Google image search for “Design Thinking,” you’ll be bombarded with colorfully designed flow charts with arrows and icons galore, maybe a few double diamonds or never-ending circles, and—a personal favorite—the squiggly line that resembles a sideways tornado. What these visuals aim to illustrate—albeit some better than others—is the messy process of addressing problems with no clear solutions.

Design thinking is a layered and cyclical process of diverging and converging, discovering and evaluating, and iterating along the way. At times, tackling complex challenges can feel a bit like you’re inside that sideways tornado with no apparent end in sight.

So, to guide us more smoothly through this process, here at The Design Gym, we rely on three modes of thinking: Open, Explore, and Close. Each mode represents a different mindset with which to approach a complex challenge. Let’s take a look at each:

Open

Open is a mode of divergent thinking that’s focused on generating lots of creative options. It’s not about judging ideas as good or bad; rather, it’s about going wide to come up with diverse possibilities.

Whether we’re kicking off a brainstorm session, synthesizing research insights, or testing a new curriculum, we begin by spending some time in Open. This helps us to avoid jumping to foregone conclusions and, instead, push our thinking to some more imaginative and promising alternatives.

To help get us into an Open mindset, we like to turn to the world of improv. As Tina Fey explains in Bossypants, “The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. … The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own.” These rules also apply to collaboration.

“Yes, and…” is a great way to help your teams maintain open thinking by building on each other’s ideas rather than shutting them down. After spending some time yes-and-ing in Open, we often find that the best ideas can’t be credited to any one person but are the result of the collective group.

Explore

After opening, there’s a lot to dig into. The Explore mindset is focused on organizing, combining and building upon these possibilities. During Explore, we’re looking for meaningful themes and patterns to make connections and develop great insights.

From simple clustering to complicated matrices with multiple dimensions, there’s a wide range of frameworks out there to help us make sense of our thinking in Explore. Some of the most popular ones that we use include affinity maps, 2×2 grids, Venn Diagrams and spectrums.

For example, our clients are often concerned with generating a wide range of ideas that include both quick wins and longer-term strategies. During Explore, we can quickly sort the existing ideas based on the time needed to bring the idea to life. This allows us to see if we have any gaps where we need to ideate further.

Close

After exploring, we may have a better sense of what we want to prioritize; however, Close helps us to assess these options further and, ultimately, commit. Close is a mode of convergent thinking that’s focused on narrowing our options and making decisions to move the process onward. During Close, we’re analyzing and critiquing our thoughts and ideas to select the best option to carry forward.

One of the most popular collaborative closing techniques is the democratic vote, which can be done with the full group of stakeholders (think popular vote) or by a small committee (think electoral college). Whether we’re using stickers, markers or some other indicator to voice an opinion, the goal of voting is to make a decision relatively quickly.

When helping clients to Close by voting, we start by establishing voting criteria based on the objectives. For example, sometimes, we’ll decide that each person gets only one vote, and the top two ideas get a runoff vote. For an added layer of assessment, we’ll distribute multi-colored stickers, each with a different assigned value (blue for the thing you’re most excited about, green for the thing you think your users will love most, yellow for the thing that’s most in line with your brand, etc.). Or, another voting variation we’ll use is to distribute play money to each participant with instructions to “spend” it on the idea(s) they find most valuable. We’ve even given people different amounts of money based on their relative decision-making power.

Putting it All Together

Open, Explore and Close are the building blocks of design thinking. On a macro level, the design thinking process is one giant progression of opening, exploring, and closing. On a more micro level, each phase within the design thinking methodology can also be broken down into a series of opening, exploring, and closing activities. And if we zoom in further still, each one of these activities is comprised of a sequence of these three modes of thinking.

The Golden Rule of Open, Explore and Close

The most important thing to remember when using Open, Explore and Close is that these are discrete modes of thinking. If we attempt to do them simultaneously, we’ll only end up with a headache. For example, have you ever found yourself in a brainstorm session (open thinking) where someone has an excuse for why every possible idea won’t work (closed thinking)? Creativity stalls.

Or have you ever been in a meeting where you’re trying to make a decision (closed thinking) but someone keeps suggesting entirely new ideas (open thinking)? Equally frustrating. Open and Close are like oil and water, orange juice and toothpaste, Kanye and reality (thank you, Jason Cha for that one). They just DON’T MIX!

Know Where You’re At

Remember that sideways tornado from the beginning of this post? The key to successfully navigating the whirlwind with Open, Explore and Close is to be intentional and aligned with your team on which mode of thinking you’re in and when.

At The Design Gym, we often use Open, Explore and Close to structure our meeting agendas—and we post that agenda, ahead of the meeting, in a place where everyone participating can see it. Alternatively, if a meeting is focused on just one specific mode of thinking (for instance, an ideation session or a decision-making meeting), we will title our calendar invites with the corresponding mode of thinking.

A more playful variation that we’ve used with some clients during workshops is to provide soccer-inspired yellow and red cards that can be flagged by anyone in the group if someone starts opening or closing at the wrong time. If the person doesn’t change their behavior after the yellow-card warning, the red card can be drawn, and that person is kindly asked to leave the session. (Don’t worry—the red card has yet to be drawn! Usually the threat of being thrown out is enough to keep behavior in check.)

Using Open, Explore and Close IRL

The power of using Open, Explore and Close in real life lies not only in the process, but also in the alignment that having a common language with your team brings. So, the next time you’re working on a complex problem or collaborating with your team, here are some things to keep in mind:

Suspend judgement. When your team is in an Open mode, hold off on analyzing and assessing. Instead adopt a “Yes, And…” attitude to build on each other’s ideas.

Make the time. Don’t prematurely move into a Close mode. We’re all in a hurry, but there’s tremendous value in having the team spend even a little time in Open and Explore mode, before making decisions.

Open, Explore and Close don’t mix! While yellow and red cards may be more than your team needs, if it ever appears that not everyone in the team is in the same mode of thinking, check in with your team and ask!

Kelsye Gould
kelsye@thedesigngym.com
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