Category Archives: Design

Inspiring People to Achieve Epic Wins

“An Epic Win is an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive that you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it. it was almost beyond the threshold of imagination and when you get there you are shocked to discover what you are truly capable of.” – Jane McGonigal

The problem with many teams I meet is that they have been conditioned to accept their processes and work environment as fixed.  Time after time I hear them say, “we can’t change that…that will never be allowed…we tried to do that, but they said no…that isn’t possible,” etc.  They embrace failure before they start.  What’s worse, underlying these and similar sentiments is the heartbreaking fact that they lack confidence in themselves and their ability to positively affect change.

The online gaming industry has exploded in recent years, and according to Jane McGonigal, one of the reasons for the meteoric rise is the connection online games make with people on a deeply emotional level.  Well designed games allow people to experience challenge, achievement, and feedback in ways reality does not.  Through a series of progressively harder challenges and real time feedback, online games create an environment where participants are intrinsically motivated to push themselves past the threshold of their own imagination and achieve epic wins.

So how do online games motivate players to spend countless hours making mistakes and building skills…and more importantly, is it possible to create a similar environment with our continuous improvement processes?  Here are a few of the keys to developing world-class online games that I believe are most relevant to leaders.

Provide an epic purpose – give them something worth believing in.  If they don’t see the end goal as worthy of the struggle and pain of the journey, they will abandon the efforts at the first sign of failure.

Start small – to create the momentum of accomplishment, select ideas and improvements that take no more than 1 hour to complete and are completely in their control.  The longer it takes to complete the first actions, the harder it is to create and keep momentum.

Build difficulty over time – like a good game, think about the difficulty of your improvements like levels in a game.  Everyone starts at level one, and as they move up the levels through action and accomplishment, the difficulty and complexity of both the problems and the improvements increase.  In each level, the goal is to have the difficulty be within reach of the player, but hard enough to cause them to struggle and grow as a change agent.

Give consistent real, time feedback – at each stage of the game, feedback is a critical and should be an immediate part of the experience.  Through visuals controls, peer to peer recognition and management follow up, seek to provides ways for team members to know their progress at all times.

Make it social – create a collaborative support structure where both team members and team leaders are supported on their journey.  Have team members work together on both suggesting and implementing ideas.  Finally, manage the improvement process visually, so everyone can see, feel and experience the struggles and victories together.

If we are serious about effecting change, we must acknowledge that without the belief that we can create positive outcomes, it is impossible to create a culture where individuals and teams strive each and everyday to achieve epic wins.  As Bill Strickland said, “we have to change the way we see ourselves before we can change our behavior,” and to change how we see ourselves we have to create an environment where teams create their own “winning streaks.”  Online games do this by allowing teams to start small, level up, get real time feedback and create urgent optimism to inspire your people to go after their own epic wins.  Only after we realize that good continuous improvement systems need to embed the elements of a good game will we consistently move teams from “praying to win, to hoping to win, to knowing they could win, to expecting to win.” (Gail Goestenkors)


Learning Change from a LunaTik

Scott Wilson is the founder of MINIMAL (MNML), a hybrid design studio with a growing blue chip client roster, numerous self-manufactured products and joint ventures in development.  An accomplished designer and former Global Creative Director at Nike, his work has received wide recognition around the globe and collected over 40 international design awards in the past 7 years.

Scott and his team are on the cusp of launching TikTok and LunaTik, a new line of products which turn Apple’s iPod nano into a cool multi-touch watch.  While both products are cool in and of themselves, Scott’s unconventional approach to the design and launch of his products provide valuable lessons for anyone building a culture of continuous improvement.

Build on the ideas of others – Watch makers have been trying to figure out how to design a touch watch for years.  Instead of doing all the heavy lifting and trying to create their own watch, Scott spent his time designing products which leveraged the work already done at Apple.  The result is new beautifully engineered watch bands which integrate the existing technology of the Nano.

Details matter – To design a product worthy the Nano, Scott and his team considered every detail when it came to the look, feel and functionality.  Made from aerospace-grade aluminum and built to easily integrate headphones and plug-ins, the LunaTik is a great example of designing with the user experience in mind.

Selling your idea is critical – No matter how good your idea is, if you want it to be adopted and implemented, you need to sell it to others.  To sell their idea and connect potential consumers with their product and design process, Scott created a brilliant short video which became a virtual sensation, spreading his message like wildfire.

Follow your own path – rather than take a conventional route to funding, Scott used the Kickstarter network to introduce his products and take pre-orders to fund the development and launch.  Unlike other funding mechanisms, Kickstarter allows the creators to keep 100% ownership and control over the work and offers products for pledges in an all or nothing format.  If a project reaches its funding goal before time runs out, it proceeds…if not, no money changes hands.  Scott hoped to raise $15,000.  However, armed with a great idea, elegant designs and a video that went viral, MNML broke all previous Kickstarter launch records by raising $941,718 from 13,512 people in a matter of weeks.

So what can a LunaTik teach you about leading change?

