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Thinking Better, with Tim Hurson December 1, 2009

Posted by Aaron Schwartz in Uncategorized, [Books] Leadership & Change.
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Tim Hurson’s Think Better provides a great guide for integrating creative thinking with critical thinking, in order to achieve a state of what Hurson and his firm, Thinkx, call “Productive Thinking”.

We can all stand to think better. Too often, whether in our personal or business lives, we follow the crowd. Often, this leads to known solutions and safe answers, though those often limit our potential upside. To make a sports analogy, this is like the football coach who, when trailing by two touchdowns late in the game, decides to punt: better to risk losing worse, than to give oneself no chance to win. In business, limiting the solutions you can arrive at affords opportunities for competitors to create disruptive products. The bigger a company gets, of course, the easier it is to believe that its processes and systems will produce the “right” answers, and the more risk averse the culture naturally becomes. We need to fight this!

Like Jerry Hirshberg and others, Hurson believes that “To create the future, you have to imagine it.” Besides not deferring to past precedent, we need to embrace the best ideas of design thinking like brainstorming and focusing on finding the critical questions before we worry about the “right” answers. As Hurson sees it, there are two key components to Productive Thinking: Creative Thinking, which is generative, nonjudgmental and expansive; and Critical Thinking, which is analytical, selective and judgmental. His unique perspective is that we need to alternate between the two and actively keep them separate, as performing both at the same time necessarily limits what we can accomplish.

We have discussed brainstorming the entire semester, read articles by some of its biggest proponents, and practiced repeatedly, yet Hurson adds a few complementary elements that I think are really insightful. First, he stresses that the first set of ideas one “brainstorms” are probably not going to suffice. He calls these the first-third, and believes that we must get to the third-third of the ideas before we will be able to see any difference. Second, he suggests using the word “else” to push our limits. What else can we think of? How else can we answer this question? And third, he provides a nifty framework for evaluating which ideas should be pursued. Figure out some of the strongest, he writes, and then analyze which ones satisfy the following requirements: (1) how much influence do I have over the issue? (2) How important is the issue (3) how much imagination will it take to enact (if no imagination needed, there is probably a plug-and-play solution out there . . . find it!).

Hurson has a six-step process for productive thinking: (1) What’s the issue? (2) How do you define success (3) What is the critical question to answer (4) Generate answers! (5) Forge the solution (i.e. make a robust, well-defended solution) (6) Align all fiscal, personal and other resources. Most of this is self-explanatory, but one piece that resonated with me is the idea of creating a “Target Future.” As Hurson writes, “No matter how dysfunctional the present, no matter how sensible the reasons for change, most people and organizations would rather wring out the old than ring in the new . . . The simplest way to create emotional pull is to convert the objective into the subjective, and the easiest way to do that is to create a vision of a Target Future that is so real, so compelling, so desirable that people actually want to reach it.”


The Creative Priority, Jerry Hirshberg December 1, 2009

Posted by Aaron Schwartz in The Creative Priority.
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I believe the accolades that Jerry Hirshberg received for his book, The Creative Priority, must have been an incredibly well-deserved when it was written. Reading it after 10 weeks of a Design Thinking class, it seems clear that most of Hirshberg’s ideas serve as or mimic the foundations of the discipline. As such, I am choosing to treat this blog posting a little differently than my others, and am chronicling what I find to be his most impactful ideas (along with a few quotations that merited double-underlines while I was reading).

By way of background, the book is about Hirshberg’s founding of NDI [Nissan Design International], Nissan’s beach-head in the U.S. The company decided to mix Japanese technical expertise with American design expertise, and hired Hirshberg from GM by offering him free reign to create the organization however he wanted. In Jerry’s own words, the entire NDI organization was structured around the creative process, as opposed to most companies that hide the creative people in the corner. Now, on to some insights!

1)      One must explore everything. You should be naïve and open before rejecting anything

2)      Don’t forget to play! Hirshberg fashioned NDI into a “sandbox” and in fact accepted contracts to design other products (e.g. a vacuum and a world-class yacht) in order to allow his team to stretch their creative minds

3)      Incorporate different viewpoints – “the probabilities for unexpected juxtapositions are sharply increased”

4)       NDI restricts its earliest brainstorming to figuring out what are the critical questions! This goes against a common desire to race for a satisfactory answer. In fact, if we were to consider the counterfactual for a lot of the “answers” we have arrived to in life and business, we may find that we satisficed instead of maximizing.

