The only way to do it

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After my spouse and I were pronounced man and wife, the minister made a small verbal misstep. He had undoubtedly officiated hundreds of weddings and knew what to say.

We all know what to say…”You may now kiss the bride.”

Despite all that experience, something happened. The minister looked my square in the eye and said “Lance…now you can do it.”

The congregation laughed uncomfortably, I kissed my bride, and we have been happily married for over ten years.

Now knowing how my wedding ended, it should not be a surprise that seeing the sign shown above makes me think of the minister’s charge. This sign hangs prominently at Stanford’s d.school and I took this picture the last time I was there.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “doing” lately. For most of us, it is much easier to sit on the couch, stay at your desk, or to not speak up in the meeting. Non-action seems to have less risk – key word being “seems”.

Non-action and not doing is every bit as risking as doing. It happens over time, almost so slow that you don’t notice it – non-action allows your skills to weaken to the point at which your contribution isn’t valued and you become a non-factor.

The best strategy for mitigating this risk is to act. To take a risk. To move from the couch. To leave your desk – Go talk to the guy in accounting that no one will talk to. Go talk to a customer. Go ask you friends what you are doing that is short of your potential. Go ask your neighbor what you can do to help them. Go do something that scares you a little and that might fail.

I want to be know as a doer. That’s how we learn. By taking risks and making mistakes. I build to think. Building is all about doing. Sure, you make start by sketching out a plan, but you build as soon as you can. You test your plan and then refine and build again.

Join me in doing.

A simple storytelling framework

What exactly goes into telling a good story? You need a hero, a villain, some conflict and a little resolution right? Something like that…

Let’s back up a little…why is storytelling important? It’s important because we connect with stories. We share our lives with stories. Personally, I have shared some of my happiest moments with new friends through stories: the story of how I met my wife, the story of the birth of first child, etc. I also have stories that describe times where I felt like a part of me has died with loved ones that I’ve lost. Our lives are a series of stories.

Another important property of a story is it’s ability to channel the complete opposite emotion of what you experienced at the time. Think of powerful stories you may have heard about a person who was without hope and didn’t see a way out. And then someone provides for them in a way they couldn’t have imagined. Or think of a story where someone was extremely embarrassed or frustrated. Years later you’ll be in a group and everyone will now laugh as you the story is told. Here’s a summary:

You were hopeless — your story —> provides hope

You were embarrassed/frustrated — your story —> provides laughter

Storytelling at work…

It’s clear to me that storytelling is important. Those best at communicating their ideas use stories to do it. Here’s an example…you are in a meeting. You propose to a coworker IT that your group needs TPS reports twice a day (and don’t forget the cover sheets) rather than just once a day. For five minutes they describe why this won’t work using generalities. You stop them and ask for a specific example.

At this point your coworker hasn’t been storytelling. Think about the best stories – they are full of details. A picture is painted for you and you are able to experience the story. Why can’t your coworker do the same thing? Here’s a sample response…

“Jane, I’d love to be able to provide your group with TPS reports twice a day. We ended up landing on daily production due to the needs of the marketing group. Let me walk your quickly through our production schedule….once we’re done, I’d love your thoughts on how we can move some of the pieces around to get your group reports twice a day. We start at 5:45am with….”

The framework

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Design thinking is centered around gaining empathy for your end user and having them experience a solution. Storytelling is an integral part of this process. In the picture above, the amazingly talented storyteller Scott Doorley was teaching the group this framework. Since the picture is tough to read, here it is:

Once upon a time…

And everyday until…

Until one day…

Because of that…

Until finally…

And ever since that day…

And the moral of the story is…

Here’s a simple example:

Once upon a time there were two tadpole sisters who were the best of friends. And everyday they played together, until the oldest sister turned into a frog. And because of that the youngest sister was lonely and sad. She played everyday by herself. Until finally, she turned into a frog! And ever since that day, her she and her sister have been inseparable. And the moral of the story is sadness and depression can be transformed like the tadpole into happiness and joy.

Practice, practice, practice…

So how do you improve as a storyteller? The first thing I have done is to practice. I play the “storytelling game” almost every night with my daughters. We alternate who takes each part of the framework. It is great fun for her and I’m continuing to hone my craft. You can also use the framework as a group exercise. If you’re in a meeting with 4-5 coworkers take turns constructing a story together.

The next bit of advice I would offer would be to view every presentation, every meeting, every project, etc as an opportunity to tell a story. Think about the opening, the conflict, the resolution and what you learned.

If you’re in the audience, what would you rather listen to? A well crafted story that allows you to experience what has happened on a project, or a deck of endless slides that just give updates on what has happened. I vote for storytelling.

Lastly, spend time talking with great storytellers…maybe even some professionals. How cool would it be to invite a professional storyteller to your office to teach your group how to tell a great story? I’m in the process of trying to set this for my team.

Storytellers are not born, they are made…keep practicing and please share your stories.

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.

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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.

Empathy

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.

Define

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

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.

Conclusion

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!

A framework for tough decisions

As I mentioned in a previous post, I love Tina Seelig’s book, What I wish I knew when I was 20. One of my favorite stories from the book centers around a student that approached her with a tough decision. The student was running a business idea challenge and one of the groups didn’t show for the final presentation/competition – the group had failed to notice that the time and location had been changed. To make matters more complicated, the prize was meaningful and the teams had been working on the project for an entire semester. The student leader had to decide, “do I let the group make up the final presentation or not?”

So what did Tina tell the student? Rather than telling him directly what he should do, she gave him something much more valuable – a framework for making these tough decisions in the future. She told this student the following:

“Image you are in an interview two years from now. The interviewer asks you to describe a time where you faced a difficult decision and how you responded. Your response to this situation is the answer to this question.”

