Choose to be excited


A few posts ago, I wrote about creating a #FAIL folder. One of the entries that occupies my #FAIL folder goes like this…a co-worker had just watched the 60 Minutes program on David Kelley and Design Thinking. When this aired in January, I was beyond excited. I felt like this 30 minutes lended validation to what I had been working toward for the past year. No longer was my way of solving problems just uncomfortable and unfamiliar, it was on 60 Minutes!

BUT…and a crucial “BUT”….but, this aired six months ago. So when my co-worker mentioned his excitement around the show, rather than choosing to be excited and stoke his excitement, I responded coldly…”you mean the one that aired six months ago?”

What a complete asshole move. I had a choice, I could have chosen to be excited, but it was old news to me and I made it known.

Why is it so easy to throw cold water on someone’s excitement? I’m guilty more that I’d like to admit. With my wife, my kids, people at work, etc.

You find yourself busy, disappointed, or just generally having a bad day and someone in your life is excited. They had a fabulous day, made an A on their spelling test, or read an article that they think you’ll find exciting. You have a choice…do you show support and celebrate whatever has made them excited? Or do you just respond with Eeyore like enthusiasm?

I’ve faced a similar choice today…and thankfully I chose to stoke the excitement. And what happened? I found myself becoming energized and excited along with my co-worker. It was infectious.

My take is that a life well lived is really about living for others. This means that much of the time you are denying yourself. If I am having a rough day, and someone comes to me with excitement, my natural desire is to stay busy, disappointed, etc. Denying myself means engaging with those around me and letting go of my to-do list, or inbox, or important project to instead be a human with other humans. To listen to what is on someone’s mind. To develop relationships that make life rich. To develop community.

I want to be excited when my family, friends and coworkers are excited. To laugh with them. To cry with them. To live life and build community. To make a choices that show I care for and love others more than I care for myself.

Will you join me?



DTBC Day 2: Just beyond crazy is fabulous

Day 2 is extremely fun at the (actually all the days are fun!) because we spend a lot of day 2 ideating and prototyping.

We have this phrase we like to use, “just beyond crazy is fabulous.” Today was so much fun because we pushed our team to this place. We came up with solutions that were completely beyond the realm of what is possible and legal and then we took it a step further and continued to build off of those ideas.

I love the moment in an ideation session where everyone in the group is almost crying they are laughing so hard. The gold is in those ideas because they tend to invite such rich user feedback. And since design thinking is always about getting back to user empathy, wild ideas are really just a means get higher quality empathy.

Tomorrow (Day 3) will be our last day, and I am sad to see it pass so quickly. My time here has been a blast and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from all of the wonderful coaches and participants. I now feel more comfortable with pushing pass crazy to fabulous design and solutions – and that is awesome.

Looking forward to sharing more…

Design Thinking: This Will Change Everything

Note: this blog post is a re-print of an article that I recently had published in an insurance product development journal (Product Matters!). I wrote this article in October of 2012, so when I re-read it last week I was a slightly afraid of what I would read! But after reading I decided that I should share this article with the readers of my blog. I hope you enjoy.

prod matters

Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to see if he could write a very short story that carried the emotion and power of some of his longer works. He came up with one that contained just six words. My guess is that the challenger was thinking they would at least get a few paragraphs. So what were those six words?

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Read the sentence out loud and reflect upon the meaning, and you’ll feel how potent this short sentence is.

Just as Hemingway’s short sentence packs a lot of meaning into just a few words, Stanford’s Design Thinking Boot Camp is a three-day intro to Design Thinking that provides the knowledge, insight, and experience of a semester-long class. In fact, I was asked to craft my own six-word sentence about my experience at the d.School and it was this: “Life will never be the same.” I won’t try and unpack everything that sentence represents, but as you will hopefully see, Design Thinking is a game changer and I now have a new set of tools to apply to any problem. How can life be the same after you experience something like this?

One of the principles of Design Thinking is “Show…Don’t Tell.”  You learn Design Thinking by doing, not reading. So rather than writing a long article on Design Thinking, I want to introduce you to the steps of the process, and some ways that these steps can be applied to insurance product development. If you really want to “do” Design Thinking, I’d highly recommend you speak to the fine folks at the d.School.

Background and Overview

Let’s try a quick exercise. Think of someone you know that is creative…who did you come up with? My guess is that 90% of people think of someone who is a painter, musician, or writer. Design Thinking rejects the relationship of “creative” equaling “artistic.” Anyone can be creative: an actuary, an accountant, a lawyer. Children are by default creative, making a safari adventure out of a sheet and two chairs or a spaceship out of a refrigerator box. We start out imaginative, but somewhere along the way, we lose touch with our creative side. Design Thinking seeks to unleash the creative potential that lies latent inside of each of us.

