Tandem Reflection: at the Intersection of Design Thinking and Peer Mentorship

Two people talking face-to-face in an open office, looking at each other

The Concept

Tandem Reflection is the use of tools and mindsets of design thinking and applying them in one-on-one conversations with the intent of assisting the other person with a problem.

I’ll break down that definition a bit. First well tackle the tools and and mindsets of design thinking and what that means. The Executive Chair for the global design company IDEO, Tim Brown defines design thinking as:

a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

Tim Brown, IDEO

The tools and concepts concepts which apply here in Tandem Reflection are the use of divergent and convergent thinking in both the problem and solution domains, facilitated methods such as used by Solve/Next’s ThinkWrong, and the liberation created through Liberating Structures.

The methods above are typically employed by a design team, or by individual(s) facilitating an experience, but no person or persons that I have seen or read have talked about applying it on individual one-on-one connections. This hits on the second part of my definition: the use of these tools cannot be effective if there is a perceived power gap (as in mentor mentee), incorporating a power dynamic in the language of Tandem Reflection would imply that the facilitator of a tandem reflection is in some way superior than the individual on the other end. Hence, it must be seen as more of a tool to use with another individual (regardless of power status), but more importantly, to see the facilitator role not as an outsider but a person who can embody the both the experience of the person on the receiving end of this facilitation and the problem at hand.

That brings us to the last matter to deal with in the definition. Tandem Reflection is about providing assistance to another in some way, which means it is inherently a problem-solving method. The problem within the scope of Tandem Reflection can be anything: big or small, personal or professional, but it does have to be a problem (or perceived problem).

The Inspiration

The title suggests that this article would only cover design and mentorship, but that’s not entirely accurate. One of the primary inspirations for this idea comes from philosophy of antiquity. Specifically, I am talking about Socrates–or at least Socrates as described by Plato (since there’s some discussion whether Socrates is real, or how much can be attributed to him). Regardless of fact or fiction, Socrates was known for asking particular sets of questions to an interlocutor to create established definitions and to bring further clarity of the topic at hand. This is known now as the Socratic Method. I read the works of Plato, focusing on his work on Socrates, last year and become enthralled with this figure of Socrates. I didn’t know my fascination with the figure then would lead me to this idea now.

The second inspiration is much more recent and personal. Over the last 6 months I have inserted myself into the world of design thinking and facilitated discovery. I’ve garnered a few certificates and have run a dozen or so facilitated sessions for dozens of people. I am, of course, by no means an expert in design thinking. A fan and advocate, I am merely looking at extrapolating what I have learned into a context that I think could use it.

The last inspiration is my severe lack of professional mentorship. I’ve been in the Air Force for the last 9 years and I can’t say that I’ve had a mentor once in my time there, not only that, but in high school I didn’t really have one. That isn’t to say that my parents weren’t in someway mentorship figures (they certainly were) but having an extra-familial mentor has a certain impact that one within the family can’t typically provide. In fact, I still think that one day I will run into that ideal mentor figure who will be come a long-lived confidant of all the things that I’m trying to do. I stay optimistic, but also realize that a singular mentor probably doesn’t exist (and in fact I have reason to believe that a network of mentors on a particular subject rather than a singular mentor, is ultimately better).

Potential Process

I would be remiss to not mention a general roadmap to how to use this method. There are some points which I’ll leave ambiguous, such as what design facilitation tools to use as I think this scaffolding of an idea has to be tool-agnostic.

1.) Individual comes with a particular problem

2.) You as a peer and facilitator meets virtually or in person with the individual to explore the problem. Don’t start trying to solve the problem, as that would ruin the design roots of this process, instead the first step is to get the individual reflecting on the nature of the problem. There are many facilitation tools aimed at exactly this idea.

3.) You then need to help the individual sort through this elaborated amount of problems, to find the one that really strikes the core of what is at hand.

4.) The process repeats with possible solutions to the problem. Together you and the facilitatee will generate possible solutions to the problem focusing on generating as many potential solutions as possible.

5.) The peer and you are now to converge on a solution or solutions to the problem.

This would end the formal session, the next step would involve encouraging the person to prototype those solutions in some low-fidelity way while increasing the fidelity of the solution as confidence in the solution increases.

Summary

That, in short, is the Tandem Reflection concept. There is a lot of work to do in terms of proving if it is a functional way of assisted problem solving or even if its something that people would like doing. But this is the point of this document. You now have access to the concept, if you already know facilitated methods then start trying them out on a one-on-one basis on this general way, if not, here’s a exercise called Deflection Point from Solve/Next that I think applies very well to this concept. Here is a methods by Liberating Structures that I also see applying to this concept (with some modification of course), and their full catalog of tools. At the end of the day though, Tandem Reflection remains agnostic to what tools are used in the session as long as they help the individual diverge/converge around both the problem and solution space.

Thanks for reading, please let me know what you think Tandem Reflection, if you would use it, your experience in using, or if you have any fields that you think would benefit this concept!


Austin has been in the United States Air Force for 9 years, and is currently serving as an Innovation Craftsman for the USAF.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Air Force. The appearance of external links on this site does not constitute official endorsement on behalf of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense. The Air Force does not endorse any non-federal government organizations, products, or services.

2 thoughts on “Tandem Reflection: at the Intersection of Design Thinking and Peer Mentorship

  1. Though this us a complex presentation, there are circumstances in which this would be likened to “mansplaining”. I use the practical methods described to solve my problems and to assist those who come to me with problems of their own. They allowed me to build and exit a successful small business in an economy that saw 80% of my competitors go under or be absorbed to the detriment of their principals. I always trusted my Physics/Math education as having taught me the scientific methodology I applied to problem solving. Identify the problem, establish parameters, marshal resources, hypothesize a logical solution, implement that solution and evaluate the result. Often, one or more reflective and invested partners can help refine that process. The responsible leader will find the least authoritarian way to facilitate what might, otherwise, become a committee with no agenda.

    I have a feeling that my Scientific Method and your Design Thinking not to dissimilar in either application or detail.😎

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    1. Thanks, and I would like to hear what parts of it come across as mansplaining.

      On my end, I think it’s important to reiterate that there is no explaining from the facilitators side in this method. Instead, we are helping people in their own reflection of the problem. It can definitely become mansplaining, as can the methods you cite, but there is not explanation done in tandem reflection, only exploration and assistance.

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