I was one of the taller kids in my high school class. I thought – and hoped – that I might use this size advantage to become a star basketball player.
Alas, it was not to be. I had a bad case of what’s often called “white guy’s disease”. Simply put, I couldn’t jump. Though I was over six feet tall, I could barely touch the rim even with my mightiest leap.
Van Jones would call this my fate. In a memorable commencement speech at Loyola New Orleans, Jones distinguished between fate and destiny. He defines fate as “those things that we have no control over” and suggests that the “people who are most miserable in life are the ones who spend their time cursing their fate.” (Click here for the video).
As it happens, the field of design thinking has a similar concept. Dave Evans, a design engineer, calls it the gravity problem. No matter how hard we try, we can’t change gravity. Indeed, we can’t even suspend it temporarily. Wouldn’t it be great to suspend gravity while we’re building a new house and then reinstate it when we move in? Unfortunately, we can’t. Time to move on. (For a podcast featuring Evans, click here).
Gravity is a fact of life. My inability to jump is a fact of my life. Instead of asking, “How can I change my fate?” it’s better to accept it and ask more useful questions. A useful question is one that we can actually do something about. A designer would say that we need to design around the constraints.
As Evans describes it, we’re looking for room to maneuver around the facts that define our products or our lives. I couldn’t jump very high. That’s a design constraint. So I might ask a different question: “How can I make basketball an important part of my life, even though I can’t play very well?” Once I ask the how can I question, I can dream up alternatives. I might become a coach. Or a sportscaster. Or I might decide to take up a sport that doesn’t require jumping.
Van Jones calls this destiny as opposed to fate. We have no control over fate. But we can respond to destiny. As Jones points out, “The world is not going to tell you every day about …” your destiny. We have to live our lives, and respond to our challenges, to discover our destiny.
Whether we call it destiny or design thinking, when we bump up against gravity, we need to change the question. By doing so, we can find an array of alternatives. Once armed with a list of alternatives, we can design a life or a product. Which alternatives fit the constraints? Which ones don’t?
We don’t design a product and then launch it. Rather we design it, then re-design it, then re-design it as we discover new constraints. Similarly, it’s difficult to design a life before we launch it. To overcome fate and discover our destiny, we need to design our lives as we live them.
The movie Apollo 13 came out in 1995 and popularized the phrase “Failure is not an option”. The flight director, Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris), repeated the phrase to motivate engineers to find a solution immediately. It worked.
I bet that Kranz’s signature phrase caused more failures in American organizations than any other single sentence in business history. I know it caused myriad failures – and a culture of fear – in my company.
Our CEO loved to spout phrases like “Failure is not an option” and “We will not accept failure here.” It made him feel good. He seemed to believe that repeating the mantra could banish failure forever. It became a magical incantation.
Of course, we continued to have failures in our company. We built complicated software and we occasionally ran off the rails. What did we do when a failure occurred? We buried it. Better a burial than a “public hanging”.
The CEO’s mantra created a perverse incentive. He wanted to eliminate failures. We wanted to keep our jobs. To keep our jobs, we had to bury our failures. Because we buried them, we never fixed the processes that led to the failures in the first place. Our executives could easily conclude that our processes were just fine. After all, we didn’t have any failures, did we?
As we’ve learned elsewhere, design thinking is all about improving something and then improving it again and then again and again. How can we design a corporate culture that continuously improves?
One answer is the concept of the just culture. A just culture acknowledges that failures occur. Many failures result from systemic or process problems rather than from individual negligence. It’s not the person; it’s the system. A just culture aims to improve the system to 1) prevent failure wherever possible or; 2) to ameliorate failures when they do occur. In a sense, it’s a culture designed to improve itself.
According to Barbara Brunt, “A just culture recognizes that individual practitioners should not be held accountable for system failings over which they have no control.” Rather than hiding system failures, a just culture encourages employees to report them. Designers can then improve the systems and processes. As the system improves, the culture also improves. Employees realize that reporting failures leads to good outcomes, not bad ones. It’s a virtuous circle.