5)      Be comfortable to let your ideas – and to steal others’. Similar to Bill Buxton, Hirshberg encourages people to let their ideas free, so that others can comment and the team can iterate to create a great product.

6)      Again, like Buxton, Hirshberg calls for the intentional blurring of responsibilities. An example: in terms of designing a car, he believed that the engineer is responsible for the coefficient of drag while the designer is responsible for the coefficient of “beauty.” Yet, both are responsible for creating a great car, so they must work together.

7)      Beware statistics as the be-all-end-all. Attack difficult problems, even if data is sparse

8)      Always re-examine decisions and assumptions on a project.

Random lessons

9)      Hirshberg tells of the time he was told, by his boss at GM: “Kid, the secret to great leadership is being able to say “fuck you” in the morning and “how ‘bout lunch” by noon”.

10)   It’s okay to say that you’re not satisfied with a product: “At NDI, the rules were: Anyone from any department in the company who was interested was welcome; if they felt the design was stupid, they were to say so; and they didn’t need to have a better solution”

11)   If customers seem to want contradictory things . . . be creative and find a way to do it!

Improving Materials Improves Products November 2, 2009

Posted by Aaron Schwartz in Design Thinking.
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The New York Times had an interesting editorial today (http://bit.ly/3JQsor) about Renuva, a type of material that is being explored for use in various objects (toys, airplanes, etc.). Renuva is a “soy-based alternative to polyurethane (which is typically petroleum-based)”. The material is not new, but designers, engineers and editorialists are re-envisioning its possible uses. Using Renuva for products that previously were made from petroleum seems to be a boon to the environment – more relevant to our Design Thinking course, this is a perfect example of re-envisioning how we go about what was an accepted process.

I am also interested in this concept in light of the argument of the book I am reading, Green Metropolis. The author, David Owen, argues that switches to energy efficient products end up costing us in the long run, as we just use more energy. His findings are that efficiency often equates with cheaper which often results in increased usage. Instead of looking at the gas mileage on our cars and celebrating when that increases, he insists that we look at the odometer, and only celebrate when that ticks-up more slowly – the total miles driven is what matters. In the same way, I wonder if switching to a new material might have certain unintended consequences (over-harvesting of soy? increasing consumption due to lack of guilt?).

Thinking Like a Designer October 31, 2009

Posted by Aaron Schwartz in Design Thinking.
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I’ve read this article before, but looking at it through the prism of our current course has made it more relevant. Before, I thought about Design as something for others – I’m a MBA, consultant, history major, and terrible artist. Having had a few weeks of “you can be a designer too” indoctrination (and I say that in a very appreciative way), I read the article with more personal interest this time. How can I embed design thinking?


Design thinking needs to be Human Centered

This is the most impactful takeaway for me. I’ve heard it before and saw it first hand in a trip to IDEO. It’s obvious when you think about it: of course a product becomes more impactful when it’s actually designed for the user. But I’m not sure that I understand the approach of paying more attention to the “Extreme users”. What about the 80-20 rule? Or is the idea that it’s the extreme users that will proselytize about your product/service, so you want to cater to them? Are extreme users always a business’s core?


Design isn’t just Beautification

The idea is that it’s no longer enough to just bring designers in at the end, to repackage an existing product or service. Every time I think of this, I visualize a city planner. Think about Governors’ Island in New York. That they’re spending years on different design options, instead of building functional buildings and then adding the lipstick later, means that the space will be that much more useful when it’s opened. And as we learned on the first day of New Product Development, the early stage decisions can account for 60-70% of the ultimate cost of a project; it’s clearly better to integrate design thinking at the start and make sure users get what they’re looking for.


Tell more stories

I keep hearing this (this article, blog postings, Made to Stick). And I’m trying. Every time we revise the pitch for Refill Revolution (our startup) we’re trying to come up with more stories. I’m finding analogies to be the most impactful, though am trying to create the story of the everyday user.



Ditto the last point, in that it’s incredibly relevant to our startup. Brown says that you need to get an idea or product to a point where the feedback is useful – then open it up for play. Prototyping too late means the business may be too invested in one path and/or the user will be more hesitant to give feedback, as the product will have an air of completeness. Another way of thinking of this idea is releasing the Minimum Viable Product (http://startuplessonslearned.blogspot.com/2009/08/minimum-viable-product-guide.html). One definition of the MVP: “The minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”

As the Future Catches You October 31, 2009

Posted by Aaron Schwartz in As The Future Catches You.
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I found myself frustrated with this book. Until the end, that is, when Enriquez notes: “I apologize for simplifying so many debates and concepts. My objective is not to teach you everything you need to know about technology but, rather, to start a debate.” This made the work come together for me.