WOW…this totally changed the problem. The student now saw himself as a central character in a bigger narrative and he had the chance to impact the outcome of the story. He could now step back and say, “is this the story I want to tell?”

In the end, the student decided to let the team compete and credited Tina’s guidance with helping him make the best decision.

So how does this relate to you? Are you facing a tough work situation, where you don’t see a way out? Are you on a dysfunctional team, working through corporate bureaucracy, or in a difficult class. Rather than think about this as a setback, view this an opportunity. Two years from now you can describe how you succeeded despite the challenges. (Note: I am not saying that you should stay in every job, project, etc, leaving might be an equally compelling interview response about being perceptive about knowing when to move on.)

I have found Tina’s framework extremely helpful. If your switching costs are low and you have lots of options, the temptation to avoid a challenge is real (i.e. you could drop a physics class and take “Intro to running” instead). Try to view your decisions through the lens of the future to put perspective around difficult decisions.

 

What I wish I knew when I was 20

The post title comes from a book I am reading by Tina Seelig – her book is full of sage wisdom. She was even nice enough to reply to me on twitter.

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I found out from this book by reading Visakan Veerasamy’s amazing answer to a question on Quora. (note: for those of you not on Quora, you should really check it out. Awesomely curated site with lots of helpful and interesting info.) I hope to have a book review once I am finished, but until then, I wanted to share the same excerpt from Tina’s that Visakan shared. Enjoy.

From What I wish I knew when I was 20:

“What would you do to earn money if all you had was five dollars and two hours? This is the assignment I gave students in one of my classes at Stanford University, as part of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program…

Each of fourteen teams received an envelope with five dollars of “seed funding” and was told they could spend as much time as they wanted planning. However, once they cracked open the envelope, they had two hours to generate as much money as possible. I gave them from Wednesday afternoon until Sunday evening to complete the assignment.

Then, on Sunday evening, each team had to send me one slide describing what they had done, and on Monday afternoon each team had three minutes to present their project to the class. They were encouraged to be entrepreneurial by identifying opportunities, challenging assumptions, leveraging the limited resources they had, and by being creative.

What would you do if you were given this challenge? When I ask this question to most groups, someone usually shouts out, “Go to Las Vegas,” or “Buy a lottery ticket.” This gets a big laugh.. These folks would take a significant risk in return for a small chance at earning a big reward.

The next most common suggestion is to set up a car wash or lemonade stand, using the five dollars to purchase the starting materials. This is a fine option for those interested in earning a few extra dollars of spending money in two hours.

But most of my students eventually found a way to move far beyond the standard responses. They took seriously the challenge to question traditional assumptions—exposing a wealth of possibilities—in order to create as much value as possible.

How did they do this? Here’s a clue: the teams that made the most money didn’t use the five dollars at all. They realized that focusing on the money actually framed the problem way too tightly. They understood that five dollars is essentially nothing and decided to reinterpret the problem more broadly: What can we do to make money if we start with absolutely nothing? 

They ramped up their observation skills, tapped into their talents, and unlocked their creativity to identify problems in their midst—problems they experienced or noticed others experiencing—problems they might have seen before but had never thought to solve. These problems were nagging but not necessarily at the forefront of anyone’s mind. By unearthing these problems and then working to solve them, the winning teams brought in over $600, and the average return on the five dollar investment was 4,000 percent! If you take into account that many of the teams didn’t use the funds at all, then their financial returns were infinite.

So what did they do? All of the teams were remarkably inventive. One groupidentified a problem common in a lot of college towns—the frustratingly long lines at popular restaurants on Saturday night. The team decided to help those people who didn’t want to wait in line. They paired off and booked reservations at several restaurants. As the times for their reservations approached, they sold each reservation for up to twenty dollars to customers who were happy to avoid a long wait. 

As the evening wore on, they made several interesting observations. First, they realized that the female students were better at selling the reservations than the male students, probably because customers were more comfortable being approached by the young women. They adjusted their plan so that the male students ran around town making reservations at different restaurants while the female students sold those places in line. They also learned that the entire operation worked best at restaurants that use vibrating pagers to alert customers when their table is ready. Physically swapping pagers made customers feel as though they were receiving something tangible for their money. They were more comfortable handing over their money and pager in exchange for the new pager. This had an additional bonus—teams could then sell the newly acquired pager as the later reservation time grew nearer.

Another team took an even simpler approach. They set up a stand in front of the student union where they offered to measure bicycle tire pressure for free. If the tires needed filling, they added air for one dollar. At first they thought they were taking advantage of their fellow students, who could easily go to a nearby gas station to have their tires filled. But after their first few customers, the students realized that the bicyclists were incredibly grateful. Even though the cyclists could get their tires filled for free nearby, and the task was easy for the students to perform, they soon realized that they were providing a convenient and valuable service. In fact, halfway through the two hour period, the team stopped asking for a specific payment and requested donations instead. Their income soared. They made much more when their customers were reciprocating for a free service than when asked to pay a fixed price.

For this team, as well as for the team making restaurant reservations, experimenting along the way paid off. The iterative process, where small changes are made in response to customer feedback, allowed them to optimize their strategy on the fly.

Each of these projects brought in a few hundred dollars, and their fellow classmates were duly impressed. However, the team that generated the greatest profit looked at the resources at their disposal through completely different lenses, and made $650. These students determined that the most valuable asset they had was neither the five dollars nor the two hours. Instead, their insight was that their most precious resource was their three-minute presentation time on Monday. They decided to sell it to a company that wanted to recruit the students in the class. The team created a three-minute “commercial” for that company and showed it to the students during the time they would have presented what they had done the prior week. This was brilliant. They recognized that they had a fabulously valuable asset—that others didn’t even notice—just waiting to be mined.

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 d.school. 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!