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.


Growth Through Market Knowledge

Market positioning is won through a combination of market insights, product features, and delivery of “the promise.” Superior use of these three components makes for a winning strategy to outperform the competition. Market insights are critical to determining what to offer, in what way, and how to communicate one’s message effectively. There are two types of insights that should be studied in unison to drive your internal strategies an external tactics–competitor and buyer. 

Researching the Competition

Understanding where your product fits in the market is just good business sense. If you never take the time to study what others are doing, you will likely not be on target. When I was taking a strategy course in my MBA studies, we were treated to a semester long simulator assignment. The simulator was comprised of five teams of students who each organized to make decisions about their unique computer chip company. We were given freedom to make decisions about what size, durability, and other features different models in our product line would have. We also elected financing options, manufacturing capacities and human resources/training choices. Finally, we were able to allocate dollars between marketing and sales activities and each team received market data that showed what buyers were purchasing, along with trend reports showing products likely to be in demand in the future. Observing what changes others were making, and relatively what they were spending for parts of their businesses, then tracking both sales and profitability performance and plotting it against market share and stock price was a very instructional exercise.

What was most valuable for us was to see a glimpse into the decisions that our competitors were making. Much like a game of chess or a soccer match, the tactical maneuvers employed by others were not just to be noticed, but anticipated, planed for, and counter actions developed. Additionally, we would have strategy sessions to think through whether to do something unexpected, stay the course, expand/shrink products based on resource needs and profitability, plus make trade-offs between automation and personnel. 

In your own business environment, research data is compiled form three main sources:

  1. Primary: first-hand interaction with the market and reporting.
  2. Secondary: compiled reference materials outlining primary research others have done.
  3. Tertiary: facts and figures derived from someone else’s summary research statistics.

Surveys, focus groups, interviews, literature searches, online services, and personal observation are all legitimate ways to collect the above data, dependent on your desired level of confidence in the decisions you must make. Industry associations, through conferences and publications, provide a fair amount of secondary and tertiary research information about competitors and buyers.

Buyer Research

Though I have guided many companies in market research projects over the years, these days I try to guide clients to resources when someone is more dedicated to a discipline than I. Jay Nolfo, who writes the blog Pensare, and is a good friend of mine is one such  resource. (By the way, his company uses a rhino rather than a hippo, but at least we’re similar!) Here’s what he had to say in a blog post earlier this year:

  • Introduction of New Product or Service: Any new business, or introduction of a new product or service that the company is thinking of offering, needs market research.  By developing a good understanding of the product by developing a good business plan based on market research helps provide a solid foundation for your offering.
  • Customer Development: Next to understanding the product or service you are offering, understanding the customer who will be buying it is paramount.  In a consumer based business, understanding the demographics and psychographics of a target market can be determined by looking at previous purchase behavior or through a needs analysis.  In a business which sells to other businesses, understanding their needs can be a little more difficult.  However, this can be understood by doing surveys or focus groups.
  • Customer Satisfaction: After your customers have purchased your product or service, following up with them to understand their satisfaction of that purchase is key.  By understanding why they liked or disliked your offering and the reasons why the customer purchased your product or service over the competition can provide a basis of what could be your competitive advantage.

Take the matter to heart…consider how to improve your knowledge of what competitors are doing and what buyers want. You will then, as we did in our MBA class, be better prepared to develop winning business ideas!