The book is about change, and rapid change; this is encapsulated by the phrase, “Future catches up to the imagination too quickly”. First it was improved communication. Then the Internet. Then micro-knowledge (genes, nano, etc.). He’s not just pointing this out for us to digest, but almost as a warning. Those countries, people, companies, families, groups that do not value technology and that do not prepare themselves to understand the movements that are going on (let alone lead those changes) are shooting themselves in the foot. Some think you have to run to stay in place. Enriquez thinks you have to be on a rocket ship to stay in place, and figure out something faster to move ahead of others.

I was interested in his thought that national resources are actually a constraint, because resource-rich countries end up being intelligence-poor. Similarly, I’m encouraged by his take that, the more you learn how to learn, the better off you’ll be. As a liberal arts undergrad, that makes me happy . . .

He has one point that is probably true, but which I think he would approach differently if he were writing in 2009 in Berkeley. The top 20% of society that understands technology is getting richer, faster, than ever before. True! But what that 20% do is what matters in this situation, and if social entrepreneurship takes off, if “doing good by the world” wins out, then that acceleration may not necessarily be a doomsday scenario.


Aaron Schwartz on Sketching User Experiences (Buxton) October 12, 2009

Posted by Aaron Schwartz in Sketching User Experiences.
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Bill Buxton’s book, Sketching User Experiences, is one I wish I’d read a long time ago. In my academic and professional career I have come across numerous big problems. How do I write a difficult research paper? How do we crack a difficult issue at a client? How do I tell the story of my new startup? To this point, I have always taken the “normal” steps: ask advisors; create a paper or project outline; use Excel to create a project plan; and recently, use Microsoft OneNote to lay out literally everything I know about the challenge. I’ve also prayed for help. And I’ve consistently delivered “B+/A-“ work.

Buxton’s book is about sketching, and he makes a case that this is one of the more powerful tools in the arsenal. The idea of a sketch is simple: A quickly-produced, disposable , possible solution to a problem.

1)      Quickly produced. By creating sketches quickly, the sketcher has the opportunity to see lots of iterations of the solution. If one is trying to figure out how to cook with the sun, one solution could be a tin pot, another could be a contraption to boiling water, another could be the heating of a PV cell that is then connected to a hot-pot. There are thousands of possible answers. Sketching allows you to create them all from a high-level, allowing you to survey a large set of possible answers before narrowing onto a few that are  most promising

2)      Disposable. The more work one does, the tougher it is to throw out one’s work. You do research. You think through different possibilities. You settle on one. And then you build it. It takes considerable self-confidence and discipline to decide that an answer is a sunk-cost.

3)      Possible. The whole point of a sketch is to throw it into the fire and get feedback (whether internally generated or by others who view one’s work). You are changing the goal of your work at that point from “solving a problem” to “creating solutions”. The idea is, thescope is wider if you are not worried about a specific answer.

The beauty is that a sketch is whatever is appropriate for the question one is asking. If you are thinking of creating a piece for a dance troupe, the sketch could be a set of photos of the different moves, laid out on the wall, which the troupe may move in considering different orders. If you’re writing a paper, you can make a simple mind-map to sketch out thoughts, see how the paper might flow, throw it out, and start again as many times as needed.

Personally, I have been struggling to tell the story of my startup. The idea is to track and reward sustainable actions. No one, I mean, no one, gets it right away, in large part because I have no idea how to tell the story. So I am working on sketching it out, with a video. The idea is to show a day in the life of a member of our user community. In my mind, this is the only story that matters, and if done right, it will be a start in telling the story of why someone would participate.

By the time I finish the video, I will have put 8 months of thought into the business and a few weeks of work into the video. But the video will still be simple and intentionally have an unfinished look. I do not have the right answer, and need feedback. Buxton stresses that there is an inverse relationship between a project’s polish and the quality of feedback one can expect to receive. If there sketch is great, people will think it’s finished, so leaving it in a crude fashion – even when one has put in a lot of effort – signals to viewers that it is open for critique. And that is how one can learn the best.