Brand Workshop

gc_workshopAs part of my current project at Kaiser Permanente, I recently facilitated a workshop to explore identity and vision for two KP innovation groups.

As a solo facilitator leading a packed half-day session, I was grateful for participants who weren’t intimidated by abstract, visual exercises – they comfortably and confidently set about imagining metaphors, placing dots, and drawing pictures. (Note to self: People like crayons!) The drawings were a highlight – in only 5 minutes, they created an amazing range of pictures and diagrams that distilled a nebulous concept into tangible forms.

I am incredibly lucky to be working with such enthusiastic partners in the service of a great mission, innovation in healthcare.

Brand of Me

During a conversation at a conference, I mentioned I had created a brand strategy for myself as a job candidate. When asked, “Did you do stakeholder interviews?” I nodded, thrilled by his intuition, before realizing he was kidding. Almost before his words were out he grasped his misperception and we agreed that while it sounds odd on the surface, of course I would gather feedback from colleagues. Why wouldn’t I? That’s an important part of the brand audit process, no matter who it’s for.

Developing a brand is the more or less the same whether you are a Fortune 500 company, small business, entrepreneur, or job seeker. To be successful you have to know your core identity, competitors, audience, and value proposition, among other things, and then have a plan for how to communicate that consistently and compellingly. Each situation will have different angles and challenges, but the basic framework always applies.

My project was part of the Brand Strategy course taken in my final semester. The assignment was to perform a brand audit, starting with assessing the market, getting feedback about existing brand image, and then articulating a differentiated brand identity, personality, and position. We were encouraged to use a real-world project or even ourselves as the brand to make it immediately relevant and useful.

I chose the “Brand of Me” option which, admittedly, felt like a bit of a lark at first. But soon I realized how valuable it would be to apply a rigorous audit and strategy process to my career planning as I prepared to be among the first DMBA graduates. With a hybrid set of skills and a unique MBA, being able to clearly define my target markets, strengths, messages, and experiences would be critical. And, as many of us expect to have to create our own positions, having a long-term career strategy would be equally important.

In two years I had collected a mountain of frameworks, and I enthusiastically applied every tool I had to this exploration. For me, the key is not knowing what a tool might add to the process but doing it anyway to find out if it will reveal something new. Taking the time to explore seemingly redundant tools for mapping the transition from “here to there” helped me identify common threads, triangulate missing information, and find the most effective visualization. I relied heavily on visualizations in an effort to align the tools with the subject, since a key part of my value proposition is the ability to synthesize and visualize information.

The most valuable learning came in the process itself. Not every tool was useful and some had to be altered or even invented, but continuing to iterate and sketch led me to insights in unexpected places. Some tools took me down blind alleys — all versions of mind maps and ecosystems, normally some of my favorites, did not produce new information. The greatest insights came from a timeline, which I originally intended simply as a graphic about my career rather than as a strategy tool. However, the process of mapping my past positions, activities, and learning revealed the future as well. The timeline gave me a structure to plot out interim and end goals, plus the adjustments needed in activities and learning to reach them. The effect was similar to a ERRC (Eliminate, Raise, Reduce, Create) grid, but with a chronological dimension added.

Observing the varying audits presented by my classmates illustrated that while all brand strategies share a framework, there are not “5 easy tools” that will provide optimal insights for every brand. It takes diligence and a curious mind to adapt the process to each unique situation, but brand strategy can be applied to any professional endeavor, even career planning.

 

Article originally published in the DMBA 2010 student annual

Branding Higher Education

At an event at UC Berkeley, I lucked into a keynote by Rich Lyons, Dean of the Haas School of Business. He shared the new strategic plan for Haas, and it was great to see brand strategy tools applied to higher education — and applied very well.

In a time when business school thinking is being blamed for the economic meltdown and there are countless schools and graduates fighting for market share, what does it mean to have an education from Haas? Why would you choose Haas over other schools? Why should you hire a Haas grad instead of a Stanford grad? This type of inquiry is exactly the basis for brand strategy.

From their research, they identified four “defining principles” of Haas:

  1. Question the status quo: We lead by championing bold ideas, taking intelligent risks and accepting sensible failures. This means speaking our minds even when it challenges convention. We thrive at the world’s epicenter of innovation.
  2.  Confidence without attitude: We make decisions based on evidence and analysis, giving us the confidence to act without arrogance. We lead through trust and collaboration.
  3. Students always: We are a community designed for curiosity and lifelong pursuit of personal and intellectual growth. This is not a place for those who feel they have learned all they need to learn.
  4. Beyond yourself: We shape our world by leading ethically and responsibly. As stewards of our enterprises, we take the longer view in our decisions and actions. This often means putting larger interests above our own.