The concept of a just culture is not unlike appreciative inquiry. Managers recognize that most processes work pretty well. They appreciate the successes. Failure is an exception – it’s a cause for action and design thinking as opposed to retribution. We continue to appreciate the employee as we redesign the process.
The just culture concept has established a firm beachhead among hospitals in the United States. That makes sense because hospital mistakes can be especially tragic. But I wonder if the concept shouldn’t spread to a much wider swath of companies and agencies. I can certainly think of a number of software companies that could improve their quality by improving their culture. Ultimately, I suspect that every organization could benefit by adapting a simple principle of just culture: if you want to improve your outcomes, recruit your employees to help you.
I’ve learned a bit about just culture because one of my former colleagues, Kim Ross, recently joined Outcome Engenuity, the leading consulting agency in the field of just culture. You can read more about them here. You can learn more about hospital use of just culture by clicking here, here, and here.
When we think of innovation, we often think of bright young people working in creatively organized offices while pushing the envelope and thinking outside the box. It’s fun, exciting, challenging, and maybe even a little bit sexy. It’s the kind of job we all want.
But what about the rest of the world?
Much of the innovation that I have observed takes place in rather mundane places and involves rather ordinary business or social processes. It’s the act of taking some thing (or some process), observing how it’s used, and designing a better way to do it. If we think about innovation only as the process of creating something entirely new, we’ll miss many, many opportunities to change the world for the better.
Take our refrigerator, for instance.
Suellen and I were recently on vacation and asked a very responsible young woman named Alyssa to house sit for us. As soon as we left, our refrigerator stopped working. Alyssa organized a service call, coordinated with the repairman, and had the refrigerator repaired in a jiffy. From our perspective, it was virtually painless (except for the bill, of course).
When we arrived back home, we also got a pleasant surprise. Alyssa had completely reorganized the interior space of the refrigerator. She had examined the food items we keep and adjusted shelves and drawers to fit our lifestyle. She used the space much more efficiently and made frequently used items more readily available. It’s now simpler and easier to store and retrieve our food.
Why hadn’t we organized our fridge more effectively? We never thought about it. It’s one of those ordinary, mundane appliances that doesn’t attract our attention. It’s not leading edge, or state of the art, or sexy. Though we use it every day, we never considered how we might improve it. When the refrigerator arrived in our house, we simply put our food in it. We didn’t think about rearranging shelves or drawers to improve utility and efficiency. It took Alyssa to apply design thinking to an ordinary, everyday item.
We describe some things as “wallpaper” because they recede into the background. We don’t need to pay much attention to them. We don’t consider them as opportunities to create and innovate. But we interact with our wallpaper everyday. That makes even small innovations meaningful and impactful. If you want to be an innovator, spend more time on wallpaper and less time thinking outside the box.
I hate to admit it, but I may have spent my years in the software business looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I worked for sophisticated technology companies. Quite often, the fundamental question that animated us was, “What more can we do with all this great technology?”
As today’s technology companies (even IBM) are discovering, good design starts at the opposite end of the telescope: with user needs. Indeed, we may even need to discover user needs that users aren’t aware of. The trend is generally lumped under the terms, design thinking or design-oriented culture.
So how does one create a design-oriented culture? Here are some thoughts I’ve culled from recent readings.
It’s about the experience – the central question is simple: what do customers really need? Too often however, we add a limiting clause to the question: what do customers really need from us? Rather than focusing on the complete user experience, we ask a more self-centered question: How can we get customers to want more of what we have to offer?
Design thinking broadens the frame. Rather than thinking only about what we have to offer, we might think about how users acquire the product, how they learn to use it, and what ancillary products they might need to make the product useful.
McKinsey offers up two examples: 1) HP doesn’t just wait for you to order new ink cartridges. They monitor your use and send you cartridges before you even know you need them. 2) John Deere doesn’t just sell tractors anymore. They also offer,”… digital services such as crop advisories, weather alerts, planting prescriptions, and seeding-population advice.”
It’s about making sense – Jon Kolko in Harvard Business Review, argues that technologies and systems (think of our healthcare system) are so complicated today that people just can’t make sense of them. Good designs should address this. I find, for instance, that Turbo Tax addresses a complex issue and, in Kolko’s terminology, makes it “simple, intuitive, and pleasurable.” In other words, it’s well designed. Imagine if we could make buying health insurance equally simple, intuitive, and pleasurable.
