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Design Thinking and Innovation trainer, coach and consultant Dean Meyers has been teaching people how to apply visual thinking and design thinking in technology since the Macintosh arrived on desktops with the first graphical users interface. He has employed techniques including graphic facilitation and LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® to help entrepreneurs, startups, managers and C-suite decision-makers do better work, build stronger teams and become more than design thinkers: they are design DOERS. His motto is, “Be Brave and ITERATE!”.
Dean is one of the authors of “The World of Visual Facilitation”, Publishes the online news media outlet, VizWorld.com, and is on the faculty of the American Management Association.
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What Made Steve Jobs Billions – Dean Meyers | CYBER EDITION
I have a guest who is into design thinking. He’s an innovation trainer, coach and consultant. He has employed techniques including Graphic Facilitation in LEGO Serious Play. LEGO as in the blocks. We’re going to find that out. That’s pretty fun. He helps people build stronger teams and become more than design thinkers. They are designed doers. His motto is, “Be brave and iterate.” Dean Meyers, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me, Rick. What a pleasure.
Tell me, what is design thinking?
There are two ways of looking at it. One is a philosophical approach. The other is the series of practices. There is applied design thinking and there’s where it comes from. It comes out of the idea of where you are going to be most successful in creating goods, products and services. It’s going to come from focusing on the people who are going to use them and receive or gain some benefit from doing that stuff. Design thinking came out of D schools and those places where they were working on, “How do we make things better for people that they will want or delighted by and want to use them?” That’s the philosophical side of it. The practical side was, “What are the methods that we use to come up with stuff?” That’s the other side of design thinking. How’s that sound for fast?
We need to unpack that. I understand the philosophical side and then the, “How we do these things?” In a nutshell, if I understand you correctly, design thinking is about putting purpose into what you’re bringing to the market in order to help other people. Is that a good rephrase?
That is a good rephrase. I left out the big thing that a lot of it started with this idea of human-centered design, meaning that’s the purpose which we focus on. That’s what it’s about and who it is for.
How do we go about that? I feel like everyone has answers to things that we don’t even have problems with. A lot of the products that come to market is like, “What am I going to use this for?”
Let’s turn away from this idea of the Edison’s of the world. The genius thinker who comes up with stuff. The “if you build it they will come” attitude, “I’ve got a great idea and I just know that if I get this great idea out there, everybody else is going to love it. Everybody is going to want it because I do.” Let’s turn that around and say, what are people trying to grapple with? What are people trying to resolve? What are people trying to fix? What are people trying to do better, easier or make them feel better or smarter? If we change the focus back to people and start from investigating people, that’s where it’s human-centered. We changed the focus from the self to the people we wanted to create something for. We start to investigate and ask as opposed to coming up with great ideas first and foremost. That’s the starting place. I’m talking philosophical turned into a method.
You train C-Suite from what I see. It’s an interesting group. I’m one of them. If you were to train me, where would you start for something like this? C-Suites, especially in large corporations, probably have a fixed set of products already. How do they shift from what they have or maybe applying what they have in a more designed perspective?
There’s another aspect of the bigger picture of design thinking. If we look at the ways of dealing with the big enterprise. If we call the C-Suite more than one, more than the tinkerer who became an inventor or an entrepreneur. If we look at that established business that has been around for a while, then we realized that we were dealing with the big ship. This big ship that’s floating in the ocean. In order to stay alive, it has to keep doing the things it’s been doing for X amount of years. The starting place is to accept that the big ship has to keep floating somehow but that if we’re going to turn the ship, we’re going to have to dedicate some effort to get some people potentially from the big ship. Maybe from outside, to start to break down the thinking to that other direction.
This is what happened with IBM who doesn’t necessarily produce a product. They produced services for years. What they had to do was stay on tap with what they had going on for a while to be able to invest in finding people who could start to think differently and to look at what people wanted and needed as opposed to the old services that they were giving. When they could produce enough of that good new stuff, then they could abandon it as it were. They could let go of the old products and services that were no longer going to last them because there was less and less desire or need for them and shift into being the new company, the “new” design thinking-based IBM. That’s an example of a company. I figured I’d give you an example or a case study rather than say, “You would do this, you would do that,” but talk about the facts of how that changed.
When you start to take this approach, you can take a hard look at yourself from a company perspective and say, “Am I matching where the marketplace is going? Am I matching the consumer? Are my products or services today be what they need five years or even five weeks from now? How do I start to implement those?” Especially with an enterprise-level, you’re using IBM as an example. That’s like the Titanic. It takes a long-ass time to turn the Titanic to miss the iceberg.
