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Wired to Care February 18, 2011

Posted by Alison Meier in Leading Strategy Change, Wired to Care.

Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik and Peter Mortensen

Review by Alison Meier, School of Information, master’s class of 2011

Wired to Care is written by Dev Patnaik and Peter Mortensen from Jump Associates, a strategy consulting company based out of San Francisco and New York. Wired to Care’s basic premise is that businesses are successful when they empathize with their customers.

The authors remind us that companies are made up of people who create products and services for the benefit of other people. As people, our brains are made to understand other people: we have “mirror neurons” that help us understand how others think and feel when we interact with them (we are “wired to care,” as the authors put it).

For companies, understanding how customers think and feel have enormous business advantages, from being able to anticipate market shifts to building customer loyalty to helping employees believe in their work. Yet most companies fail to interact with the customers on a regular basis, relying instead on market research reports. Wired to Care argues that research reports aren’t enough: companies need regular, sustained interaction with customers in order to meet their needs.

Wired to Care illustrates its points through dozens of anecdotes of companies and individuals that embrace (or fail to) a business model of empathy. Some companies that did a good job of understanding their customers were:

  • Harley-Davidson, which requires employees to spend a certain amount of time with motorcycle riders and often hires riders as employees;
  • Nike, whose campus is covered with running trails and athletic facilities, and product designers spend time observing kids college campuses to grasp fashion trends;
  • and Microsoft’s Xbox team, made up of hardcore gamers designing for other hardcore gamers.

In contrast, some companies that failed to understand their customers were:

  • Maxwell House, which led the coffee industry to introduce poor quality beans to coffee blends from the 1950s to the 1990s. Market tests showed that current coffee drinkers didn’t notice the incremental changes, but eventually new generations of coffee drinkers didn’t want to start drinking coffee;
  • and Microsoft’s Zune team, which was the same team that built the highly successful Xbox, but this time they couldn’t figure out who their customer was.

The Empath-O-Meter on their website lets readers votes on how well other companies manage to understand their customers, which helps frame the book’s argument in more real-world examples.

The authors of this book do a good job of illustrating empathy success stories. They demonstrate that some companies have experienced significant growth once they started understanding their customers. Moreover, it makes me want to work for a company that is good at empathy.

The last company that I worked for would likely fall on the “low empathy” side of the Empath-O-Meter. I worked for a major textbook publisher. I never had any contact with the students who would actually use the products we were making, nor did anyone I worked with. We would occasionally hear how a book was selling, but in general, we didn’t know anything about a book after it printed. This made if difficult to think about how our work affected the end users. When a book was running behind schedule or was sloppily prepared, it was easy to think that the only thing this affected was the lead editor’s bonus, when in reality it meant that classes were waiting for the books they had ordered or students were struggling to use texts with errors. Although we knew this in theory, having a chance to see this in person would have pushed us to work faster and better.

Many companies, particularly those that do “design,” are beginning to understand the value of user experience research. In general this means hiring a team or individual specifically to do user experience research, doing ethnographies, contextual interviews, observations, and interviews with the end-users. Wired to Care doesn’t comment specifically on user experience research; instead, it advocates that every member of the company be involved with its end customers. For many companies, this would require a major shift in its daily practices, hiring practices, and maybe even geographical location.

One criticism is that the book does not go into specifics about how to actually practice empathy, beyond hiring Jump to understand your customers for you (though this seems to negate the premise that the entire company needs to be involved in this process). The examples do not provide a roadmap as to how to start this process because they are so varied. In some cases they suggest that hiring your customers is a good place to start, but as the product designer for Nike illustrated, knowing what he wanted a good shoe for running is not enough; he also needed to know what young people found fashionable. Granted, the roadmap would likely be different for every company. However, the book leaves me convinced that empathy is important but no good way to start practicing it.


The Opposable Mind, Winning through Integrative Thinking April 16, 2010

Posted by matildawong in Design Thinking, Leading Strategy Change, Opposable Mind.

In the first half of the book, Martin takes the reader through a journey of turning points in various leaders’ lives and illustrates how each was able to come to a superior outcome through the use of “integrative thinking.” Martin formally defines integrative thinking as: The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each. The author then dedicates the second half of the book, with commendable effort, to explaining what he describes as the process or “knowledge system,” that can help one develop integrative thinking.