It’s about prototypes – I remember introducing new products with a “big reveal”. We developed the products in secret. We couldn’t talk to customers about them – that would be selling futures. We built some buzz and, when everything was ready, we popped the new product out of the box. Sometimes the big reveal worked great. Sometimes not.
Kolko argues that design-cultures are much more interested in prototyping their ideas all along the development path. Kolko writes that, “The habit of publicly displaying rough prototypes hints at an open-minded culture, one that values exploration and experimentation over rule following.”
It’s about emotions – software seems like the ultimately rational product. Buying software should be rational as well – the product with the most features should always win.
Alas, it’s just not true. Indeed, the software industry has much more in common with the fashion industry than one might imagine. It’s not just what the software does. It’s how it makes you feel as it’s doing it. If it does the job but makes you feel stupid, it’s not well designed.
(As an aside, I think this is why the Lars Lawson cartoon character worked well for Lawson Software. Lars touched on our emotions – something quite unusual for B2B software).
It’s about thinking – as Lawton Ursrey notes in Forbes: “Design thinking combines creative and critical thinking that allows information and ideas to be organized, decisions to be made, situations to be improved, and knowledge to be gained.”
At the simplest level, design thinking means doing an about-face. Rather than facing inward, we turn around and face outward. We send our employees outside and bring our customers inside. It’s about attitude more than anything else. Unfortunately, attitudes are very hard to redesign.
Some years ago, on a business trip, I checked into a hotel that had just implemented a new computer system. I asked the desk clerk how he liked it. He responded very positively: “It’s great. It’s so much better than the previous system.” He smiled broadly and spoke enthusiastically. I assumed that he was telling the truth.
I also noticed some telling details. He had to bend far forward to reach the keyboard. Then he had to tilt his head back to see the screen. It looked awkward to say the least. He couldn’t make eye contact with me and use the system at the same time.
More problematically, the system was rigid and field-oriented. The screen contained many fields, not all of which were necessary for each client. But you couldn’t skip a field. To get from Field A to Field Z, you had to navigate sequentially through Field B, then Field C, and so on. The poor guy must have hit the Return key a dozen times while checking me in. He couldn’t check me in and have a friendly conversation at the same time.
I noted two things about the situation. First, the man seemed genuinely pleased with the new system. He recommended it without reservation. (No pun intended). Second, the system really wasn’t very good. The man didn’t realize what he might have had.
I also thought about how I might act if I were an executive at the hotel company. If I listened to what the desk clerk said, I would congratulate the IT department, maybe give out a bonus or two, and move on to the next problem.
But if I looked instead of listening, I might have had a very different reaction. The system was awkward, physically uncomfortable, and not conducive to good customer communication. I might not have torn the system out, but I certainly would have requested an upgrade.
This is a pretty good illustration of the difference between seeing with your mind and seeing with your eyes. The desk clerk was seeing with his mind. He had a mental image of the old system (“clunky, user hostile”) and of the new system (“much improved”). He didn’t see what he was actually doing. He didn’t perceive any shortcomings because he was comparing it, not to an ideal system, but to an old system.
A good observer, on the other hand, would not compare the system to preconceived notions. A good observer would have no preconceived notions. She would merely observe and identify problems and opportunities.
My experience reminds me of the women who designed the Volvo concept car some years ago. If I were designing a car, I would assume that it “should” have a hood (bonnet) that opens. After all, all cars have hoods that open. There must be a reason. That’s a notion that I see in my mind’s eye, not in my physical eye.
The Volvo designers, on the other hand, simply observed how people used their cars. They noted that drivers rarely open the hoods. Indeed, they do so only to add windshield washer fluid. The designers asked a simple question: Why bother? They put a fluid filler opening on the outside of the car and simplified the entire front end of the car by eliminating the openable hood.
The designers created a car that is simpler, cleaner, lighter, and stronger. That’s good design. It comes from seeing the world as it is, not as it’s assumed to be.