Be the best maple tree you can be

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My inner control freak loves bonsai! It’s nature, in a tiny, perfectly-designed form.

Over a long weekend in Oregon, I lucked into an exhibit of American bonsai by Ryan Neil at the Portland Japanese Garden. It was charming and beautifully staged in origami-like frames.

What I learned is that American bonsai differs from the Japanese tradition. Japanese bonsai treasures the ideal, training each maple tree to be the ideal maple tree, whereas American-style bonsai brings out the unique characteristics of each individual maple. In the words of Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” That’s what Neil is doing. Incredibly, he does this with wood that’s as much as 600 years old, teasing out fresh life from what seems mostly dead. (Remind me of this if you hear me say I’m too old for anything.)

Why am I talking about bonsai? Because it is a great analogy to how we’ve evolved our thinking on brand and organizational development. The old school way was the “best practices” model — there is a right, replicable way to do things, and we succeed by emulating the ideal.  And, certainly, it is enormously useful to study the success of others.

What this overlooks is that organizations — and people — are not machines made up of levers that can be reliably manipulated just so. They are complex organisms filled with complex organisms, and despite common patterns no two are alike. Human systems simply can’t be templatized the way business books promise.

When we insist an organization must look or act a certain way, we lose sight of the individual characteristics that give it strength and power. And we miss seeing what might be actually better, outside of tradition and beyond our imagination. To be sustainable, brand and culture must be built on what is authentically different, not what is the same.

That’s not to say we can grow wild and still succeed. Bonsai has much to teach us about careful cultivation. But with careful training and pruning, we can become something amazingly unique from the inside out.

Puppets and pandas

 

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This summer is off to a unexpected start!

I’ve been advising a good friend and colleague, Michael, on a new business he’s starting. It’s based here in Oakland but with an office in Taipei. He asked if I would go with him on his next trip, which was only a few weeks away, and I jumped at it. I’ve been looking for ways to shake things up in my work and life anyway. Why not see what a couple of weeks in Asia kicks loose? It would also give me an opportunity to piggyback a few days to see family in Tokyo.

The company is confidential, so I can’t say much about that. And I couldn’t possibly cover everything we did and saw in Taiwan. But I can tell you about pandas and gondolas and marble gorges:

Puppets!

puppetsMichael was over the National Museum after several visits, so our first day there we powered through jet lag and heat exhaustion to go to the Puppetry Arts Center instead. It’s a fantastic little museum packed with inventive, delightful, and even creepy puppets of all kinds. And on the way we visited the beautiful Xingtian temple. It was an inspiring start to our adventure.

Gondolas and pandas

gondolaAfter a business meeting downtown later that week we hustled out to the Maokong Gondolas, only to be foiled by a thunderstorm. It was, frankly, a rough day. Let’s just say mistakes were made and neither nature nor transit were on our side. But serendipity graced us, leading to the famed panda born at the Taiwan Zoo. (Which we could see without waiting since it was 100 degrees and raining. Yay?) And we did eventually get to take our gondola ride at sunset later that day. It was worth the wait — gorgeous and serene. Except for those screeching monkeys after dark.

Taipei 101

taipei101Something I love doing in big cities is taking in the cityscape. In Taipei, you do this from the observatory at the Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world. The city is simply huge! It stretches in all directions up to the edges of mountains and rivers. Taipei is a little dreary at ground level, but from above it’s stunning. After the sunset faded we capped our evening with dumplings at Din Tai Fung. Beyond delicious. I’m still drooling over that meal.

Taroko and Sun Moon Lake

tarokoWe left the city for a few days and saw a prettier side of Taiwan. We started by driving down the eastern coast to Hualien, where we found a great night market and the “coffin bread” I’d been hunting for. The next day we drove across Taroko National Park, starting at sea level and making our way up to the peak at 10,000 feet – where the cool air was a welcome break from the oppressive heat – and wound our way back down and over to Sun Moon Lake in the center of the island. Taroko Gorge is made of marble! Beautiful scenery. Crazy, white-knuckle driving conditions. Michael is a brave man.

Cute overload

My inner 9-year-old was giddy over the omnipresent Hello Kitty. (And my inner brand manager was agog at the volume of licensing deals.) She is everywhere, all the time. As were a million other mascots and characters; clearly the culture of cute rules here. Even the Taipei 101 has a mascot, the “damper baby”, a character based on its spherical wind damper. And Din Tai Fung has a dumpling mascot. Seriously. More on this to come.

Are you ready for the design-led revolution?

Over the past year I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with the sustainability team at Autodesk to envision their support for the design-led revolution. Haven’t heard of it? You may not know the DLR moniker, but you’ve seen revolutionary design in action. From affordable prosthetics to solar robotics, high-impact solutions are emerging everywhere. And just in the nick of time!

The reinvention needed to make our planet livable for 9 billion is immense, and I love that Autodesk is committed to helping designers, architects, builders, engineers, and entrepreneurs reshape our world. We need more companies like this leading the way.