First, you don’t always have to be the one with a revolutionary idea to develop great ideas.  It is often more productive to build on the ideas of others than reinvent the wheel in an attempt to be brilliant.  As improv actors will tell you, the secret to developing great scenes is to “accept all offers” and build on the brilliance of others.  Second, when designing a system of continuous improvement, details matter.  While experimentation is a must and mistakes are steps in the learning process, it is still important to consider how both the improvement process you create and the management system you install to support it will work together to drive team member engagement and aligned implementation.  Finally, in the words of Robert Frost “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”  When it comes to change, don’t be afraid to reject convention and blaze your own path.  If you are connected to your customer and engage your people, there are many ways to get to a productive end.

Learning Systems Design from Dead Poets

“Why do I stand up here?  I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.  You see the world looks very different up here … Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way.  Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try.” – Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society (1989)

Getting teams to look at processes in a different way can be both one of the biggest challenges and fruitful exercises a leader can undertake.  Merely enabling people to see their job from a fresh perspective can lead to new insights and generate a rush of improvement ideas.  Taichii Ohno (founder of the Toyota Production System) was famous for requiring leaders to spend hours standing in a circle on the shop floor and observing a process until the waste “revealed itself.”  The problem with getting people to look at their process and see the opportunities for improvement is that our brains are hardwired to see the world the way we want to see it rather than the way it is.  So in order to get teams to see their process differently, you often need to force a change in scenery.

That being said, the following are two simple techniques we use when redesigning systems that challenge teams to look at their process from a new perspective and expose problems in real time:

Break the work – “artificially” breaking up the work can be very effective way to increase collaboration by adding immediate feedback loops.  As teams redistribute work and struggle to meet their goals, the increased interactions generate insightful questions regarding individual behaviors, standard work requirements, and single points of failure in the system.

Rotate the work – frequently rotating the work can be helpful in two ways.  First, changing roles in a process allows the team to systematically and frequently “bring in a fresh set of eyes.”  Second, forcing the team to break down the job into its simplest elements and cross train helps drive innovation as they must question every detail and look for ways to translate and train the work more effectively.

Finally, in addition to designing systems which expose new opportunities, remember the power of setting a goal for ideas.  Paul Cook once noted that “To be an innovative organization, you have to ask for innovation.  You assemble a group of talented people who are eager to do new things and put them in an environment where innovation is expected.  It’s that simple…”  When Robin Williams challenges his students to think differently, he does not merely suggest everyone stand on the desk and look at the world from a different perspective…he makes everyone get out of their seat and physically stand on his desk.  The same is true for innovation.  Don’t beat around the bush with your goal for getting new ideas.  Contrary to what some leaders believe, setting challenging expectations for the number of new ideas generated and implemented can lead to increased motivation, fresh insights and improved business results.


The Power of an “Impossible” Goal

A $2,000 car?  The Chairman of Suzuki Motor Corporation said it was impossible…but, that didn’t deter Ratan Tata.  Motivated by a passion for meeting the needs of India’s impoverished people, the Chairman of Tata Motors assembled a five person engineering team (with an average age of 27) and launched a four year journey which began with an audacious goal and ended with a paradigm shift in the auto industry.

Rather than begin with a set of design criteria for the team to use when approaching the problem, Tata gave them an impossible goal: build a car for $2,000.  In fact, the cost target was the only fixed point with which the team was forced to work.  In every other aspect of the project, the team was challenged to “question the unquestionable” and utilize an open innovation model which considered ideas from anywhere and everywhere.

The audaciousness of the goal combined with the freedom to “break the rules” led to many industry leading innovations.  The Nano is the first time a 2 cylinder gas engine has been used in a car with a single balancer shaft.  Adhesives have replaced all rivets and mechanisms from a helicopter were used when designing the seats and windows.  The car’s 9 foot frame is 8% shorter than other compact cars, while providing the passengers 21% more interior room.   In addition, each part in the car serves a dual function, resulting in 1/2 the total number of parts as a normal car.  Finally, the team also had to think about its supply chain differently.  The Nano was designed in partnership with Tato’s vendors and suppliers, 100 vendors were co-located adjacent to the plant and the company developed a new business model for dealerships which slashed distribution costs.

The development of the Tata Nano is one of many examples of leaders inspiring teams to achieve seemingly impossible goals in the midst of tight deadlines.  As with each of these game changing innovations, it was Tata’s unwavering commitment to an impossible goal combined with a freedom to experiment by the engineering team which caused a shift in the paradigm.  All to often however, leaders take an opposite approach when trying to drive innovation.  The goals set are far too safe to force a new way of thinking and rather then giving teams latitude to experiment, they script their actions through detailed charters, procedures and return on investment criteria.  The combination of weak goals and stifling process boundaries kills creativity and ensures mediocrity.

If you want to experience the power of a inspired team who believes there is nothing they can’t accomplish, set an impossible goal and give your people the autonomy to discover radically new solutions to some of your toughest challenges.