The concept of integrative thinking is not entirely new if one rereads the above definition a couple more times…the resolution of the either-or dilemma  is likely to come to mind.  Nevertheless Martin is progressive in advocating this concept and illustrates this with examples from left-brain dominated industries and should be applauded as such.  While Martin’s examples lack convincing direct linkage to the hypotheses he draws, they do suggest that this form of thinking is practiced and worthwhile.  Perhaps the most useful part of the book comes in the second half when Martin explains (albeit in somewhat painful academic jargon) the process by which to develop integrative thinking.  The knowledge system that Martin proposes is clear, well thought out, and structured but it is not without questions and concerns as one will find more apparent upon a second reading.

The knowledge system is made up of stance, tools, and experiences.  It is not meant to be a one directional process but rather a revolving cycle where stance drives tool acquisition which shapes experiences and the cycle recycles itself as experiences influence existing stance.  Martin advocates six guiding principles surrounding stance:

Three to do with how one views the world:

1)                  Existing models do not represent reality they are our constructions.

2)                  Opposing models are to be leveraged, not feared

3)                  Existing models are not perfect; better models exist that are not yet seen.

Three to do with how one views oneself:

4)                  I am capable of finding a better model

5)                  I can wade into and get through the necessary complexity.

6)                  I give myself the time to create a better model.

Martin believes that the stance in turn influences the types of tools acquired and presents three tools that are prevalent amongst integrative thinkers:

1)                  Generative Reasoning – the use of abductive logic, which seeks the best explanation in response to novel or interesting data that doesn’t fit an extant model via leaps with one’s mind; the process inquires after what might be and is modal in intent

2)                  Causal Modeling – the ability to think and apply systems based on two forms of causation: i) material causation – under certain set of conditions, x causes y to happen and 2) teleological causation – what is the purpose of y

3)                  Assertive Inquiry – the process by which integrative thinkers searches for another’s view and tries to fill in the gaps of understanding; it seeks common ground between conflicting models

Finally, Martin concludes that experience deepens mastery and nurtures originality, which is plausible.  This “tripod,” knowledge system does a good job in translating undefined and abstract concepts into understandable lessons.  In addition, this method has been long missed in a business world dominated by left-brain thinking and traditional forms of logic (deductive and inductive); executives and leaders can all stand to complement their existing toolkit.

So how exactly can we train these traditionally left-brained executives to follow in the ways of the avant-garde integrative thinkers?  How do we go from deductive reasoning to making “leaps of the mind”?  How can we get them to think that reality isn’t’ really reality, especially on the back of 30 or so years of experience?  These are gaps which I had hoped Martin could have filled.  The upside is that integrative thinking is actually starting to be taught in various business schools so the generation now will hopefully have it in their disciplines.

Integrative thinking is great and useful, but is it always applicable?  One can think of mergers that have occurred; two players were brought together because their value would be greater (via cost efficiencies, cross-selling opportunities, etc) combined rather than as separate entities.  But not every merger resulted in greater value – think AOL-Time Warner, MCI-WorldCom, and maybe even Bank of America and Merrill to name just a few.  The same can be said about opposing decisions faced by leaders – is taking a bit of both ideas or creating a new idea based on the two always preferable to just picking one?  How about companies that are faced with the option of targeting two opposite groups of customers and the best solution is actually choosing one group.  This is common in fashion companies when they look to source growth from different segments but risk losing themselves when they trade up or down, ending up somewhere the middle with no strong customer association.

Finally, if we follow the cyclic method of {stance à tools à experience à stance1 à tools1 à experience1 ), at what point can we draw a stop and conclude that we have achieved as best a model as we can for a particular problem so that we can turn our attention to another concern.  Is there a form of measurement for this type of thinking or are we simply measuring it by terms we are already familiar with such as bottom-line or market share?  If that is the case, can we argue that any form of thinking will do since they can all get us to the same end results?

Curriculum for Business Design February 25, 2010

Posted by Brian Payer in Design Thinking, Leading Strategy Change.
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What can we do to prepare MBAs to be the leaders and managers of 2050? How would design thinking play a role in the educational process?

Many, including our class in fall 2009, have taken up this question. Our class came up with some tools, readings and projects that could add into the existing MBA curriculum. But some folks have taken the question one step further. Starting from scratch: What would a curriculum for a “Business Designer” look like?

Here is a draft of a curriculum for Business Design created by Ryan Jacoby. It’s a  series of 19 proposed “courses” complete with descriptions, units and a practicum for each course. The curriculum emphasizes the hands on nature of design, as well as some of the practical aspects of building and running a business. Some of my favorites include

BDES 111 | Entrepreneurial & Intrapraneurial Finance (FFF)


BDES 201 | Discovery Driven Learning (Break Things)

Sign me up for the whole program. What are your favorite classes?