Their aim isn’t only to raise awareness about epic challenges and inspire people to do what’s right, although that’s certainly a big part of it. It’s also about helping designers and companies get ahead of  the inevitable resource shortages, urbanization, and climate change coming our way. To stay relevant — and profitable — in the future, you must start thinking differently now.

So, how will you design a better future?

Credit where credit’s due: The awesome folks at Free Range are the storytellers behind the design-led revolution video, manifesto, and hero case studies.

Leaving a mark

CEH letterNot many things are as rewarding as seeing your work endure!

This week I received a charming note from a former pro bono client, the Center for Environmental Health, in thanks for my annual donation:
“Dear Erica, Thanks for supporting our work so generously. Of course, how could you say “no” to an organization with a logo as beautiful as this one!!”

Nearly a decade ago, back in my design days, I created that logo. Every time I get a mailing from CEH, it makes me smile to see that energetic orange burst. They do such valuable, powerful work to protect our health — it’s wonderful to know I have contributed lasting value to their mission.

This project was particularly meaningful for me. It was the first time I truly stepped into being a strategist, instead of merely strategic. It was a process that challenged me to my core, with each surprise turn pushing me towards something better and sharper. It was also one of the last visual identities I designed, and certainly one of the best. A lot of the credit goes to the client team for that — when I felt stuck, their collaboration and passion helped me see what was possible.

Thanks, Michael! Loved hearing from you.

Purpose drivers

It seems everyone is talking about purpose these days. Imperative has a new take on what purpose means in your career — it’s not the cause you work for, but how you work.

Curious to see what surprises it might reveal, I took Imperative’s purpose driver quiz. My results:

My purpose drivers from Imperative

 

This is spot on! In fact, if you reverse the order it’s an overview of my job as a brand strategist: I generate new insights that create opportunities for organizations.

Taking the test revealed an important facet of what makes work meaningful to me — a time horizon of a year or less. While I certainly look years ahead when developing strategies, it’s important for me to see visible progress in the near-term and to know my work won’t vanish into the corporate void. This accounts for my preference for scrappy, responsive organizations over bureaucratic ones.

Closely related is my preference for organizations, as opposed to individuals or societies. The one-on-one aspects of my work are deeply satisfying — little compares to the a-ha moment when a leader suddenly sees his situation in a whole new way — but the real value is turning individual transformation into a bigger organizational shift. And while I love the idea of shifting society, that feels a little too big. Not to mention systemic changes take years, decades even, to pay off. If they ever do.

Why does knowing your drivers matter? Here’s an example: Let’s say I’m passionate about conscious capitalism. These results tell me I’ll be happier working with a B Corporation, where I can directly impact and enable their success, rather than getting involved in community organizing or policy for this cause. Since I often wonder if supporting cause-driven organizations is enough and think I should be contributing on a higher level, it’s important to understand that what seems more meaningful may not be. I’m right where I should be.

I met Imperative’s CEO Aaron Hurst a decade ago when I became an early volunteer with the Taproot Foundation, which he also founded. He did a great job building Taproot into what it is today, and I look forward to seeing what he does at Imperative.

Building a meaningful career has been incredibly important to me, and hope Imperative can help more people find their purpose.

Updated to add: Want to dive deeper? Check out the Purpose Economy site and book!

Explainers

Exploratorium ExplainersThis weekend a friend was in town, and visitors are great prompts to do all the local things we don’t get around to — in this case, the new Exploratorium!

Something that caught my eye is their name for exhibit guides: Explainers. It’s a miniscule detail compared to the immensity and wonder of all the hands-on exhibits, but this struck me as truly the perfect word. In contrast to titles like Docent, Explainer is simple, kid-friendly, and communicates exactly what they do. Bonus points: Exploratorium Explainers is alliterative!

While small, this is a touchpoint that reinforces a playful, thoughtful brand experience.

 

The opposite of inspiration

A client’s main office has a thoroughly depressing interior despite the building’s landmark architecture. The drabness is made all the more noticeable in contrast to their recent brand refresh, which uses great colors and smart messaging.

Every time I visit I think about what a disconnect this is — the employee experience doesn’t match the bright, friendly customer experience they are trying so hard to create. They’ve overlooked the physical environment and employee experience as part of brand alignment, a common mistake.

I thought the endless clusters of beige cubes were the worst of it until I had a meeting in this conference room, which is apparently where teal chairs from the 80s go to die.

A sign-off screen that brings customers back

turbotax_messageIt’s supremely frustrating to see customers walk away without knowing why. Because if you don’t know why, you can’t fix it.

After signing out of TurboTax last night, I received the message shown. It’s friendly and smartly user-centric, no doubt the result of research into why people abandon the software. They want to make sure I return, because they don’t get paid until I finish and submit my tax forms through their service.

Displaying empathy and helpfulness, the sign-off screen prompts me to set a reminder to return so I don’t procrastinate too long or find help if I’m quitting out of frustration. Above all, it turns my walking away into an opportunity to improve the customer journey and close the sales loop. It’s a nice example of insights, UX, and messaging coming together simply and effectively. Nice job, Intuit!

 

 

 

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.

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.