I bring that story out because it was a point where I did some consulting work with IBM when they already knew the writing was on the wall that their consultant services were not going to be useful. They attempted to bring in people like me, try and take old-line managers or middle-level people and do design thinking activities. Innovation theater is what we call it.
How did that work out?
It didn’t. I spent 3 or 4 days with them, got consulted by at least half of them, the ones who were willing to talk to me. That approach failed. They had to go to that other approach that I just mentioned. They had to dedicate some dollars to a bunch of radicals out of nowhere and say, “We’re going to set up a shop for you, you go ahead and try these new methods with all different people. We’ll accept whatever happens but you got to cook up something that we can shift over into.” It turned into a blood bath for a lot of IBM employees. It was a tough changeover. When they talk about disruption, that was a disruption at a massive level for them.
I’ll flip the switch to another kind of company. I don’t know how well you know about electronics, audio and so forth. The revolution in audio let’s say. I want to talk about this one company that came out of Australia, Rode Microphones. The guy who came up with it started from the design thinking approach. He realized he wanted to record his son’s thing at school and the kind of microphones that were built into the camera equipment stank and he said, “I’m going to try and cook up something better.” He realized that there’s a whole marketplace of people like him who wanted that quality but didn’t need the top end of things. He started the company. We call it the Prosumer or Professional Consumer. Prosumer didn’t exist in 1975 or 1985. He’s that new kind of entrepreneur who starts from a design thinking basis.
There are a lot of people, even in younger generations now that know who Rode is. There are a lot of new vloggers that exist. They’re posting to their own YouTube channels. You go to Best Buy or Amazon and purchase a Canon DSLR video maker kit and they all come with Rode Microphones or what they want the video might go. It’s become synonymous with vloggers. It’s perfectly applicable. There are a lot of scenarios in my industry too in managed service providers where I can see this because they’re not following trends. The services that are around right now are extremely highly commoditized. They’re becoming this way, then in five years, they won’t even necessarily need to exist anymore. When you’re talking about IBM, there’s an emotional attachment to the old way of doing things. That’s what a lot of midline managers tend to get involved in because they’ve poured their blood, sweat and tears into bringing this product or service to the market for many years. That’s been their whole existence. That’s why I joked when I asked, “How did that work out? You need to try them.”
Here’s the irony. I’m in the age category where I started working in technology officially as it were and I bought an Apple II Plus in 1981. I worked for Apple from 1983 to 1985, the first sales and tech rep for the Caribbean region. That environment of dealing with the end-users all the time directly and passing that word back up to the shop, that’s in my technology blood. That was the radical way of thinking back then. That was when Jobs put aside a bunch of people and gave them a pirate flag, put them in a locked building for 1.5-month and they cooked up the Macintosh.
Now I’m understanding your background because Apple is the perfect example of a forward design thinking company. I remember stories of Steve Jobs getting straight up pissed off when they came out with their first word-processing app. It wasn’t even the pages back then.
I remember Steve Jobs getting pissed off because it only had three fonts. The engineers were thinking, “Why do people need three fonts?” The whole thing is that you’re not thinking about the people. You’re not building this for the reason that people want to use this. You’re not designing it for them. You’re just designing it to function.
I’ll tell you one of the ads that I got to see that was never aired in the US. It was from Try-It Day but they did it for the French marketplace for Apple France in 1983. I can tell you what the ad was about because you’ll love this picture. You were sitting in a classroom and you were hearing a man speaking about, “This is a man. He works in an office. He writes notes,” and the guy would write notes. “Sometimes he takes notes, crumples it up and throws them away in a trash bucket.” He threw them in a trash bucket. “Sometimes he has to retrieve the note back out of the trash bucket because he found something he wants to copy and paste from it.” As the camera pulled back, it was a schoolroom full of little Macintosh computers learning man. This was 1983. This was Job’s vision of what the Macintosh was supposed to be about. This was supposed to be the future of computing.
He had his own issues and inner demons that he had to deal with like a lot of geniuses typically do. It’s fantastic for him to lock people in a room and say, “Put yourself in the shoes.” In my board meeting, they were saying, “We need to know what these individuals are thinking, feeling, a day in the life of them as we’re looking at acquisitions or even new customers. What drives them? List it out and create the avatar because everything we do from this point forward needs to be centered around that person.”