They’ve done a great job. Reading these really conveys a story about who a Haas student is — you can imagine this person and how she thinks, and this image feels exactly right for a business program at UC Berkeley. Kudos!

What’s also smart are the plans for communicating this identity. In the best example, Lyons talked about writing an applicant recommendation form that would ask questions about the characteristics, e.g., does this candidate have confidence without attitude? Not only does this filter out many candidates, but each recommender — many of whom are top thinkers and executives around the world — comes away with a distinctly positive impression about the qualities of a Haas graduate. That’s an amazing brand reputation tool, in the shape of an admission form.

This level of work shouldn’t be a surprise when one of Haas’s marquee names is Professor Emeritus David Aaker, a founder of Prophet and one of the biggest names in marketing and brand strategy.

On the Driver’s Side

Recently I had the pleasure of keeping my brother company as he drove a U-Haul across half of Arizona and California. After the endless desert dotted with horribly designed billboards along I-10 and the vast nothingness along I-5, our very boring trip was brightened by cute ads at a 76 station.

First I noticed the Children’s Guide to Splattered Bugs at the pump. It was so unexpected that it took a minute for me to realize the flip side wasn’t the same, but another fun sign, Loosen up While you Fill Up, offering much-needed stretching tips. The campaign tagline, We’re On the Driver’s Side, is a clever play on the gas tank arrow. (One could debate this on more political level, but superficially it’s great.)

I did some digging, and it appears this campaign is credited to Venables Bell, and they get props for creating something with just the right amount of levity to catch attention without being over the top. It’s cute, clever, and got me to pull out my iPhone and snap photos. Job well done!

DMI Recap, Part 3

Wrapping up my thoughts on DMI Re-thinking…The Future of Design, I have a few final thoughts on pushing the design thinking discussion farther. I came away from the conference feeling there is still a lot of talk about the theoretical application of design thinking, but not much about the actual practice of it.

A critical comment was made during the wrap-up, wishing there had been more conversation around applying design thinking outside of design disciplines. I couldn’t agree more. I already live in the world of design thinking for designers, and I want to learn more about design thinking for more traditional business domains such as finance and corporate strategy.

David Butler and Chuck Jones were edging around that conversation, stating that as executive design leaders they were being invited to business planning meetings and the like. That is exactly what I wanted to hear more about, and what I hoped to find at this conference. How are those interactions going? What are they able to bring to those discussions, or finding they are unable to bring? Are they doing anything to actively advance the case for “designers” moving beyond conventional perceptions and becoming business partners within their organizations? I’d like to see some tactical discussions about what it took to get to those positions and what they think design thinkers need to know or learn to succeed.

On the other hand, as much as I would like this guidance, Valerie Casey made the point that she’s tired of designers asking for “5 steps” to make things happen. She argued that we’re designers, our job is to use our imaginations to solve problems. We should be able to figure things out for ourselves and not need everything spelled out for us, and she isn’t entirely wrong. We can’t wait for someone to tell us what to do, we have to just jump in.

That’s what I’ve been doing for years and while it does work, it works very slowly. It would be nice if there were more institutional track being laid to draw connections between disciplines and change job descriptions to reflect our more complex world. For instance, I’ve seen articles discussing universities cutting liberal arts majors due to a lack of interest because of job placement fears, and yet I know plenty of anthropology and philosophy majors today who have amazing jobs as design strategists and researchers. The universities aren’t doing enough to draw lines between their humanities programs and the design thinking type jobs that value those skills. And, they could be better preparing those same students through integration across disciplines including business courses.

My last thought is that we did get one real-world example of organizational design thinking from Katie Taylor of the Four Seasons, but it wasn’t universally recognized as such. After the conference was over, I was engaged with a gentleman who felt that her presentation did not reflect design thinking. It’s subjective, but I believe the elements of design thinking that are most valuable to business are: user-centered principles, systems thinking, and prototyping. Her story sounded a bit simplistic at times — the best design is often obvious, after all — but describing how they assess and adapt to guest needs, understand the entire customer experience, and empower employees to try out new solutions certainly met my criteria to qualify as design thinking.

DMI Recap, Part 2

More from DMI…

Silver buckshot

Soundbite of the day: There is no silver bullet, but there is silver buckshot. (Valerie Casey)

Interdisciplinary takes work

Being interdisciplinary involves more effort than simply assembling a committee. It requires training in how to work collaboratively, and — more importantly — how to communicate your values and point of view in a way that is understandable and compelling to others.

