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Catapult Design April 28, 2010

Posted by Ignacio Larrain in Design Thinking.
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This past Wednesday, we saw a great aspect of design from the eyes of Catapult Design.

Catapult provides a complete different approach to the design industry, by focusing in the nonprofit design. They try to help organizations and aim to create social change, with an extremely diverse team of engineers, anthropologists, designers, and psychologists. Following an approach of assess, design, implement and evaluate, the company intends to address multidisciplinary solutions to social ventures that go beyond the typical scope of a design firm.

Cases of interest that captured our attention were the development of a wind turbine in Guatemala or a fuel-efficient cook stove in Darfur, Sudan. In contrast with other design firms that advise on launching a new product or inventing a new process, Catapult‘s objectives go beyond the market aspirations. For example in the cook stove case mentioned above, the final goal was to avoid long journeys of women in Africa, where they faced the risk of being harmed or raped, and thus diminish the incidence of violence within their communities.  The design also had a great functionality thought behind it. It was developed by students at Cal and used 75% less fuel wood than traditional cooking stoves. The team assessed design for manufacturability, initiated a local manufacturing in Sudan and had to develop a training strategy for users.

When defining a design solution or need in a developing country, the company recommends sending at least two people to the site for the observation phase as the insight will be better. The approach is from three perspectives. The first is the person/family; the second is the community; and the third is the country, including but not limited to an understanding of the political environment, trade agreements, and trends in population.  Multidisciplinary research along with more personal feedback provide a more complete understanding of what is needed and sometimes shows what the community doesn’t see as a necessity or things they wouldn’t change, which is an important input. Many times this types of problems are much broader than one would imagine, or they have their roots in situations we had not expected. This good understanding of the whole environment at different levels – and how everything relates around the problem – will be crucial to move forward from the assessment stage to the design stafe, and to produce solutions that really impact those societies. We believe that a very good tool for the assessment stage is mind mapping, which can help us connect all the dots and explore situations by broadening the boundaries.

Finally, a great takeaway is that we should not try to reinvent the wheel over and over again, but to be creative and understand that there are countless technologies and solutions out there that can be applied to many problems we will encounter day after day.

Authors: Labra, Larrain & Valdes


Preparation, design and delivey December 9, 2009

Posted by Ignacio Larrain in Presentation Zen.
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Presentation Zen is a very colorful book. It has several examples on how to apply the concepts that are presented making it dynamic and easy to assimilate.

The idea is that behind every good presentation there is a process, made up of three major stages: Preparation, Design and Delivery . This process requires specific tools on each stage. If we fail in any one of these stages, then the whole presentation is in danger.

Here are a couple of interesting takeaways from each step:


The idea is to focus on three questions to drive the flow of the presentation.

  • What is the main point of the presentation?
  • Why does it matter to the audience?
  • If the audience will remember only one thing, what should it be?

Some concepts that help in this stage are:

  • Get back to see the big picture
  • Go analog: get away from the computer and take time to think
  • Do not be afraid of restrictions, they can help you stick to the core messages
  • Keep it simple
  • Think of examples and stories
  • Play with people’s emotions


Keep presentations simple by reducing the non-essentials. Also, pursue grace, elegance and subtlety.

The following is a list of principles and techniques that can be applied for these purposes:

  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio: A higher ratio means communicating clearly with as little degradation to the message as possible. Degradation can occur when we use inappropriate charts, ambiguous labels and icons, emphasize items such as lines, shapes and symbols that do not play a key role in supporting the message.
  • Picture Superiority Effect: Use images! And be thoughtful that those images are of good quality and related to the core message.
  • Empty Space: Do not feel the urge to fill empty spaces in a slide. Empty space implies elegance and clarity, and it can convey a feeling of high quality, sophistication, and importance.
  • The big four: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity. These principles speak for themselves and are very effective in the design step.


