Living economies

Friday I attended a talk by Hunter Lovins at California College of the Arts. She briefly touched on a point of view about globalization that struck me: You can’t have a living economy without a local economy — otherwise, you have an economy that is either killing or dying.

Think about that for a minute. In a global economy, your economy is either killing others or being killed. In order to thrive without destroying, you must have a robust local economy.

That’s not to say business shouldn’t benefit from global markets. But the foundation of economies should be rooted in creating sustainable value and resilience locally.

West Coast Green Coverage

This year I wrote about West Coast Green for Triple Pundit, a site devoted to green business news and ideas. Links to my posts:

“Green” Marketing Lessons from the eBay Box

Backstory about the development of the reusable eBay Box, tips from an intrapreneur involved in the project, and the importance of community engagement.

Madrone League: Open Source Sustainability Education

Hunter Lovins’ vision for affordable sustainability education that would be global, participant-driven, and collaborative.

A Look at Women’s Leadership in Sustainability

Wrap-up of a panel exploring how women lead and how that leadership style can benefit sustainability.

The Social Entrepreneurship Era of Burning Man

The Burning Man community’s values and innovation are generating social ventures that have potential to address global problems.

The Valuation Trap: How ROI Can Undermine the Case for Sustainability

While measuring outcomes helps sell sustainability initiatives, emphasis on quantitative proof can have unintended consequences.

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.


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.

Sustainable Brands

In June I was able to attend part of the Sustainable Brands 09 conference in Monterey. Some conference highlights:

Corporate iguanas

My favorite moment of the conference came with the reference by Dev Patnaik to “Corporate Iguanas”. The reptilian brain has no empathy or social awareness, which leads reptiles to “treat each other like furniture” and eat their own. That certainly does sound like a few corporations I know.

People who need people

The social and organizational sides are often left out of the sustainability conversation, presumably because the environmental stuff is easier to measure and understand. However, People is indeed one of the 3 Ps so I was heartened to see Frito-Lay includes Talent as a major part of their sustainability strategy. Creating a sustainable organization relies on the ability to attract and retain the best employees.

Proverb from the Sun Chips guy

If you want 1 year of prosperity, plant corn.
If you want 10 years of prosperity, plant trees.
If you want 100 years of prosperity, educate people.


Jez Frampton of Interbrand says 95% of customers would consider buying green products, but only 22% do — that’s the opportunity space. (I thought this was contradicted by another number that stated somewhere north of 10% actively refuse to buy green, so how can 95% consider it?) He also said only 42% of CEOs say sustainability is on their agenda and only 19% of boards say so. Nice to see the boards are taking their oversight responsibilities seriously. I was disappointed that Frampton’s discussion about expressing the lifetime impact of buying a BMW somehow stopped at ownership, overlooking end of life entirely.

Effecting change

At the end of day 2, I finally saw a system map! (I have an unnatural love of system diagrams and process graphics.) A consultant working with Starbucks brought together all the coffee cup stakeholders, from Dow through the municipal recycling facility, and familiarized them with each other and how they interconnect. An important takeaway was that even though there may be parts of the system that have a larger impact, the party that feels the pain is the one who will make the change. In this case, it’s Starbucks that is doing the work because it benefits from or is punished by the sustainability PR.

Familiar faces

It was nice to be at a conference where I know people! The MBA in Design Strategy program was well represented by our program chair, Nathan Shedroff, who was speaking, plus another instructor and a big handful of our guest lecturers. This conference was a very friendly bunch, much more so than design conferences I have attended, and our program gave me a good opening to talk with strangers.

The speaker from IDEO, Owen Rogers, seemed familiar and I realized we were at a workshop together in Kansas City 7 years ago! That workshop was one of my first encounters with Nathan, too.