Written by DTGUSA
Marc Bolick and host Dawan Sanford talk about innovation culture, the future of work, human connection, personas, mental models, and more.
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 it in easily digestible blog posts. In Part 1, we learned how becoming an “accidental consultant” set fire to Marc’s entrepreneurial spirit. Here in Part 2, Marc and Dawan discuss innovation culture, the future of work, human connection, personas, mental models, and more.
If you have time, we encourage you to listen to the full episode. Enjoy!
We join the discussion at about 15 minutes in, as Dewan and Marc discuss the importance of looking at an organization’s existing culture during proposal and preliminary stages. Conversation has been abridged and edited for print.
I often try to gain insights into what their existing innovation culture is like. I talk to them about things that have happened in the past and worked in the past. I want to hear how people are telling those stories, especially the stories about things that didn’t work. If I’m not hearing any of those stories—okay, we don’t talk about things that didn’t end well. If I hear “oh, yeah, we tried this, it didn’t work out, so here’s what we did,” then I know this is a different environment.
How do you go about sussing out the culture you’ll be working within? When you’re trying to build new skills or serve as a guide toward a solution, do you think about how much the existing culture is going to support the work? Is that something on your mind?
The short answer is that we have no idea what their culture is unless we worked with them before. And there are different cultures inside of an organization, right? Depending on the size of the organization—typically we’re working with big bigger size companies—you have the corporate culture, if you will, but then you have organizational culture and you have team culture. And we don’t know what that is. We can get some insights to that, but we really don’t get a good feeling until we’re into a project and we get to know the people and how they behave and the stories they’re telling. If we’re in that discovery phase and writing the proposal and co-creating a proposal with the client, we do get insights from them. But you don’t really get to know them until you get started working with them. It’s interesting that the consulting business is largely a leap of faith on both sides.
So yeah, I think the short answer is we don’t know. But we do we do find out really quickly. We find out whether they actually talk about innovation. One of my favorite questions is what does innovation mean to you? Listening to the responses is usually really insightful about their culture. There’s a lot there that you have to learn about organizations. You know, culture is one of my favorite subjects. It’s also one of the most complex things to work on. Many people talk about culture being the one thing that can be a unique competitive advantage for organizations, but I think also it’s the most mystical, least understood, and possibly, least work done. It’s maybe talked about, but not actually actively designed and worked on. Designing culture is fascinating stuff.
Rituals, the future of work, and human connection
When I think about the work that I do, I think about how to contribute to the design of culture in terms of helping create spaces where the work and the learning can survive. Because sometimes it’s just like, “okay, how can we create just a little space for people to have some time to play with these tools to make so they can make them their own? And keep them out of the whirlwind and out of the pressures of traditions and whatnot?” I think about how to instill even small habits, small rituals that can, over time, start to influence what people expect, what people make space for, what they make time for.
Yeah, I love that idea of rituals. You know, you and I have talked previously about the future of work. I’m super fascinated about how work has changed—especially over the last couple of years with the pandemic—and how it is going to change. I think the true innovation really is learning how to get people to work and collaborate differently. We’re so steeped and structurally wired—culturally as a society as well as organizationally in the way that that organizations operate and the way that our socioeconomic system works—that it’s like the echoes of the Big Bang or the echoes of the industrial revolution that are still really strong, right? And those pyramid structures that every major organization that’s been around for more than 20 years is suffering within. And most new organizations as they’re set up end up being pyramids, with a few people at the top and the people down at the coalface that are really in touch with things.
Ritual is an interesting thing. Most leaders don’t think about that. They think, “Okay, I’ve got to lead my team, and here’s how we work around here.” The real innovative leaders are the ones that are thinking about how they work and really deliberately trying to focus on how they can be more productive, more efficient, but also more human for the people that are working. They’re concentrating on how do they make work something that’s meaningful for people. That’s really hard inside of an organization that has incentives and systems that kind of work against that. But those leaders that swim against that current are really our heroes, right?