Oh, the humanities!

Roger Martin says integrated thinking starts with critical thinking, and is bolstered by a well-rounded education in the humanities. My mom’s insistence on a BA instead of a BFA is looking pretty good right now! It is true that while I lost out on a more rigorous education around concept and craft, I gained a better education in all the things that help you understand who people are, where they are coming from, and how they think. There will always be someone who is a better visual artist than I am, but I am a better critical and abductive thinker than most.

Define winning

David Butler of Coca-Cola talked about the importance of clearly defining “winning” for the organization, to give structure to decisions and resolve conflicts. I’m sure there isn’t always such organizational clarity and selflessness, and it called to mind Joel Kashuba of P&G who spoke at CCA last semester. When we were at dinner he said his first question in any collaboration is to ask how they are rewarded, meaning what success means to them (and their boss). This is simply the personal definition of winning — is it patents, a bonus for meeting a target, career growth? Once you know what it is, make it a design requirement and things will go much smoother. It’s obvious, but we rarely think to ask explicitly and then wonder why our projects get mysteriously derailed.

Project ROI

Butler also brought up something I should make my personal mantra: Focus on the highest-value offerings. There are infinite projects that are interesting or fun or relevant, and it’s easy to get distracted by them especially when you are passionate about your work. Use finite resources and time intelligently to get to winning faster.

DMI Recap, Part 1

This year I was unable to attend Sustainable Brands, but in its stead the following week I went to the DMI Re-Thinking…the Future of Design conference in San Francisco.

At the risk of sounding like a jaded know-it-all, by the time there is a conference created it seems that I’ve already been having many of those conversations for years. I’d like to see conferences push the conversation further, going from theory to practice and becoming far more multi-disciplinary. More on that to come.

That said, there were still great insights and conversations to be found, and following are the ones still on my mind a week later:

Defining “design thinking”

John Fly of Milliken made the argument there should be no canonical definition of design thinking because its very essence is rooted in a diversity of ideas and insights and therefore should not be fixed.

Later, Joel Podolny was discussing how the Yale business school had to create an internal communications program to ensure students were able to successfully discuss their new, unusual curriculum with employers. It immediately occurred to me that the DMBA program could benefit from this type of messaging training as we talk about our unique education to the world. Then my follow-up thought was that, per Fly, there is a value in each of us defining it in our own way. (We should each have a definition and be prepared to discuss it, though, whatever it is.)

Leadership matters more than talent

Robert Verganti said that half of all of the famed Italian industrial design is actually designed by non-Italians. What the design houses have in common is the vision of Italian design management.

Innovation is risky. Deal with it.

It was unanimously agreed that innovation can’t be measured and validated, and anyone who says they can is wrong. (Not so different from other strategies and forecasts. They are always invented numbers to a greater or lesser degree.) You simply can’t measure the future. Verganti recommended involving executives in the entire process so that they see the solution as an inevitability rather than something that arrived out of the blue. On the other hand, someone else noted that you can’t overwhelm clients with every detail of your process and thinking. Getting the right balance and facilitating stakeholder involvement sounds like one of the key challenges of innovation.

During a break, I was speaking to a consultant who pushed back on the inability to measure innovation, stating that most big companies just aren’t going to do something you can’t prove the case for. He’s right. That’s why most firms aren’t innovative.

Making the case

In a conversation with Nathan Shedroff, the chair and creator of my Design Strategy MBA program, and Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek, Bruce said that companies should be snapping graduates like us up. Great! So how do we convince them of that? Or do we? This may be similar to innovation — convincing companies is a waste of time, but you can find the converted and work with them.

 

Hearst Castle meets Wuthering Heights

After two years of ambiguity and stretching and perseverance, I have officially earned the designation of Master of Business Administration! That seems like a silly title; administering business is just about the last of my aspirations.

It would be nice if I could enjoy a little more R&R, but finding work has to be my first priority. Plus, I am excited about the prospect of a new job. I’ve worked at home for a long time and while it will be challenging to give up those advantages, they are outweighed by my desire for the collaboration and learning of a team environment. (Remind me of that when I have to get up 3 hours earlier than I am used to, okay? Thanks.) I’ve learned and connected so many ideas in the past 2 years that now I am eager to put it all into action.

