Dissimilarity Creates Innovative Thinking

How often does your organization examine ways to apply a concept from one part of the business to an entirely different component? I’d like to suggest that you do it far more often. Many innovative ideas flow from simultaneously considering two thoughts that, on the surface, seem to have little connection. For instance, what do you think of design mixed with meeting planning? Dennis Shiao, Director of Product Marketing at INXPO and author of the book “Generate Sales Leads With Virtual Events,” thinks this juxtaposition is an interesting one. After watching a 60 Minutes episode recently that featured an interview with David Kelley, founder of both IDEO and Stanford’s d school, Shiao was inspired:

Overview: Design Thinking
The design thinking process can be broken down into three components: inspiration, ideation and implementation. To quote a design thinking article co-authored by Mr. Brown:

  • Inspiration: “Think of inspiration as the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions.”

  • Ideation: “Ideation as the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas.”

  • Implementation: “Implementation as the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives.”

Corporate events

Incorporating Design Thinking into Meetings and Events

I’ve (Shiao) taken a look at the tenets and methodologies of design thinking and considered how they could be applied to meetings and events. Let’s consider some.

Attend Your Own Event (Empathy)

Meeting and event planners should take off their “planning hats” and attend one of their events solely with their “attendee hats” on. That means that you can have no part in planning the event. Go through the entire cycle of registration, travel, sessions, workshops, social events, etc. Practice further empathy by understanding how fellow attendees are experiencing the event.

Deepen (and Broaden) Your Team Roster

Design thinking introduces the notion of “multidisciplinary teams,” in which people of assorted backgrounds (and schools of thought) ideate, iterate and collaborate. You need a group that creates divergent thinking, which, according to Mr. Brown of IDEO, “is the route, not the obstacle, to innovation.” I’d recommend adding folks from Finance, HR and Engineering. 

Where No Idea is a Bad Idea
If you make an early judgment on the quality of an idea, you may have just squashed a “germ” that would develop into a breakthrough. The ideation process is critical in creating the next breakthrough event. Instead, design thinking teaches you to build upon each other’s ideas, sort of like the “yes, and..” methodology in improvisational theater. 

Meeting and Event Prototypes
Recall that part of the ideation phase is “testing ideas.” It’s an iterative process in which you deploy a prototype, collect “real user feedback,” determine what you learned, then ideate on product refinements (repeating the cycle all over again).

Let’s say you’re planning next year’s 5,000 person sales kick-off meeting and you have innovative new ideas for it. Create a prototype using 50 sales people and actually implement those ideas in a “real prototype” (event). Determine what worked, make adjustments, then plan another prototype. When the “real thing” comes around, you’ll have a much better “product.”

This type approach is both novel and holds promise for adaptation to a variety of other tasks, disciplines and situations. What dissimilar business processes can be combined in a brainstorming session to help you approach your customers, employees, or suppliers differently? What may be the outcome of such crazy thinking? Does your culture support such “frivolous” exercises, or disdain them? While the temptation would be to apply the concept only to new product development, the value is cross-functional!



Becoming an Overnight Artisan Success in Only 5 Years

When someone is touted as a wunderkind in any line of work, many line up to try and figure out how success was achieved. So many become disheartened when their passion or education does not produce immediate results. While most recognize that success does not come over night, it is not at all uncommon for an artist or artisan to go from unknown to well known in a short amount of time. Achieving recognition, however, is a cumulative process. How does one go about doing so on a shortened time horizon?

Fundamentally, an entrepreneur in this space must be willing to undergo wholesale change. It’s not enough to become masterful at creating great designs; without the corresponding strategies to maximize business operations and processes, success will be hard to come by. Too few artisan entrepreneurs take the time and make the effort to understand that sweet convergence of operational, artistic, and marketing opportunities. Those who do create value that is appreciated by the target market.

If you seek to identify and serve target buyers with relevant offerings, create cross promotions with other artisans and handmade entrepreneurs, and craft an airtight plan to execute your strategies, you will be far ahead of the average artisan. Hopefully, your artisan start-up will resonate with the target market, sales revenues will provide the opportunity to grow your team, and you can become strategic about roles and responsibilities. In addition to your design, production, and sales efforts, you will need to task team members with the following responsibilities:

  • strategy
  • vision
  • marketing
  • advertising
  • social media
  • partnerships
  • scheduling
  • logistics

artisan potterObviously, one person cannot handle all of these important roles for very long. That’s precisely why a focus on sales, production, and design early will help create the capital structure to build a team.

If the skill sets listed above are foreign to you as an artisan, you are not alone. Those with degrees in the fine arts, and related disciplines have been prepared to pursue a skill, but not necessarily a business. More importantly, planning, confidence, and diligence go a long ways towards helping you execute on your idea. Since many artisans are not prepared through educational instruction to be proficient in such things as negotiation and team work, they have to learn these things from a mentor. Please find a suitable mentor with a background different form your own who understand business principles well enough to guide you into disciplines that are needful but likely unfamiliar!