The idea that we can design organizations that pursue goals, objectives—whether they be for profit, nonprofit, what have you—but, as part of that pursuit, I’m creating means for living a good life for everyone involved.
When you think about human-centered design, design thinking, and the opportunities connected to that future shifting of work, what comes to mind?
I think that the magical thing is when people are able to see the connection between the work that they’re doing and the people that they’re serving. It’s really a simple idea. It’s not all that hard to do. Many listeners probably understand who they’re serving. I see it more often when we’re engaging with people who are in the design process, and we show them how to have a different type of conversation with their customers or the people they’re designing for—key stakeholders, beneficiaries, whatever. Really unpack the human needs that people have. I’m not really fond of the term ‘empathy building’ because it seems almost mechanical, but you do have to grow empathy for the people that you’re trying to find a solution for. That is the thing that I think is so powerful. We are privileged to have a part in helping people find more satisfaction out of their work through positive human connection. It results in getting people to serve their customers better, having higher customer satisfaction. And I think there’s an absolute direct cyclical sort of connection between that and employees being more fulfilled. Having—God forbid—fun at work, right? And really just waking up every day and going “Okay, this place where I spend 60 or more percent of my waking hours… I feel good about it. I’m motivated to going to work every day. I know why I’m doing my job, and I know that what I’m doing is really having a positive impact on the people that are our customers.”
I mean, wouldn’t every leader inside of an organization just love if they heard that from their people every day? Right?
Yeah, I think they would and I think that quite often that’s what many leaders are striving for, but the tools aren’t up to the task. They are striving for those ends with tools that were built for a different way of working, and then of course are surprised with the with the results.
Personas and mental models
When you were talking about helping people connect to stakeholders, customers, etc, I was thinking that we’re often operating with an abstraction of who people are, what they want, what they need, what they believe. And sometimes you get a very blurry photograph, and you’re like, “Yeah, that’s a picture of a human but I can’t really tell if they’re smiling.” Part of what we do in our work is help people shift the resolution—tighten the focus so that you’re like, “Oh, wait a minute. This is what makes that person smile in this photo. They’re laughing over here. They’re crying over here.”
It’s still going to be an abstraction, but it’s no longer a dangerous abstraction. It’s no longer a kind of abstraction where you’re essentially inserting yourself: “Well, this is what I would like in this situation” or “we’ll just test this on the three people in the office who happen to be all the same.” So we miss out on serving many others.
You know, you’re making me think about the importance of meaning and the importance of context in the work that we do. And then my brain went to the stories that you hear that are kind of good and bad, right? The organizations that have the three personas that they developed that are the images of their customers in every meeting room, right? They’re up on the walls in the hallways so that everybody knows them. And I’m sure that those personas have a lot of meaning to the people that develop them. But as soon as you start socializing them—and the people that are reading these personas weren’t part of the research process and the design process—do they still have the same meaning? What do you think about that? I mean, how do you democratize the process of design or make it so that the meaning is able to be communicated? I guess that’s where storytelling comes in, right?
Yes, storytelling. And I’m going to go to one of my favorite people in the design and research world—Indi Young’s work around creating mental models.
If you’re doing personas well, you know you’ve done the research, you’ve synthesized the research, and the personas really represent that research. But in a lot of cases the work hasn’t been done well, so you have these dangerous acts of creative fiction on the part of a designer marketing team. What I’ve come to love about Indi’s work around mental models and how to listen well is that you end up with very detailed, vivid representations of how people are making decisions in certain contexts. You’re getting cognitive empathy, understanding how people think and decide. She’s just done amazing work.
Mental models give you a much closer representation of how people are choosing, deciding, responding, hoping… and she’s structured processes and methods that protect the research from the researchers and designers by keeping a lot of that interpretive bias out of it. And so, when I think about what you get with personas and what you can get with an approach like hers, that gives you that richness I’m much more excited about. She’d probably cringe if she heard me say this—and she probably will hear me say this now, speaking on the podcast—but learning her methods and even if you’re applying them badly, I feel like you’re still going to get more than you might out of more traditional persona work because that part of the approach is very detailed listening. There’s a strictness to how you listen during a short number of qualitative listening sessions. So it’s just amazing. And so please check out her work. She’s been on the show.