Honestly, it’s only been in the last couple of years that I viewed myself as creative. Things that others may see as boring and not allowing for creativity, I see as my craft—an artistic endeavor. Design thinking will allow you to approach your work with the same mindset and look for ways to creatively solve problems.

With that said, let’s dive into the Design Thinking process. The five parts of the process are Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. As I mentioned above, I’ll interject examples of how this can be applied to insurance product development.


When most of us think about design, we think about aesthetics—making products that are appealing to the eye. While aesthetics are an important part of design, Design Thinking always starts with the human element. Therefore empathy is essential to solving a problem with Design Thinking. What are some ways to gain insight? You need to spend lots of time talking and listening to your user (the person for whom you are designing a solution). Ask lots of open-ended questions. Ask “why” often. Try to evoke stories and emotions. As you’ll see later in the process, stories are an important foundation for the other steps in the Design Thinking Process.

So how do you increase empathy among members of your team, or others in the company? You have to talk with people. Here are some ideas.

Example 1

If you were questioning, “How do we improve the customers’ experience with our company?” a great place to start would be watching what customers do when they open statements/prospectus/bills from your company (or any company for that matter). Give a customer a stack of mail and have them open it. Watch how the expression on their face changes when they open a handwritten letter, versus junk mail, versus a two-pound prospectus packet. Ask the customer to talk about companies they love interacting with—what is it about these companies that delight them? What products do they adore?

Example 2

If you were questioning, “How do we help people save for retirement?” you could start by conducting interviews. Go to a place where people are (obvious, yes?). I have found that it helps to get the conversation started by offering a gift card (of a small monetary value). Ask them questions about retirement. Are they ready? How are they saving? What worries them? I’ve also found it’s helpful to ask lots of “why” questions, such as, “Why is that?”

Now you may be saying, “I can get all of this data from quantitative studies that have a larger and more reliable sample size than five.” And you are right; data can give you a sense of people’s worries, problems, concerns, etc. But data cannot provide stories and a human connection. For someone like me who has spent my career focused on quantitative analysis, the qualitative focus of Design Thinking felt like California feel-good nonsense! But after having experienced it first hand and seeing how companies like IDEO have used it to deliver groundbreaking innovation, it’s hard to argue with the results.


The definition portion of the process helps create a user point-of-view statement. The point-of-view statement is like a problem statement, but with feeling and emotion. This provides a great platform for ideation (brainstorming). Always start the creation of this problem statement with thinking about needs—“needs” as verbs, not nouns. Examples of needs, by this definition: To feel responsible, to show love, to enjoy time with a spouse, to provide for our kids college education. The following are not needs: security, a second home, replacement income.

After exploring needs, you craft the point-of-view statement. It’s similar to those “Mad-Libs” you played as a kid. Here’s the format: “USER” needs to “NEED STATEMENT” because “INSIGHT.” So let’s look at an example of a problem statement using this format:

An independent and energetic retiree needs to feel secure about not outliving her assets because her biggest fear is being a burden to her children later in life.

This statement is packed with emotion and compels us to want to come up with a solution. Also, we are not solution biased. At this point it may not even need to be an insurance product to solve the problem. This allows us to do what is called “ideate” without constraints (more to come on that). I’ve also selected what Design Thinkers call an “extreme user.” Identifying and empathizing extreme users allows us to come up with solutions and insights that often apply to a broader user group. Having a powerful point-of-view statement will allow us to come up with great ideas as we move to ideation.


Ideation is what most of us usually think of as brainstorming. It’s a little embarrassing to think of what I’ve called “brainstorming” in the past. There were no empathy insights and I didn’t clearly have a user point of view. Hopefully it is starting to become clear how important these steps in the process are.

As I mentioned above, we are solution agnostic. Ask a Design Thinker for help designing a bridge to go over a canyon and her first response will be, “Are you sure it needs to be a bridge?”

At this point, some of you will think, “If I work for an insurance company, why should I brainstorm solutions that I know I can’t create?” The answer is that your “wild” solution may provide insight that leads to a product you can create or a solution you can manage. Here’s an example using the point-of-view statement above: An independent and energetic retiree needs to feel secure about not outliving her assets because her biggest fear is being a burden to her children later in life and not being able to buy birthday and Christmas gifts for her grandchildren.

One wild idea is that we create a magic jacket that always has money in the pocket if she needs it to buy gifts for her grandchildren. If she takes her grandchildren to the mall and she doesn’t have money for the gift, the magic jacket will supply a crisp $20 in the pocket.

Clearly, this solution epitomizes a wild idea, but it’s an idea into which you can delve deeper. How would it feel to wear and know that this jacket is in the closet? Can we do anything that would provide the same feeling or meet these needs?

Prototype and Test

Prototyping is the stage in the process in which you create something with which the user can interact. This goes back to the Design Thinking principal of “Show…Not Tell.” A prototype can be a skit that shows the experience, sticky notes that show an interface, or construction paper and post-its to show the layout of a call center.