For this stage there are three main things we have to acknowledge:

  • Be in full presence when presenting, as if you were in a conversation
  • Mistakes may happen – just leave them behind
  • PREPARE: it is the only way to gain confidence and to look easy and natural

How can we Think Better December 7, 2009

Posted by Ignacio Larrain in Think Better.
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This is a great book by Tim Hurson in which he encourages us to think better and proposes a framework to do so. The three basic assumptions on which he bases the need for better thinking are: 1) There is always room for improvement; 2) In the world of information it is not about what we know but about how we think; and 3) Thinking is a skill that can be learned.

But even though probably most of us – if not all – agree that these assumptions are true, then why won’t we engage very often in real thinking? The author links this situation with human energy conservation mechanisms we have developed for millions of years. As our brain tries to be as efficient as it can it takes us through a series of shortcuts to reduce energy consumption. But although we gain efficiency from an energy point of view we also avoid engaging in more deep thinking. The author does not try to entirely push as away from these shortcuts but to make us more aware that many times we should engage in deeper thinking, especially when we are in need of constant innovation.

Once we engage in deeper thinking, Tim Hurson makes a distinction between reproductive and productive thinking. The first one is where we refine what is already known, meaning we can only make incremental changes. The second one is about “generating the new” and coming up with breakthrough innovations.

The author defines productive thinking as a framework for thinking better and proposes a six-step model to guide the process:

Step 1: What’s going on?

Step 2: What’s Success?

Step 3: What’s the Question?

Step 4: Generate Answers

Step 5: Forge the Solution

Step 6: Align Resources

I would recommend everyone to take a look at the process in the book (or in other blogs if someone else has talked more deeply about it) because it is very straight forward, simple and can be applied in any situation. If time to read is an issue then a good approach can be to read the summaries after each chapter to have a starting point and a sense of what we need to achieve in each step.

But even though we want to use this model or not, if we at least want to be better at productive thinking there are three specific things we must consider in order to succeed:

  • Creative and Critical Thinking. These are the black and white of good thinking. We need creative thinking to generate ideas and to expand them. We need critical thinking to analyze these ideas and select the best ones. The key is not to use them both at the same time because if done so they start cancelling each other and we lose the benefits of both ways of thinking. So a good approach is to start always with a creative view, generating as much ideas as we can without any judgment, and then change to critical thinking to analyze them, judge them and narrow the selection.
  • Stay Longer in the Question. Many times the solution to a problem is the right one, but the problem was not the one in need of a solution. The author encourages us to stay longer in this stage and to really understand what is the underlying problem. This means to be more tolerant with ambiguity and to constantly challenge assumptions. If the question is not correctly defined then all the following efforts will be worthless.

  • Good Brainstorming: Brainstorming can help us liberate our minds and let us think outside the box. There are for rules for good brainstorming:

  1. Criticism is ruled out
  2. Freewheeling is welcomed
  3. Quantity is wanted
  4. Combination and improvement are sought

Prepare your organization for moments of truth December 7, 2009

Posted by Ignacio Larrain in Moments of Truth, [Books] Leadership & Change.
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In this book Jan Carlzon – CEO of SAS Group from 1981 to 1994 – talks about moments of truth and how can companies make the best out of them. A moment of truth is a moment in which we interact with a customer and this interaction helps build this client’s perception of what the company is. These moments of truth are critical since this is what clients will remember and many times they will decide after that moment if they would like to stay as customers of the company or if they will seek other alternatives. This looks great in paper, but the problem arises in the implementation stage since those moments of truth are mostly very short moments – sometimes less than twenty seconds – and a company has thousands of them every day. And all employees, but especially those in the front line, will be responsible for shaping customers’ perceptions at every moment of truth.

In the book Jam Carlzon talks about different issues we should consider to create the necessary environment to take real advantage of those moments.