Basic business principles in marketing, communications, customer service, selling, and relationship management are undervalued in the art and design community. Disciplining yourself to learn and apply nest practices in each of these principles will yield wonderful results. Very, very few artisan entrepreneurs are able to transition from hobby to avocation to employing others. For you to be more successful, you must work on the business side of your brain, engaging more left brain convergent thinking.

Friends who have been successful in the arts community have told me that, not unlike big businesses, change is hard for an artist. The willingness to tinker with what you make, how you describe it, who you make it for, how you determine who will buy it, how you promote your wares, how you replicate success, and how to transition from sole proprietor to small business are all based on being able to hold your talent with an open palm. Objectively stepping back from your creations to seriously consider who may appreciate them will, by nature, cause you to think differently about what you are making, how you are making, and what it will take to sell enough to pay not just yourself but others.

Best wishes on your journey!



Put Sharks & Jets to Work in Strategic Design Thinking

When we think of design, we think of products. Industrial design as a field is scarcely 10o years old. However, technology tools such as CAD (Computer Aided Design), 3-D modeling, and stereolithography catapulted design into a rapid prototyping process towards the end of the 20th century. Companies like Apple rode the crest of this wave–to an extent–but really took design to a new frontier. Rather than simply looking at features and benefits as expressions of design and product marketing, what emerged was a new way to view business problems. Many business schools have incorporated not only courses on innovation, but specific foci on “design thinking.”

Kevin Budelmann penned an article for Metropolis magazine last month discussing design thinking as a modern motif. Budelmann credits Bill Moggridge, cofounder of the pioneering design firm IDEO with contributing significantly to thought leadership in this domain. Moggridge is said to have been the genius who reengineered IDEO from a product design practice to strategic design thinking powerhouse. Budelmann notes that part of the transformation occurred as a result of asking staff from divergent disciplines to work together, requiring that they become humble in the process. 

Budelmann’s firm, Peopledesign, has amassed a team of talented contributors who may not have worked for design firms years ago. A clear distinction is made, however, in hiring MBAs who understand design and designers who understand business.  The inevitable difference of opinions pits “sharks” (MBAs) against “jets” (designers) in true West Side Story musical terminology. Here’s Budelmann’s take on the natural interaction between the two employee types in his design firm:

It’s not even clear anymore which neighborhoods are Sharks’ turf and which belong to the Jets. Maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. The gym is neutral territory, and we might be able to work something out at the dance. Clearly, we Jets could learn a few new moves from the Sharks. The Sharks need to cool their jets anyway, so to speak.

When it’s show time, it isn’t us against them. In truth, we’ve made great strides. We’re learning every day. A colleague once mentioned that when people talk about collaboration, they usually mean cooperation. True collaboration is hard. Real communication is hard. It’s not about holding ground; it’s about ceding turf.

Two decades ago I was in school at Carnegie Mellon, where everyone is a geek in their respective discipline.The least geeky and (excuse the perception) least interesting people got a business degree. General management, which we assumed was to generally manage something general. It left us scratching our heads.

Now that I own my own business, I value management greatly. Business is an engine, and we don’t go very far without it. Besides, what do designers really do anyway? How do they do it? Is it describable to a non-designer, or do you have to be part of the gang?

Today we operate in a post Sharks vs. Jets world. Our team looks different. Our projects look different. Our sketches, books, and processes look different. As for the star-crossed lovers, our children have certainly taken the best of both of us. It’s the same for our ensemble at work. This is clear: Our hybrid future is stronger than our disconnected past.

Designers focus on asking questions, but often don’t like to answer them. Business people focus on answers, but often don’t ask the right questions. The combination can be powerful. The future of business and design lies in our ability to overcome our small worlds to make room for a bigger one.

The phenomenal power of strategic design thinking is unveiled in that final paradox–designers must become better at answering questions and business folks must become better at asking the right questions. Seek to apply this principle to your own business. Challenge your concrete thinkers to think more divergently; your creatives to think more convergently. In doing so, you will experience some transformation and create a new language of productivity.


Create Competitive Advantage

Yesterday, we examined the role of research in growing small businesses. Today, let’s see how decisions about product are an outgrowth of good market knowledge. When you gain a better understanding of buyer preferences and the competitive offerings of other providers, you then have the right kind of information to make better decisions

In the context of home building, for instance, design, location and pricing considerations determine both the volume of homes that can be sold, as well as the margins at which they can be sold. Design attributes must be fairly consistent with the market–even more so in a mature industry such as construction. Minor details can reflect your brand or personal touch, but don’t overdo it! The location of home sites is very important to timely sales; if homes are attractive but in the wrong area, they will take longer to sell. Finally, pricing homes to reflect profitable sales is a science–often requiring that the building company learn to gauge what the buyer will pay through past experience, a trial and error process to be sure.