The key to prototyping is that it needs to be low resolution / low fidelity (say low-res or lo-fi if you want to sound like a practitioner!). It’s important to construct a low-fi model because:

1)      You want to get feedback from your tester as quickly as possible so you improve

2)      Testers are more willing to give feedback if the model is less refined

Think about point #2 —if someone on your team brings a PowerPoint presentation he has spent months of his life working on, missed his kid’s soccer games for, and has lost a couple of years of life expectancy because of, wouldn’t it be difficult to tell your team member that his presentation was completely off the mark? Now imagine the same presentation: It has headings, but the body is a mixture of sticky notes and drawings of graphs. At this point, it’s much easier to lend feedback and make changes.

Building a low-resolution prototype is essential to being able to quickly gather honest feedback and continue working toward solution. And that’s all that testing is—having the user (or a user) interact with your prototype and receiving feedback. As with all of the steps of the process, this is another opportunity to gain empathy for your user. As the user interacts with your prototype, what problems does he have? What emotions does he feel? This empathy learning can lead to improvements as you further iterate on solutions.


My hope is that this brief intro into Design Thinking has given you an idea how the process can be applied in a wide variety of settings to solve problems. As mentioned above, the best way to learn Design Thinking is by experiencing it yourself, so if you are interested contact me, the d.School, or any practitioner of Design Thinking to experience it for yourself. But before starting take note: Life will never be the same!

Yes, AND…


You are trying to come up with lots of ideas to solve a really thorny issue at work (or at home). You’re not worried about evaluation of the ideas at this point, you just want to come up with as many ideas as possible. You have this idea in your head…it’s a little crazy, but you go ahead and share it anyway….you’re idea is met with an emphatic…”yes, BUT…”

How does that feel? Does it take all the air and creativity out of the room? We’ve all been there. You have an idea that you’re excited to share and you are met with all the reasons it won’t work. In this post, I want to introduce you to a mindset of “yes, AND…” rather than saying “yes, BUT…”. In addition, I’ve met some people who LOVE to practice this technique. I’ll show you where you can find these people, so you can practice and become a master of the “yes, AND”

What is “Yes, AND…”?

It’s simple really…when you are trying to ideate solutions, or just build off of others ideas, you try and say “Yes, AND…” in response to everything that is said. This is an old comedy improve trick.

Here is an example. We are trying to ideate around, how might we make patients being discharged from Children’s hospital feel like movie stars? You say “kids walk down a red carpet to get to exit the hospital.” Then I say, “yes, AND…we have a nurse ask ‘who are you wearing?'”. You say, “Yes, AND three photographers take their pictures.” And so on and so on…This technique helps foster robust ideation. Below I have listed IDEO’s rules for brainstorming and BOLDED the rules that this technique supports. (Note: I first had just listed out the rules that applied, but after thinking about it decided to list all the rules. In fact, I suspect a future post will be coming about this list. It is extremely helpful to creating a posture of rapid and radical ideation.)

  1. Defer judgement
  2. Encourage wild ideas
  3. Build on the ideas of others
  4. Stay focused on topic
  5. One conversation at a time
  6. Be visual
  7. Go for quantity

Who loves “Yes, AND…”?

Ok, so your boss isn’t pleased with your desire to do some more “Yes, ANDs…” Your coworkers look at you like you have two heads. How do you practice? With children! They love to play “yes, AND…” Just this week, I have had a running session of “yes, AND” with my six year old daughter. It all started on our way to church. There has been an enormous Lifetime Fitness going up beside our church. We drove past the pool and here’s how the conversation went…

Daughter: I wish we were going to the pool (maybe instead of church!?!)

Me: What if we held church in the pool?

Daughter: Yes, and, the nursery is in the kiddy pool

Me: Yes, and the pastor would sit in the lifeguard stand…(arrive at church, convo pauses)

Later in the day

Daughter: Daddy, what if your work was a pool?

Me: Yes, and the bosses have big corners of the pools instead of offices

Daughter: Yes, and there are islands in the pool where you have your computers

Me: Yes, and you take a lazy river to meetings

Daughter: What if your work was a zoo?

Me: Yes, and each department works in cages and people could come by and feed us lunch

Daughter: Yes, and the bosses are the zoo keepers! (giggles uncontrollably)

This is so much fun…she loves it, I love it AND I am working on my creative muscles AND becoming a better design thinker at the same time. Think about how different this conversation would have gone if I would have responded to her first statement with, “yes, BUT”…the “yes, AND…” allowed us to encourage wild ideas. See #2 on IDEO’s rules for brainstorming.

So to further work out your creative muscles, spend a day, or an hour responding to everything with “yes, AND…” Also, spend some time with your son, niece, goddaughter, etc. playing “yes, AND.” Report back here to let us know how it goes. I promise you will have a great time.


