Close Before Open: Using Design Thinking Mindsets for Your Year-End Reflection

Over the years practicing, teaching and continuing to learn about design thinking, I’ve experimented with applying the process, methods and mindsets to projects outside of my day-to-day work with The Design Gym and our clients. Whether it be my home yoga studio, advising on a friend’s startup, or solving the wicked problem that is my life, I use elements of design thinking to identify needs, to outline options and, most importantly, to reflect and make decisions.

One of my favorite (and most useful) design thinking concepts are the mindsets of Open, Explore, and Close. To start, we Open our thinking and go wide and generate many possible options. We don’t stop at the obvious or the impossible. Then, we Explore what we’ve laid out by looking for patterns, trying out different combinations and asking “what if?” with a genuine sense of curiosity. To make progress on any project or new idea, we need to Close. We sort, evaluate and select the most appropriate option to take forward. The mindsets of Open, Explore and Close are equally valuable, but should not overlap with each other. You can’t successfully Open and Explore ideas if you’re simultaneously trying to Close.

If you’ve ever led your own design thinking project or attended one of our workshops, you’ll have directly experienced what we mean when we say, how well you close determines how well you can open on the next phase. The same goes for thinking about how to design your life. Closing out a project or year of your life with confidence and clarity will set you up to be truly Open for whatever is coming next.

The Process of Closing: Self-reflection

December is a natural time to be in a Close mindset. The shift in season encourages us to spend more time at home, to be more introspective and to narrow our drink choices—exclusively whiskey and mulled wine.

You likely feel this in your organization as well. Projects are wrapping up, budgets are being spent down and reviews are happening. Hopefully your team is also making time to reflect on the past year—the progress made, the evolution of your processes and the shared experiences that shaped your culture.

We use a lot of frameworks in our work as design thinkers. They help us make sense of information and facilitate a shared understanding of complex data points. And in many cases, they can be used for broader application beyond just design thinking projects or team-based reflections—in this case your life!

Here are three of my favorite frameworks along with examples from my life this past year.

1. Personal Journey: Time + Emotion

This is most similar to the classic stakeholder journey map—plotting a person’s experience from beginning to end and correlating each moment to a positive, neutral, or negative emotional response. This activity is helpful in closing out the year because it allows you to objectively see a snapshot of events, milestones, achievements and bummer moments all together on one page.

Map the events of the past year from January to December along a spectrum of emotional state with neutral, ”meh”, and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ feels towards the middle, happy and positive feelings up top, and negative or bummer feelings at the bottom. Include significant moments from your personal life, relationships and your work. Seeing all the aspects of your life, laid out on a single page, can be illuminating. You might be surprised at how many events come to mind immediately, and the ones you have to scan for.


2.   +     ∆     <3

This is an iteration of the framework we use for our monthly and weekly team reflections. Listing out the Pluses (things that went well), Deltas (things to change) and Heart State (emotions and feelings) can be a helpful way to document and process events.

I find this framework most helpful for weekly reflection, so I can avoid feeling like everything is blurring together with no clear end or beginning. No worries if you haven’t been doing weekly reflection, you can start at the end of the year and work to make it habit in the New Year.


3. Insights Statements: Closing the close

You’ve laid everything out, now it’s time to make sense of it and identify your themes, learnings and insights.

One of my favorite tools that we frequently share with our community and clients are the Insight Mad Libs questions. Insight can often be an intimidating word—we can get so caught up in striving to have profound statements to summarize our research that we forget sometimes the best insights are the simplest. The more clearly you can state your findings, the better. Same goes for how you frame up your learnings from the past year before you start planning the next.

Here are three iterations of Insight Mad Lib statements that I’ve adapted for self-reflection.

“I thought _________________, but learned ___________________.”

“I spent a lot of energy on _______________, which made me feel ________________, and moving forward I want to __________________.”

“I feel ______________ when I am with / doing _______________, and therefore _____________________.”


Ready to Open

Through the process of leveraging these frameworks to close, you’ll examine all of your varied interests, dreams, passion pursuits, challenges, likes and dislikes. Your insights from closing will enable you to more clearly open in the New Year and harness all of your strengths to crush your goals and be your best self (or selves) come 2017.

Fully acknowledging that closing is not always easy or as fun as Open and Explore mode, it’s essential to developing your whole self and iterating over time—you’ll truly thank yourself for taking the time.

Now, it’s your turn. Take these frameworks for a test drive and let me know how it went. I love hearing from the community on your experiences with design thinking. Also, if you enjoy this blend of design thinking meets life planning, keep an eye out on the newsletter for future dates for our Design(Think)ing Your Life workshop.

And with that, Merry Closing and a Happy New Year!



Erin Lamberty
[email protected]
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