Creating Infectious Action with Fabio Zaffagnini

Why not listen your dreams? And as long as you’re listening, why not dream big?

A lot of the time aiming for something remarkable doesn’t take much more energy than settling for the safe and the reasonable. While big things require a lot more work, they also offer more ways for others to fall in love with the vision and lend their energy toward its realization. So the process of going after that Big Thing ends up being about creating infection action—it’s about creating a platform that amasses the energy of a whole bunch of people. In this way big goals become much more attainable. Designing a movement is one of the ultimate design challenges.

Enter Fabio Zaffagnini and friends.  The ask:

Their design for infection in action:

It’s fashionable to ask a question along the lines of “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”. Since failure sucks but instructs, I think it’s far more interesting to ask “What would do with a little help from 1,000 of your friends?”.

Just imagine what you could learn and do together.

From the Department of Don’t Get Ready, Get Started

When it comes to making a difference in the world, I am ever a disciple of Perry Klebahn, and try to live by his mantra of “Don’t Get Ready, Get Started”.  Better than any other, that phrase captures the essence of my philosophy of innovating.

I also take great inspiration from Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Her writings and books provide great insight into the art and science of bringing cool things to life, and I find all of her teaching quite inspiring. My favorite is her essay Four Reasons Any Action is Better than None.

In my aspirational vision of a perfect world, Perry has this essay framed and hanging on the wall of his office at Stanford. Please give it a read. But for the sake of reminding me to keep going back to it, here are her four big points on why getting started beats getting ready:

  1.  Small wins matter
  2.  Accomplishments come in pieces
  3.  Perfection is unattainable anyway
  4.  Actions produce energy and momentum

Energy. Confidence. Momentum. These aren’t words you run across in most of the literature about innovation, whose authors are obsessed with creating the best (or most esoteric?) 2×2 innovation typology matrix. Or even a three-dimensional one. I am guilty as charged on that front. But for anyone who has engaged in the challenging endeavor of bringing something new into the world, you know that it’s much more about confidence and momentum than it is about where you sit on someone’s theoretical design thinking/strategic thinking/innovation thinking spectrum.

Okay that’s it for today. Stop reading this and get back to work! Get started and… GO!


Laughing: the killer app for teams?

Before you attend the TED conference, the organizers ask you to jot down three “Ask me about…” sentence completion phrases (kind of like tweets, but even fewer characters). These end up as a footer on your name badge. Cocktail party conversation starter. For TED 2015, one of my three was “Laughing”.

As someone who spends all of their professional time counseling and guiding creative teams, as well as helping to set up the conditions for them to thrive (in my humble opinion, organizational architecture is destiny, but that’s a blog post for another time), I’m fascinated by the role of laughter and humor in the life of a thriving team. While I don’t believe that every second of each day should be full of mirth, laughter, and frolicking leprechauns, my experience says that groups of people with a healthy team dynamic are able to share a laugh when appropriate. And at an interpersonal level, sometimes the best recipe for diffusing a difficult moment is the simple mix of an easy smile and a good laugh.

So imagine my delight at being able to listen to Professor Sophie Scott give her fascinating talk on why we laugh. She really knocked my hat in the creek.  Here’s my favorite part of her talk:

The fact that the laughter works, it gets him from a painful, embarrassing, difficult situation, into a funny situation, into what we’re actually enjoying there, and I think that’s a really interesting use, and it’s actually happening all the time.

For example, I can remember something like this happening at my father’s funeral. We weren’t jumping around on the ice in our underpants. We’re not Canadian. These events are always difficult, I had a relative who was being a bit difficult, my mum was not in a good place, and I can remember finding myself just before the whole thing started telling this story about something that happened in a 1970s sitcom, and I just thought at the time, I don’t know why I’m doing this, and what I realized I was doing was I was coming up with something from somewhere I could use to make her laugh together with me. It was a very basic reaction to find some reason we can do this. We can laugh together. We’re going to get through this. We’re going to be okay.

That’s it: if we can laugh together, we can get through almost anything, and it’ll be okay.

By the way, please give Sophie a follow on Twitter. She’s a hoot!

Some of the best innovation advice I’ve ever heard

metacool Compare to Reality

We had an embarrassment of riches. It was 1998, and I was leading an IDEO design team that had dreamt up so many cool ideas — and had created a range of working prototypes now standing in front of us — that we couldn’t decide which direction to take. Somewhere, shimmering out in the distance, was never-seen-before perfection, but we just didn’t know which path to take to get there.

In short, we were doing great work. But we were also stuck.

Then, as we stood pondering the prototypes that we’d made, and debating which was the most awesome, IDEO founder David Kelley strolled by to say hello and to watch us demonstrate our ideas. He listened patiently as we explained our dilemma, and responded with one simple question: “What’s the best alternative available to people today? Choose compared to that.”

Behind David’s powerful question is the best innovation advice I’ve ever received:

Compare to reality, not to some imaginary standard of perfection.