Analogous problem solving and Children’s of Alabama

I first heard the term ‘analogous problem solving’ when I visited IDEO. The premise is simple – find an analogous problem to the one you are trying to solve. Inspect this problem and see how others have solved it (or come up with a new solution yourself) and see if you can draw insights from the solution of the analogous problem.

Here’s the example that IDEO provided. The firm was hired to help enhance/redesign emergency room procedures for a hospital. After spending some time trying to empathize and define the problem, the IDEO team realized they were stuck and that they could benefit from studying an analogous problem. So what analogous problem did they pick? NASCAR pit crews. They spent a few weeks studying the setup of pit crews. How they position the essential tools. How they prep for the incoming car. How they communicate with each other when the car is in the pit. How they divide tasks…and so on and so forth. Analogous problem solving led IDEO to some breakthroughs in the project.

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Now that you better understand the premise of analogous problem solving, I wanted to share with you a beautiful example that is found right here in Birmingham, AL. This past fall, I had the pleasure of hearing from Mike McDevitt, the EVP of facilities and technology of Children’s Hospital of Alabama.

As you can see from the picture above, the outside of the building is stunning, but what struck me from Mike’s talk how he solved a problem common to most hospitals – way finding. i.e. how do I find my way from the parking deck to the emergency room? where is the cafeteria? etc.

So how did Mike try to solve this problem? What analogous problem did he look into for insight? He went to Disney World. There are several large parks and Disney wants to make sure that you know where you are going. Mike saw how Disney deals with this issue – they have a main street. If you stay on main street, you will go past all the major attractions. Also,  Disney has the concept of off-stage and on-stage. Things that are on-stage are bright and loud – contrasted with off-stage, where the paint colors are more subdued and you’re likely to find goofy on a smoke break. If you go off-stage at Disney, you know it.

Mike came back and infused the same elements into the design of the new Russell campus at Children’s. Look at the picture below – the river guides patients, parents and staff through the hospital (like main street). The red dot let’s you know that you’ll find information and the colors are bright and vibrant. Having seen the nurses stations, I can tell you the vibe is very different. You are no longer on the river. The colors are more bland. There is an on-stage and an off-stage – just like at Disney.

If you are interested in hearing more of Mike’s talk, check it out here. I will warn you, that the video quality isn’t great, but Mike tells first hand about how this beautiful facility came to be. It’s is a great story and has been a inspiration for me.

Just as way-finding at Disney was an analogous problem for Mike, I am inspired by Mike’s design of Children’s of AL. A hospital can be complicated and difficult to find your way around. When you get to the hospital you are probably stressed – something is wrong. Is it too much of a stretch to say that arriving at a hospital is a good analogy for reading your insurance contract or trying to file an insurance claim? I’m looking Mike’s work to help us to simplify everything at Protective Life.

Do you have a tough problem you are trying to solve? Are you stuck and looking for fresh insights that may lead to a solution? If so, try and spend some time thinking of an analogous problem.

Build to Think

Kids building a fort

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, has often said that he and other design thinkers “build to think.” As a design thinker, this means that I am learning about the world around me and the problems that I am trying to solve through experiementation and iteration. I learn through failing over and over again, rather than theorizing about the most succesful path. I learn through prototyping. I learn through showing rather than telling. I learn through doing.

In short, that is what this blog is about and why I’ve titled it “build to think.” I want to share how I’ve began tapping into creativity that I wasn’t sure was there just a couple of years ago. This blog is also a reminder for me that I need to build to think – it’s easy for me to lapse back into thinking to build. Creating this blog is sadly an example of thinking to build…I had this strong desire that everything would be perfect, rather than just going for it, failing and then learning, and then iterating. It took me several weeks from setting up the site, to brainstorming content, to actually publishing this first post. I need reminders to build to think!

So I am hoping that sharing my experiences will provide additional motivation of the mindset of building to think that I believe to be fundamental to continuing to develop as a design thinker. Like many that blog, I am writing as if no one else will read and then if others find my words helpful, then that’s a bonus. That said, I think you should read this blog if:

  • you are looking for practical ways to think more creatively
  • you want to better understand design thinking
  • you want to be more empathetic
  • you want tools to become more innovative

So what is design thinking? I think design thinking can most simply be described as an empathy based problem solving approach. As has been said by others, the term “design thinking” is a bit of a misnomer because it isn’t really about “design” as in asthetically pleasing and it involves much more doing than “thinking”.

How did I get into design thinking? For the last couple of years, I have been interested in things that were well designed. I wanted to start learning from those individuals and companies. This all came to a head in 2012, when I attended Stanford’s Design Thinking Boot Camp at the This three days was a life changing event that has me now on my way as a design thinker.

Ok…I feel like that’s enough background. Now onto some doing!