Yeah, I’ve had a look at it. I think I’m definitely going to dive into it more. This whole idea of mental models is really interesting, and I’ve heard that term come up more and more recently so I’m definitely gonna dive into that. That’s really great. Super cool stuff. And that’s the fascinating thing about our world, Dawan. I’ve definitely learned a lot from you and your guests. As I said at the beginning, how much there is to learn, just to stay up with what’s going on. It’s a whole lot of fun. There’s so much more that I want to know and learn in this field.
You mentioned Jeanne Liedtke as an inspiration and her most recent book with Karen Hold called Experiencing Design. What are some of the other resources, people, ideas that have helped you on your continuous learning journey?
On the one hand, it’s customers and what I learn every day from them and what they’re seeing. We’re serving them, but they’re dealing with the challenges that we’re helping them work with. A lot it is working with some really amazing leaders inside of organizations.
I’ve been collaborating on and off with Dave Gray, reading his material and learning a lot from him. I am a big fan of Seth Godin—I listen to him regularly. Not only is he is an amazing thought leader in marketing and permission marketing—and sort of invented the whole idea—but his ability to communicate to anybody and do it in a way that is extremely precise, well thought, and just doesn’t miss a beat is just fascinating.
I like to read books and listen to podcasts, probably more than I do reading. But I think the getting out and being in front of in front of clients is my big learning space.
Impactful client stories and innovation follow-through
What are some stories that come to mind? If you had to say, “oh, here’s one of my best stories from an interaction or one of my best design stories.” What would you throw at me?
That’s a that’s a good question. I think some of the most fascinating work that we’ve done has been in the international development sector. About seven years ago, we sort of stumbled into a project through our network of design thinkers and colleagues around the world. We were referred to someone who had just issued an RFP for a project in Cambodia. It was for a co-creation workshop, and my colleague and I said this looks really interesting. We submitted a proposal, won the won the bid, and proceeded to wade into the world of using human-centered design to help solve really wicked problems. In this case it was around family—children growing up outside of family care. Think of orphans and street children. Tragic stuff like parents who are giving their children up to orphanages because they think that they’re giving their child a better life because the orphanage has food and shelter and education and all of those kinds of things. It’s heartbreaking.
So, we were involved in another process like that about three weeks ago, in a session with some colleagues in the international development space. One of organizations that’s been driving the result of that project was reporting out as a case study what has happened since we did that original creation project. It was just amazing to hear that it was being held up as a positive case study for how you can use human-centered design, design thinking, and systems thinking in that space. That was an amazing project.
To this day, we’re doing that same kind of work in international development. We’ve just last year wrapped up a similar project that was all virtual and a bigger scale. The one in Cambodia was about 40 people from 15 or 20 different organizations along with the mission from Cambodia and some of their Cambodian ministries. This recent one in Colombia was more like 70 people and it was all virtual. Those are fun. In a lot of this kind of work we are hired by the convener, which is usually USAID, and we’re acting as the designers of the co-creation process and the facilitators of that process. And, in some cases, involved in in the design implementation or the design that happens after projects are funded by USAID. That’s fascinating work. It’s a big thing, a big part of what we do.
In the private sector, there been some really fun projects that we’ve worked with, like helping luxury clients to co-create with partners in the cruise industry back when the cruise industry was taking off before the pandemic. We’ve done several of these projects where an organization will ask us to help them build stronger relationships with either their customers or partner organizations. This is a really interesting application of design thinking which is not about necessarily developing products for end customers, but it’s about building relationships between B2B service providers and their customers or between a B2B service provider or manufacturer and their partners that are in the value chain.
