Written by DTGUSA
Marc Bolick is an inspiring speaker, a probing strategist, a curious observer of human behavior, and a highly experienced group facilitator. Hear how becoming an “accidental consultant” set fire to his entrepreneurial spirit.
Over the summer, DTG’s Marc Bolick chatted with host Dawan Stanford on the podcast “Design Thinking 101.” It was such a great conversation that we’re publishing portions of the transcript in easily digestible blog posts—here in Part 1, we cover the first 15 minutes of the audio (you can find Part 2 here). If you have time, we encourage you to listen to the full episode. Enjoy!
Welcome to “Design Thinking 101: Learning, Leading, and Applying Design Thinking.” We help our listeners learn, lead and apply design thinking to their goals and challenges. Our guests share stories, lessons, ideas, experience and insights developed while practicing, leading, and teaching design thinking. They come to Design Thinking 101 from business, social innovation, education, design, government, healthcare and other fields to offer you what they’ve discovered about learning leading and applying design thinking. I’m Dawan Stanford, your Design Thinking 101 host.
My guest today is Marc Bolick. He’s the managing partner of DesignThinkers Group. We’re talking about innovation culture, the future of work, and designing value. Marc, welcome to the show.
Thanks, Dawan. Great to be here.
As is our custom, I would like to start off learning a little bit about where you are now and the journey that brought you there.
Ah, where I am now. I am currently the managing partner of DesignThinkers Group, and I’ve been running the organization for about 10 years now. It’s hard to believe. We kind of do what it says on the label. We do design thinking but much more than that, primarily using human centered methodologies, systemic design, and the like to help organizations learn how to work differently‚ collaborate in different ways in order to get better results. I’ll summarize that by saying we’re an innovation support firm. We are there to support, facilitate, coach, walk the journey with our clients.
From engineering, manufacturing, and product management to entrepreneurship and innovation consulting
My journey to get there was that I studied initially mechanical engineering, went to work for a big company, General Electric, back in the day and started in manufacturing in one of their management training programs. I was able to see what manufacturing was like. That two-year training program had four six-month rotations, and one of the rotations was in engineering. I got the opportunity to work in a lab and run tests for weeks on end—watching, making mistakes in the lab, actually seeing what it was like to be a real hardcore design engineer. And in those two experiences of seeing manufacturing and engineering… well, [I didn’t think I’d] be really good at it because I just didn’t feel that tug in my heart. Later during that two-year period, I had the fortune to be able to go overseas to Paris for a year. Not too bad when you’re in your mid 20s to be assigned in Paris—that was pretty awesome. I had lived in Europe prior to that when I was growing up and was really interested in living and working overseas. It was just a great opportunity.
When I came off that program, I ended up working in engineering to represent service engineers in the CT business… as part of the design team. As I was doing that, I was going to customer sites and trade shows where I got to interact with customers. In manufacturing, you really don’t get a lot of opportunity to do that… I was really, really intrigued and started to feel a gravitational pull toward things related to customers. I heard about a position in marketing position, and in that there were two parts—the downstream marketing and product management marketing. Right about that time I had gotten to know some people in one of the businesses over in Paris and eventually got offered a job to go over to Europe and work as a product manager.
And that’s when I [realized] this is really what I want to do—sitting between the business on the one hand and the customers on the other hand. That led to working for three years as a product manager [after which I went] to work for a Dutch company, also as product manager, living in the Netherlands. While I was there, I got an MBA, so I started learning how to think like a business person.
After business school, I started a company with a couple of my classmates, got the bug of being an entrepreneur, and I haven’t really stopped since then. My last official paycheck was in 1999. I [tried] to find a small company I could join, but I was an American that didn’t speak very good Dutch, and the economy was pretty bad. But I did get projects and people said, “Oh, yeah, we can’t hire you. But can you do ‘this thing’ for us and ‘this thing’ for us?” So I started picking up projects [as] an accidental consultant. That was the beginning of my consulting career, and I have kind of been renting my brain out for years.