I was able to take a couple of days off to head down the coast to the famed Hearst Castle. It was nice to be off the grid (no cell service in Cambria) and spend time with my Mom, who hasn’t seen a whole lot of me for the past two years. Unfortunately there was unexpected cold rain, obscuring the views and leaving us shivering and impatient to get inside. This was especially disappointing since the exterior architecture and beautiful gardens were highlights for me — perhaps because they offered a respite from Gothic and Renaissance overload inside.

On Being Unreasonable

Friday I gave a brief speech at a Designers Accord town hall event “Design Change, Change Design” hosted at California College of the Arts and organized by Design Strategy MBA students Ahmed Riaz, Elysa Soffer, and Mike Funk.

My talk was geared at designers who want to work towards social good but aren’t sure how, and it was inspired by The Power of Unreasonable People by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan. A fellow speaker also brought the Unreasonable Institute to my attention, which is based on the same idea.

A short version of my speech follows.


My goal in life is to be an unreasonable person.

It’s true most of the time people need to be more reasonable, not less — but reasonable people don’t change the world.  A quote from George Bernard Shaw:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world around him, where the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

To make a change in the world, we have to be unreasonable — we have to believe in things that most people think are pointless, or crazy, or impossible. At an event about “design for social good” it’s safe to assume many of you are already pretty good at this. But for those just getting started, here are 5 ways designers can be unreasonable:

1) Push back

The first step to being unreasonable is challenging the design parameters you are given. Even if they were written by a boss, client, or someone you think is smarter than you are doesn’t mean they’re right. Designers have a pivotal role as the gatekeepers to “stuff” — messages, products, processes — and they can use this to influence what is produced.

Ask basic questions: Is this the right solution, or even the right problem? Does it have to be done with this material or process? If you can, add your voice and improve the outcome. And even if you can’t, sneak in improvements. I had a client who didn’t like the idea of recycled paper even though he couldn’t tell the difference, so I simply didn’t tell him the paper he approved was recycled. Problem solved.

2) Just say No

Once you’re used to pushing back, stop working with clients or projects that are harmful. Tell your boss you won’t work on certain accounts, or turn down projects or clients if you have that power. Yes, it’s scary and risky. That’s why it’s unreasonable.

3) Believe you are the only one who will solve the problem

Reasonable people think others — people, governments, corporations — are working on the world’s problems. You may even be thinking that you aren’t business savvy, smart, or qualified enough to make a difference. But designers are, by definition, trained to solve problems. You’re exactly the right person to identify a need and find a way to meet it. Keep in mind you don’t have to have a big idea yet. Just keep your eyes open and needs will appear in your own backyard.

4) Find profit where others think there is none

Once you found your opportunity, become a social entrepreneur. Social entrepreneurs are the very definition of unreasonable, bucking common wisdom by finding creative ways to create economic gain alongside social good and refusing to accept they have to choose between doing good and making a good living. Just because no one else has figured out how to solve a particular problem and make money at the same time doesn’t mean you can’t. Figure it out!

5) Sell out

As a social entrepreneur you may have formed an entire community of unreasonable people working outside the system, and all of these ideas start seeming…very reasonable. In this group, perhaps the most unreasonable thing you can do is go back inside the belly of the beast and become a social intrapreneur instead. Going back to point #3, believe you are the person who can change  a mega-corp like Monsanto from the inside. I’ve taken a few potshots at Adam Werbach for working with Walmart and selling his agency to a media conglomerate, but he’s right that a micron of change by Walmart can create a larger measurable result than everything else combined.

For more about social entrepreneurship and what it means to be unreasonable, I highly recommend reading The Power of Unreasonable People.

Play That Silver Ball

For my elective class this semester I chose Mythology, Meaning, and Design, an exploration of myths, archetypes, and symbols and how they continue to play out today in modern storytelling such as media and branding. So far it’s a very demanding class — more than an elective is worth, probably — but I’m having fun with it.

For our second module I’m investigating of the experience of pinball: why people love the game and why there has been a small recent revival. Conveniently, the Pacific Pinball Expo just took place, and in Alameda there is a local pinball palace/museum, Lucky JuJu, so I have been able to observe players in their natural habitat.

The most surprising discovery has been the charming art of pinball. Before licensed themes became dominant (the era I played in as a child) there were decades of beautiful graphic art exploring every pop culture theme from science fiction to sports to the Old West. (Hmm, see any myths there?) Rows of seemingly endless machines displayed an incredible collection of this unique but endangered American art form

So far in this project I’ve created an epic pinball infographic that think may be portfolio  material. Next, for the branding portion of the project I’m considering designing a beer company with the pinball art as a centerpiece. Can’t wait!