In almost all cases, Dawan, we’re not following a cookie cutter playbook of how we go about doing things. Everything has its own uniqueness. And we’re developing the vision and mapping out the course to get to the vision and then, in the end, walking that that journey with the clients to help them get there.
So those are a couple of examples.
I like the way you say “walking the journey with the client.” I’ve had these moments where I probably haven’t said it this way, but, obviously, it’s not a recipe. It’s not like we’ll add these innovation ingredients and we’ll get successful innovation out of that. That’s not how it works. It is it is a bit messier than that. And so yeah, the walking that journey together dealing with their hurdles. Together. I like the way that sits with me.
Yeah, it’s so important. I’m pretty good friends with the guys that wrote the book This Is Service Design Thinking and then, later, This Is Service Design Doing—Adam Lawrence and Marc and Markus. One thing they say is design thinking service design is not about workshops—it’s not about sticky notes. The real work happens when you’re actually doing design, right? When you’re outside of the workshop and you’ve got the concept or the portfolio of concepts in your hand and you’re like, “Now what?” And that is the part that we’re really leaning into in our team and the work that’s my mission now. We are dedicated to working that journey with the client, and that’s the hard part. That’s where things can fall apart. And that’s also where you actually generate the new value for the organization—the new value for the customers that the organization is serving.
Think about taking the portfolio of possible contexts and getting them into offerings in the world. The definition of innovation that I really like is from The Ten Types of Innovation—the creation of viable new offerings. It’s that offering part that was somewhat outside the design thinking realm. It was like, “Hey… creation, something viable, new. We’ll do that.”
It sounds like you’re really leaning into how we design this “getting it out into the world” piece. How are you approaching that? As a design challenge? Together with clients?
It has to be a holistic thing. And I like The Ten Types of Innovation. I just pulled it off my shelf. That’s a great book, for sure. If you can’t get the value out in the world, then it can’t be innovation, right?
I’ll tell you another story. This was several years ago. We worked with a big semiconductor manufacturer, and we were helping them tackle the challenge of gender representation, in particular females in top leadership positions. How do you affect that in an industry where the pipeline of talent is a really long process? It’s not like you can just make a change and then all of a sudden you have this flood of new talent, so we did a design process with the client and it was really, really awesome work. A new term came out of one of the prototypes.
You get to the point in the workshop where you’ve done the ideation and they’re working on modeling out their prototype… and then they’re going to present it to their colleagues and maybe present it to external stakeholders to sort of validate things—conceptual level, right? And they had built this tabletop walkthrough to represent the idea that they had come up with to address the challenge. And there was a little path and that they had these little LEGO dudes walking along the path. There were also these things you can get at Michael’s—the little fuzzy balls, the little tiny ones—all over the path. The person presenting pointed to those little fuzzy balls said, “When the employee goes down the path, these are the corporate antibodies attacking the change that’s happening here.”
I use that term all the time now. We have to fight off the corporate antibodies that are trying to fight against the change.
Innovation is all about change, right? That’s where I think having a trusted partner—whoever that might be, usually it’s external or could be somebody internal in an organization who’s been through that process—to guide a team that hasn’t had to fight off those corporate antibodies. Hasn’t had to go through the agonizing change management, getting people used to doing things differently, especially if you’re going to do some disruptive innovation. That’s why a lot of times they just, you know, park it somewhere outside the building so it doesn’t get killed.
Marc, is there anything that you wished I’d asked but I didn’t?
I always enjoy our conversations. I always feel obliged to acknowledge the important responsibility that we have to work on representation in design and inclusiveness for underrepresented people in the world and in the community. I think that’s an important thing. And I’m sure you would agree. So that’s the one thing we haven’t touched on, but I think it’s important. It’s incumbent upon us to always carry that torch.
Well, I’m glad you’re out there, bringing the deep humanity and especially the inclusive sensibility to the work. Thank you very much for joining us on the show. And I am sure we will talk soon.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Dawan, thank you so much for inviting me to be part of this. I’m honored to be among the many amazing guests that you’ve had.
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.