This is a short list of some interesting elements from the book that can help us move in this proposed direction:

  • Move from a production-driven company to a service-driven company
  • The job of a leader is not to make all the decisions but to generate conditions for others to do theirs jobs better
  • The ability to delegate responsibilities is crucial
  • The company needs to have a clear and simple vision that everyone understands and shares
  • Flatter organizations: everyone closer to clients and more responsibility to the front line
  • Role of middle management changes from decision making to being responsible for getting those resources needed by the front line
  • If front-line employees are now more responsible they have to become more comfortable with risk taking. A culture of job security and tolerance for mistakes if then needed.
  • Work on communication skills both within and outside the company. Clear and simple messages are the most powerful ones.
  • Measure results from a customer’s point of view
  • Reward your employees

Can we become great design thinkers? December 7, 2009

Posted by Ignacio Larrain in Design Thinking.
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I really liked this reading. Short, clear and straight to the point. It is a great way to introduce us to the world of design thinking.

What stood the most for me in this reading is the Design Thinker’s Personality Profile that Tim Brown proposes, and how he points out that many people outside professional design have a natural aptitude for design thinking. Why it stood out? Because this means we still have the chance to think as designers and apply best practices in our own fields. The profile mentions the following characteristics to look for in design thinkers: empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentalism and collaboration. Empathy to imagine the world in different perspectives. Integrative thinking to see all the aspects of a problem and come up with great innovations. Optimism to assume that there is always better alternatives than the current ones. Experimentalism to move from small incremental steps to breakthrough innovations. Collaboration to replace the myth of the lone creative genius with the enthusiastic interdisciplinary collaborator.

What encourages me is that all these characteristics do not seem too difficult to assimilate. Probably it will take time and practice but with the correct amount of effort we can for sure be able to forge ourselves into better design thinkers. And to start already working along that path, I will bring up my optimism and say I truly believe that we will all become great design thinkers at the end of this semester.

Is knowledge enough? December 6, 2009

Posted by Ignacio Larrain in As The Future Catches You.
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The world is changing. And it is changing faster every day. The author shows data on how the differences between developed countries and third world countries is increasing instead of narrowing, and he defines information or the so called knowledge economy as the golden key for poorer countries in order to at least have the chance to get out of their actual reality.

As a first reaction I tend to agree with his point of view. Information is crucial. And there have been interesting experiences from countries like Singapore that have been able to climb the stairs from poverty to become a successful economy. But I believe that even though knowledge is necessary it is also not sufficient. As human beings we have some basic needs we will pursue to fill in first place and after we have done so we can start thinking a little bit ahead. In many third world countries we see hunger, deceases, violence and lack of democratic rights that have to be solved in first place. I had the chance to study the differences between public and private schools in Chile, a country that has been developing very much for the past thirty years. And one of the key findings was that even though the materials taught and the resources used to teach students could be equaled, when a little boy does not have breakfast in the morning or if he gets involved every day in home violence then even though he attends the best school in the country he will not be able to perform as he should. Even though we are trying to educate all our children the difference is still increasing. And this happens in a country that has been in the developing countries’ group for years and far away from those relegated third world countries.

An this is why I believe it is not just a matter of leadership within each country to change those places’ destinies, but it is a matter of world leadership in order to see the world as a whole and to realize that we need to embrace one another’s needs as if they were our own. We need courageous, ethical and socially responsible leaders that want to build a better world for all. And as future world leaders we are called to make a decision: will we work to create that better world or not. If we choose the first alternative it is going to be a great challenge. I just hope most of us get to choose to face this challenge, and to do it with great passion.  But we need not to loose sight of how to approach this challenge. If we want to really have an impact then we do not have to focus only on saving some proceeds for charity but to be thoughtful of those key decisions that can affect someone’s life in the long run. And we as leaders will face those types of decisions many times in our lives, for example, when we have the chance to create new jobs and deliver fair wages in cheap labor countries. It is our responsibility as Haas students to pursue a better world, and to make it with fairness and within clear ethical boundaries.