Design features will vary somewhat from one part of the country to another, and may even vary greatly from one neighborhood to another. The important consideration is to maintain a theme throughout the home or series of homes. This is not unique to construction–branding is important to most every industry and consistent look and feel builds equity in your product or service offering because it represents a promise that is made and kept, thereby demonstrating credibility. Whether you are a builder who hires an interior designer or a public accountant with a secretary who types up a proposal, make sure that those charged with creativity do not proceed with their own view of what is needed rather than seeking to uphold your brand. Contemporary styled fixtures in one bathroom can throw off the traditional design scheme of the rest of the home, which may feature French provincial lighting fixtures everywhere else in the same house. In like manner, a different set of colors in every PowerPoint presentation, none of which matches your logo palette, dilutes your brand.

On the other hand, it is okay to evolve your brand image through minor and gradual design changes over time. Observing competitors’ design patterns can often provide ideas for introducing features (be they plan layout or choice of  tub styles) that are attractive to the buying public but have been previously unavailable. The decision to make such a move must be grounded in research–that’s the main point.


Once you make an effort to create winning designs that the public loves, your next consideration should be location. In home building, this would be neighborhoods in school districts that are popular. In a business like high school athletic team paraphernalia, the equivalent would be going to the stadiums or booster clubs where fans congregate in the largest numbers with the most discretionary income. Using research results, you can hone in on where you want your product displayed, sold, etc. Demographic data must support your offering–make sure there are enough qualified buyers prior to making a commitment to a distribution channel that stakes out your territory. Try to maintain a mix that reaches different target buyers with different offerings at prices and features that they have said they want–available where they want


Trying to undercut the market may work in the short-term but is a strategy that only works long-term for well-financed organizations with superior control over input prices, labor costs, and real estate (think of Wal-Mart as an exceptional competitor, not a normal one.) Make sure your prices cover all of your direct and indirect costs, plus an additional margin for profits. It is often better to sell fewer units at higher margins than greater units at lower ones. In general, if your pricing is within 10 percent of the market, you will be given a fair chance to compete. It is best to compete on factors other than price, but you have to be within a reasonable band of tolerance to get the opportunity. Again, to know what the price sensitivity via research data is a competitive advantage.



Risk Assessment for Small Businesses

When someone talks about risk management in a business context, usually the risk is of a financial nature. Yet, other kinds of business risk that cannot be taken care of with an insurance policy or other financial tool  are just as important for you to consider and make plans concerning.

New product roll-outs  mergers and acquisitions, and similar considerations all carry an inherent element of risk. If your company does not have cash reserves or strong current year cash flows, it is very hard to make up for a mistake in terms of something attempted that does not work out. The smaller the organization  the more a setback impacts your ability to recover. If the executive team understands this important principle, then you are well on your way to avoiding unnecessary risks that will kill your long term prospects for success and growth. Three areas of risk are significant:

Location risks:

Location risks include choice of where to offer your products and services, where your staff is located, and where your customers are located. It is extremely unwise to not think through these various parameters and how they impact your strategy and planning. Whether you are thinking of location in terms of geography or online versus in person, you have to wrestle this subject to the ground, develop a keen internal understanding within your team as to how to optimize your choices with regards to locations, and adhere steadfastly to your plan. Any forays into new locations–whether in terms of sales presence, staff, or customer preferences–should be scrutinized with the intent to preserve or improve efficiency in meeting customer needs. In addition to these considerations of location, there is also a need to think about your suppliers, strategic allies, and key advisers. You want to be as close as you can to key stakeholders who can drive your business success.

Locations that you choose should be that delicate balance between affordability and high traffic. being able, for instance, to  get banking and other errands done quickly will make your organization more efficient and, hopefully, reduce costs while improving customer service. Keeping in mind that you can’t spend too much money for a prime location, make sure that you have adequately researched alternatives before settling into a choice.

Design risks:

Market research should support all design decisions. Whether your company makes software, consumer goods, runs a retail store, or delivers a service, the design of your offering to your target market should reflect tat you have done your homework. Your offering should have strong appeal to each target buyer persona, with features and benefits that are tailored to identified preferences. However, designs can become  stale in a short amount of time, so it is advisable to create and revise based on prospect needs as well as initial customers. To only look to keep providing the same thing to an established clientele shuts your organization off from new opportunities and the need to replace customers over time with better ones. Once you have a series of strongly designed offerings, look to promote and sell as much of it as you can as quickly as possible because you will “iron out the wrinkles” and become proficient and prolific in delivery of something in which your fixed cost does not increase and you can exact better margins.

Sales risks:

Sales risks include the reputation of the sales force, distributors, resellers, etc, pricing competitiveness, and product price bracketing. Those who are charged with selling your offering are selected by prior performance in similar situations. Familiarity with your pricing, offerings, and market is a baseline–you want someone who will give you continuous feedback to keep improving what you offer. You need to educate some sales people on both the importance of this feedback  and what you require (and when).

Pricing should be within the boundaries  the market will bear. Not wanting to forego sales for higher prices, or profits for lower prices, it is important to devote a goodly amount of time to setting prices that will attract buyers from each target buyer category at profitable levels.

Being able to address each of these risks is vital if you are going to create and maintain a thriving business. Make sure that you develop plans for risk management in each of these categories, as well as the financial risk that most every business faces.