Design thinking gels as a direction
I originally found design thinking as my consulting business started to grow, [and] more and more of my clients were asking, “How do we do this innovation thing?” I started doing my homework and came across design thinking. A bunch of things fell in place. I met a few people and ended up running this design thinking business, learning from a lot of really amazing mentors. I had a little bit of imposter syndrome [since] I’m not a trained designer, but I do believe that the discipline of design is something that that people can learn… and that’s what design thinking is all about.
Can you tell me a little more about that coming together period? You’re doing more and more projects. Consulting is coming together. You’re hearing this need from clients and potential clients. You’re thinking “oh, I can use design thinking this way, this way, this way.” What was that period like for you?
You know, it was, and still is, really exciting when clients come to the realization that they need to figure out how to work differently. I really love Jeanne Liedtka’s term “social technology.” Design thinking is a whole bunch of different things, but, at its core, it is using the quite unique approach to problem solving of designers which starts with design research—in particular, empathy. Building empathy for people is the secret sauce of the whole thing. But then there’s this whole other part of it, which is the social technology—the different ways of collaborating… that you get through the methodology and activities and getting a team of people together that’s diverse, multifunctional. [They are] looking at a problem in a very different way [and] working in this intensive, collaborative way. So when clients [come to you and say] “hey, we’ve heard about this new way… we’d like to learn how to do that. We’d like for you to help us solve so and so problem”—that’s really exciting.
I consider myself a lifelong learner. I know a lot less than the knowledge in the world and there’s so much more to learn. So when you come up with a project that a client is putting in front of you, everything is always new, even though you may have seen something similar. It can be a little bit frightening and intimidating to have that responsibility [given to you by] a client to help them along that journey, but it’s super exciting.
Helping clients understand what’s possible and setting the vision
How do you help people see the distinction? I notice when people are telling me “Oh, we’d like to learn how to do a bit of what you do, and make design thinking our own, adapted to our own practices, needs, culture…” versus “Oh, there’s this specific solution.” We’re trying to create in this context. I’ve had to be really clear with people about what we’re able to do in the in the space that they have. There’s a big difference between the “learning to do” and the “I can help us get to this point.” Can you can you talk a little bit about how you’ve seen that in your work?
Yeah, I just want to make sure I understand the question, Dawan. Is it about how you get people to walk the path along their learning journey?
Yeah, it’s a bit of both. Maybe just starting with how you help people understand what’s possible, and then we can go a little deeper.
Well, I think that in getting people to understand what’s possible, the learning-by-doing thing is one of the key mantras that we always talk to clients about…. This sort of radical collaboration that you get with human centered design or design thinking is not something that you can learn from watching a video online or taking an online course or reading a book or sitting in a classroom. You have to do it, and it takes some time to get there. It’s really a journey to some degree of faith… it’s working together, co-creating with the client. We help them at the beginning, understand what that journey looks like. In fact, [we] have a really deliberate phase at the beginning where we use design thinking to design the project. And that involves interviewing, surveying, gathering data of the key stakeholders around the project before we even get into the design process. … I think a lot of that upfront work helps to set the guiding star for whatever the project is, and then deliberately map out the process with the client to show them the different steps that we’re going to go through.
You know, as I’m thinking about it, that even happens in the proposal stage… In the vast majority of the work we do, clients say they want to solve so-and-so problem. And then we go through a deliberate process of discovery with them before we even get the work to try to really understand what they’re trying to achieve. Of course, we have limited amount of time and resources to do that, but in our proposal, we do our best to outline what that journey is going to look like… We can give them a pretty clear picture of what the process is going to look like, but they’re not going to know how different it is until they’ve actually gone through it. I think that’s the key.
Dawan Stanford is the president of Fluid Hive, a design studio that helps people think and solve like a designer. He is the Interim Director of Design and Innovation at The Ohio State University, Design Studio Director of Georgetown University’s Program in Learning, Design, and Technology at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, and the host of “Design Thinking 101.”
Marc Bolick leads the US office of DesignThinkers Group. With over 20 years’ experience in product and service design, he’s worked in sectors including medical devices, mobile & web applications, travel & leisure, financial services, and innovation consulting.