“Impossible is nothing.” – Adidas

Teaching Kids to Lead

The Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India is an amazing experiment in empowering children and creating future leaders.  Founded in 2001, Kiram Bir Sethi and her team have created a unique learning environment where “common sense is common practice” and the overriding goal is to infect each child with the “I can” bug.  Besides developing a place where children are empowered to blur the lines between school and life, the unique curriculum has also yielded academic success.  Based on a benchmark study of 2,000 schools in India, Riverside beat the top 10 schools in math, science and english.

Even more exciting however, the school provides us with a great example of how to use simple, inspiring processes to driving dramatic change and tap into the multiplier effect.  In 2009, the school launched a contest called “Design for Change” where students are challenged to implement an idea to solve a problem they are passionate about. The only criteria for the idea is that it be of benefit to many people, look to solve an existing problem from a fresh prospective, and have the potential to see change in the lives of others as well as the students.  Using a powerful combination of inspiration and simplification, the contest reached 32,000 schools in India in its first year and has now spread to other countries.

So how did the school’s simple contest spread like wildfire and evoke such excitement and commitment?  While there are undoubtedly a host of reasons, here are a couple I think are most relevant for other leaders.  First, the contest uses a simple step-by-step process which leverages the school’s four phase development model; see the change (feel), be changed (imagine), lead the change (do) and spread the change (infect).  This model focuses on empowering the children to connect with an inspiring purpose, as well as puts the change process squarely in their hands.  The children not only have the autonomy to choose their team and brainstorm ideas, but they are responsible for designing a simple implementation plan and putting it into action.  Second, reflecting on the outcome of the change and sharing it with others is a required part of the process.  This allows the students an opportunity to cement their learning and at the same time infect others with their passion and results.  Finally, as the children share their stories they are able to be recognized by their community for their efforts.  Recognition received by parents and peers is a powerful motivator for future action.

This combination of inspiring with a purpose, driving engagement through autonomy and sharing stories of success creates intrinsic motivation in the hearts of each child and turns the competition into a powerful force for social change.  Similar to what we discovered in our work with front line supervisors and managers, effective change isn’t about the tools or techniques of process improvement.  Success is a function of how well you empower people to challenge their beliefs of what’s possible and build a change process which is simple to implement and share with others.  When people are inspired with a purpose and confident in their ability to shape the change, their creative spirit is unleashed and infused with the fuel of confident expectations.

Design from Within

“The extent to which you have a design style is the extent to which you have not solved the problem.” – Charles Eames

Design That Matters is a non-profit company who faced a problem with global implications.  1.8 million premature babies die each year from a lack of consistent heat until they have the body fat and metabolic rate to stay warm.  Despite having the technology to solve this problem, incubators are not available in most poor countries and can be cost prohibitive.  Further without the necessary parts, training and expertise to maintain these machines, 98% of them are broken within five years and remain idle gathering dust.

After researching the problem and spending time in the field, the team realized if they could design an incubator made out of automobile parts, the chances of sustained success would significantly improve.  The engineering to heat the incubator was not complicated and could be solved with automotive parts, the auto industry had the distribution channels necessary to deliver those parts to the most remote regions and automobiles are one of the few technologies that can be reliably repaired in rural communities.  In other words, by leveraging what already exists in these communities, the company designed a “right sized” solution rather than promulgating a solution requiring an unrealistic level of development in means, expertise and infrastructure.

I believe implementing a system of continuous improvement should be approached the same way.  Rather than approach the problem with a “one size fits all” mentality, we should seek to first understand the capabilities of the organization, its processes and its people and then build an implementation to leverage these strengths.  As the goal of any implementation is to inspire people to create a compelling vision of the future and own the challenge of attaining it, we must first create opportunities for people to experience quick wins and build confidence in their ability.  If the change process requires skills, tools, and resources not readily available in the organization, we risk the process grinding to a halt as our approach is neither implementable nor sustainable in the organization.  Like the incubator, our “shiny new” continuous improvement process will quickly break down and start gathering dust.

Build In Order to Think

In his new book Change by Design, Tim Brown presents the idea that we should learn by making…or as he puts it, instead of thinking about what to build, we should “build in order to think.” The brain and the hand are inextricably linked. We rely on the use of our hands to help our brain process information and complete its cognitive search for patterns. Put another way by Stuart Brown (TED 2008), “The human hand in manipulation of objects is the hand in search of a brain, the brain is in search of a hand and play is the medium by which those two are linked in the best way.“

This sheds light on the drawbacks of the common approach to process improvement which relies on heavy data analysis to gain insights. This connection between thinking and using your hands would suggest that prototyping and iterative playing with process improvements may be a better way to achieve deeper levels of process thinking and learning, rather than by mere imitation and analysis alone.

Said another way, it is possible, that when we rely on an “intellectual“ approach to collecting and analyzing data in order to improve a process, we may be circumventing the one activity which leads to true thinking and innovation…the act of using our hands and prototyping in order to ”think“ our way through the process redesign.

Given the brain’s partnership with the hands, the key is to focus on the speed and interactivity of your improvements. The faster you put our ideas into the prototyping process, the faster you will begin to learn and refine your ideas. Start now…what is your 70% solution? Get your ideas into play and don’t get too wrapped up in the details.