The truth was that even our least amazing prototype was miles ahead of the competition. It also happened to be the simplest concept, and the one that most tightly addressed the actual needs we’d heard from people we had interviewed and observed. Even if it didn’t fulfill our fantasies of perfection, we chose that option as the way forward, and we ended up nailing it: our award-winning design sold like hotcakes. Fifteen years later, it’s still in production, making people happy.

I put David’s advice to work every week, because when you get a bunch of talented, energetic people together, it’s incredibly tempting to try and cram as many amazing ideas as you can into whatever it is you’re creating. That impulse leads to things like the Amazon Fire Phone, a technological tour de force that included everything but the kitchen sink, but ultimately failed to satisfy. Compare the Fire’s laundry list of features to the reality-based point of view communicated by Steve Jobs at the 2007 launch of the iPhone, shown above.

Always going back to a benchmark anchored in reality forces you to articulate a clear point of view about what’s truly important. This is the path to excellence.

Some say that rooting your choices in reality is a sure path to mediocrity, but nothing could be further from the truth. Dedicating yourself to understanding what people really want — how they’ll experience a product in the real world — forces you to get away from your desk and make a tangible difference. Instead of just talking about a grand paradise of what might be, putting in the effort to understand people’s day-to-day lives, and then actually producing something that works, is what separates a true innovation from a merely good idea.

Great innovators dream, but they are also relentless about comparing those dreams to the real world, and acting accordingly.


image credit: Ernest Kim

WTF is a Product Manager?

Product management is a critical part of a healthy product development process, but it can be difficult to pin it down the specifics of it as a role.

I really like this essay by Ernest Kim, WTF is a Product Manager?  Definitely worth a read—he has a lot of miles under his belt as a product developer, so this is reality speaking.

Here’s a choice bit:

An example I’ve used in the past is that the designers and developers at Nike are so good that they could create a shoe that looks like a boat, yet still offers the performance and comfort of cutting edge athletic footwear. But if it turns out that there’s no market for shoes that look like boats, that product would fail—regardless of its beauty or functionality. In short, it doesn’t matter if the answer is right if the question you set out to answer is wrong. It’s the job of the product manager to ensure that the product team is working to answer the right question(s).

I think Ernest really nails it. Asking the right question is as important as coming up with the right solution. Out of respect for how hard it is to ship a great solution to market, I don’t want to say it’s more important, but it is really important.

Never attend a meeting without a prototype

metacool Julep IDEO

If you’re at all like me, unproductive meetings are likely the bane of your existence. We’ve all been there: the conversation meanders, 50 minutes disappears from your life, and you’re no closer to your goal than when you started. At IDEO we dislike these kinds of meetings too. So we found a simple but elegant solution, captured by my colleague Dennis Boyle, in a saying I call “Boyle’s Law”:

“Never attend a meeting without a prototype”*

This law creates better meetings in three big ways. But before we get there, it’s worth asking: what is a prototype, exactly? We’re in the business of design and innovation at IDEO, and we use the word quite liberally. When I was a practicing engineer, a prototype was something that made a sound when you dropped it, but these days I define it as a single question made tangible. It’s lines of software code, a business model spreadsheet, or a few people acting out a service experience.

If it takes what’s in your head and creates something tangible that others can react to—if it helps probe the unknown—it’s a prototype. And I believe that you can prototype new ideas in your workplace, no matter its focus.

Expect three things to happen when you start bringing prototypes to your meetings:

First, a lot of your meetings will evaporate. Those that shouldn’t happen in the first place, the ones where nothing gets done, won’t. If you can’t bring a prototype of your latest thinking, there’s a simple solution: don’t have the meeting. Instead, focus your precious time and energy on making actual progress.

Second, the meetings you do have will be awesome. With something concrete in the room, discussions will be more productive and actionable, and the level of shared understanding and alignment will go through the roof. And instead of grappling with all the fears, doubts, uncertainties, worries, hidden agendas, and politics that bedevil any organization, you can focus all of that negativity on the prototype—it has no feelings or career prospects, and it just doesn’t care! As you critique, elephants in the room—the real problems at hand—will magically surface, ready to be addressed.

Finally, bring more prototypes to meetings, and you’ll boost levels of performance and engagement across your organization. Professor Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School has shown that a sense of progress is the driving factor behind high levels of reported happiness and work satisfaction in the workplace. Not fancy coffee or bean bag chairs, just employees knowing that they’re making progress toward their goals. A prototype is an embodiment of all the work you’ve done, and it’s an easy, positive way to signal and celebrate forward motion. Meetings suddenly shift from being deep wells of dread to wellsprings of happiness.

But you say, I like meeting all the time! Well then, here’s another simple solution: create more prototypes! They’re the gift that keeps on giving.

So, what prototype are you going to bring to your next meeting?