That’s design thinking.
I was part of Best Buy too. It was a whole movement back in 2004. It was called their Customer-Centric Model. They develop these avatars across the board. They even gave them names. They had B2B which was Best Buy for Business, but then they had Jill because they gave all these individuals names. I can’t remember all of them, but I remember Jill because she was the typical homemaker, the housewife that didn’t go to Best Buy at all with the exception of her partner in life saying, “I need you to pick something up for me on the way home.” It was never a destination spot for her. They designed an entire experience around Jill to where Jill now had personal shoppers. One of the things that still remains to this day that you’ll see in Best Buy parking lots are the front parking spots for moms with children. It’s not for families. If you look at the sign, it’s “For moms with children.” That came out of even designing services around a personal shopper, services around this character, Jill, as they were trying to develop this Customer-Centric Model which was a fantastic way of design thinking.
That’s absolutely at the core of it. That’s when I said you had the theory, and then the theory comes up with the methods. Now that we’re talking beyond theory and methods, I can tell that that’s creating personas. We now have a whole methodology around the things we do to practice design thinking. We need to figure out what are the things we’re doing that are making us successful thinking about clients, customers, users, people we are trying to serve, whatever label you want to put around them because there’s service design and product design.
There’s experience design like I was talking about. I’m curious about your take on this because the price is always an important factor. As we’re talking about the and services and experiences. This was one that was in the Best Buy world too. There were segments where the money didn’t matter, but then there were other segments and they had names for these personas too. People who would not spend very much and always wanted the budget items as they walked into the store. That was still designing the experience. From a product and service perspective, my company is a cybersecurity company and we’re very much designed forward-thinkers. I even have a phrase that my people hear me say all the time where I say, “We design everything.” All the way from graphic design on pamphlets or social media to the experience when somebody calls in or walks into the office and what they visually see, even the phrasing that we use with our clients and our prospects. That’s why I say, “We design everything.”
There’s a point where I shifted because you would start to look at the market and say, “How much is this typical service going for?” There was a phrase that a coach of mine uses a while back. I’m like, “What do I charge for this? He goes, “Whatever the market will bear, Rick.” I made a choice to have this design-forward service and create this thing pretty much around their experience and their design, but then my costs went up because of doing that. It forced me to become more efficient in some other areas to stay profitable, but I still kept that same thing saying, “We’re not going to sacrifice the design.” Is there a threshold or a balancing act that you see? Sometimes things can be overpriced and nobody will buy them if you go that route. Is there such thing as a compromise when it comes to design thinking?
Let’s go back to the Apple example and let’s also talk about the Amazon example. Both are completely designed thinking-centered. They’re part of the FAANG, Facebook, Apple, so on and so forth. I like to think of Steve as not a designer but a marketer first. I’m six months younger than him. I was around a little bit, not a lot but enough to get the flavor of where he was coming from. Conceptually, the feeling was about figuring out what’s the value proposition. If you look at business model generation and all these templates, they honed in on this. It’s finding that value point and then balancing.
Here’s the balancing act. The balancing act is if you do the full chart of the business model, that typical one that we see, I hate to call it the compromise point but you do have to find the tipping point realistically because you are dealing with materials, supply chain. I won’t even talk about demand because demand is something that’s created after the fact in truth. That’s part of the physical boundaries as it were if you’re talking about either product design and in-service design too. There’s a different tipping point in terms of the boundaries of how many people can you stuff in the box. I hate to say it that way. That’s a rude way of putting it.
There is the reality. I’ve done these exercises of, “Let’s make the product radioactive.” Now, what are you going to do? It’s one thing to say, “Think out of the box.” That’s well and good but you still have to define the box before you can think outside of the box. These are the constraints. Ironically, the constraints are often where the innovation happens. Where are the compromise points? How do you chip away at the ten days it takes to produce the item when you need it in five? These become, “How do you flip them around to turn them into opportunities?” That’s where imagination and creativity can be fascinating to watch people cook up innovative things.
Being around Apple where you were, where did people derail themselves when it came to design thinking? Where did they get off track? What are some of the sand traps that you might have along the way? I’m sure it’s easy to get sucked back into just the function of the thing.
It goes back to falling in love with your creativity. I hate to say that when the ego gets too big, it’s very natural to become excited about a thing, but if you do not go through the cycle of testing and refining against real people and real use, that’s where you fall into the trap.
It then becomes a laboratory experiment and it’s only in that lab without any real use case.