* design engineering humor

How to Do the Best Work of Your Life

James Yurchenco metacool

Jim Yurchenco is the design engineer behind everything from the first Apple mouse to the Palm V to the Plié Wand from Julep. He just retired from a 40-year career at IDEO creating products which brightened the lives of millions.

Jim’s work was also about helping everyone around him excel. I was fortunate to have Jim as a mentor, coach, and project leader at IDEO. I did some of the best work of my life working with him. And the “how” was great, too: we never pulled all-nighters, but we always hit our deadlines, routinely achieving extremely innovative outcomes.

How to do the best work of your life? Well, here is Jim’s secret:

“Don’t accept done for good. And don’t accept good for excellent.”

Jim’s approach to excellence is anything but passive. It is rooted in action, passionately and optimistically pursued. He’s never one to sit back and procrastinate, waiting for inspiration and perfection to magically appear. He is constantly thinking, building, pushing, failing, learning—always striving to figure out a way to make things better. All of this coupled with an urgency to make decisions quickly and be productive, but with the sage perspective to step back and let things percolate when need be. In Jim’s world, excellence is both something you pursue, and something that comes to the prepared.

One morning in the late 90’s, while noodling on ways to cool the chips in the Intel Pentium II cartridge we were designing, Jim decided that our pursuit of excellence demanded access to a temperature-controlled, variable-speed wind tunnel. Today. Of course, we didn’t have one. But by that evening, after scavenging all of Silicon Valley for parts and applying some scrappy ingenuity, we had a twenty-foot long wind tunnel up and running in an unoccupied office we found at IDEO (whose owner was mildly surprised when she returned from her business trip). And then we used that wind tunnel to create a breakthrough design solution.

When you’re committed to excellence—and when everyone you work with knows it—failure becomes a mere bump in the road along the way to success. Once you stop accepting good for excellent, you can transcend limitations that would stop a normal team. Scarcity becomes abundance, hurdles becomes ladders, and you start doing the best work of your life.

That’s how Jim did it. And you can too: commit to excellence, believe there’s always a better solution, and make it all happen with optimism.

You can hear more of Jim’s wisdom in this wonderful video:

How to teach a great class on design thinking

Diego Rodriguez metacool Stanford napkin manifesto

A decade ago I worked with George Kembel to create the Stanford’s “napkin manifesto”, a founding document written on a paper square that came free with a cup of coffee. The thoughts we committed to paper that day reflected an audacious goal: Create the best design school in the world, period. I think it’s safe to say that the has been a remarkable success, having had an impact far beyond what even our visionary founder David Kelley imagined.

I’ve learned so much as a teacher during that time, too. I’ve witnessed not only the evolution of the, but the power of design thinking at work in many other arenas—everything from the development of more humane medical technologies to improving school lunch programs. I’ve been honored to participate in helping design thinking become a core part of the curriculum and culture at both Stanford and Harvard Business School, and to teach the design process to the client organizations I work with at IDEO.

So how do you create a great design class? By applying design thinking, of course! In essence, the way to teach a great design thinking class is to treat it as a design project. In this particular case, I’ve found three principles that lead to classroom success, each of them inspired by some general precepts that always serve me well.

1. Design thinking rewards hands-on experience.
It sounds obvious, but to teach design thinking, you need to be able to do design thinking. In any job, whether you’re a carpenter or a bioengineer, understanding the work from the inside out is always the best qualification to pass those skills to others. As a teacher, you need to be an accomplished creator of things out in the world, a master of using design thinking to ship. Theory is valuable and required, but being adept at the practice is by far the most important driver of success for both your students and you.

2. Design thinking thrives on feedback and iteration.
The most important ritual of our classes at the is the daily debrief session. Instead of running to their respective offices when class is over, the teaching team gathers at the back of the classroom, reflects on how the session went, and listens to students’ feedback. The teachers then change class plans, move sessions around, even rethink the approach of the entire course. To be sure, when I teach I have a strong goal for what the class should accomplish, but in response to what this group of students needs right now I’m able to adjust our path there on the fly. It’s about having a compass, not a map.

3. Design thinking solves real-world problems.
Classroom projects have to be structured without artificial constraints or boundaries. When students feel that they are working on a real problem, the sky is the limit—no essays or fake projects allowed. This transforms the class experience: instead of focusing on the grade they’ll receive by hurdling yet another academic annoyance, students genuinely feel they’re working to make a difference in the world. For example, if a class is about creating a business, students should create a real business. If it’s about improving the water supply in developing countries, they should build a solution that puts a clean glass of water in the hand of someone who needs it. Here’s my acid test: if a student so desired, could they build a career around this challenge I’m giving them?


By applying these three principles to the design of a design class, we aim to make the classroom the best education experience each student has ever had. But there’s no secret at work here; the guidelines we use are universal to the design process: Have a strong point of view and confidence in what you do, proceed with empathy and openness to feedback, and offer real solutions that improve the lives of real people.