I wanted to bring out Amazon because it does a couple of things that are very interesting. This is why I throw in the whole “and iterate” into my motto. This I learned from Jared Spool who developed a user experience strategy for Amazon as an online service. At least this is what he said at a South by Southwest 2010 or 2011. He said, “Amazon’s home page changes every three weeks.” It is a constant design thinking experiment on the users all the time. You don’t notice it but they’re flipping things around and positioning letters. The “buy this”’ and two other items deal that they show all the time, there is no discount in that pricing structure. They caught onto the fact that people are fascinated by you combining these things that looked like they went together well. I don’t want to call it a trick. It was an experiment that happened to have fantastic results and they’re still doing it years later. Nobody complains, “Why are you doing this when there’s no discount?”
“People often buy this with this” is how they group these things. I look at those and there are times where I slipped “Sure, why not?” at the other two things.
You’re not getting a discount off.
It’s the Old McDonald thing, “Do you want fries with that?”
I wanted to bring out this idea that somehow when you have these constraints, you can keep pushing. In other words, you can take the little tiny experiments to keep pushing against the marketplace rather than bet the whole farm. That’s a different kind of innovation that I wanted to bring out. There is the flip the thing on its side because you got to get past the constraints, and then there’s that constant quiet innovation stuff that goes on that may last forever. If you’re always trying these little pushes, that’s an important element of trying to innovate too. I’ve been talking backward about this whole Three Horizon concept. Now we’ll go back to this idea that I started out that there are philosophical ways of thinking about design thinking.
If you think about that big monstrous Titanic, that big ship that’s in the water and you say, “We’re going to keep producing everything we were producing, that’s our Horizon 1. We know it’s going to die eventually but we got to keep paying these people we promised to pay. We also have to keep putting on the shelf the stuff that people are used to buying.” There’s the wild and crazy which is what we call the Horizon 3, “Someday that wild and crazy stuff is going to become the backbone of our business.” There’s that in the middle space like, “Let’s keep trying to extend the brand. Let’s change an ingredient or two. Let’s change the color of the box. Let’s make it work a little faster.” That’s the Three Horizon approach in terms of methods and thinking. That tends to be the safest bet. It’s complex. There are a lot of moving parts to it. That’s why I held it off and didn’t want to talk about it as well. I’m introducing it slowly. There’s a lot of thinking about what design thinking can be.
Are there different groups of people that would exist in that? If we’re going back full circle on the loop of our conversation here, back to that IBM example. The mid-line managers would be, “We’re still going to put the existing stuff on the shelf right now.” They had to bring in an entirely new crew, fresh blood for that, “Let’s tweak this stuff a little bit.” Who does the wild and crazy?
After they failed in their experiment of trying to bring us wild and crazy guys in a little bit piecemeal, they got a “wild and crazy guy” and they set them up in a shop in Austin, the land of South by Southwest. They said, “We’ll give you X amount of dollars, bring in who you want to bring in, cook up a whole new approach to services, have it added and take 18 or 24 months. Let’s see what you got on the other side of it.” It is the big Amazon example. Amazon is an interesting approach, we know what the big ship is in Amazon because they’re really an established enterprise. The big ship was started with books, then publications and then the Kindle. Amazon sets aside a big chunk of money to do wild and crazy. It is paid for by X amount of budget. It’s established that way that Amazon set itself up to be this Three Horizon type of company.
I say that because it’s not that Steve Jobs thought that way. He wasn’t an organizational thinker that way, but I believe that Jeff Bezos is very much that way. You probably see and notice very openly the fact that Amazon is very quietly but steadily working on trying to make some massive impact in the healthcare industry. Why not? They’ve got distribution. What are they missing? They can afford to do all that crazy experimentation.
A few years ago they ended up becoming a grocery with the acquisition of Whole Foods. Incredible innovation in that company, just knowing what people want and thinking that way first. It’s fantastic. Dean, where can everybody find you?
Probably, the easiest to find me is on LinkedIn first and foremost because that’s probably about the most stable social media that’s around. Find me there. As I say, I do wear a lot of hats. I have an online media called VizWorld.com. It gets loud, it gets quiet but I try to keep my eye on visual thinking, design thinking, innovation and stuff like that. It’s a little quiet as I rethink stuff. You can also find me on Instagram and Facebook.
Good deal. Thank you for being on. I appreciate us diving into some of your past and also where the future of everything’s going. Thank you.
My great pleasure. Thanks for having me.
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