28 May 2006

Direction, careers and the model

A couple of semesters ago a very smart professor and ground breaking market strategist put business in the most simple and focused terms I had heard. It resonated with me and it is on my mind most of the time I am working or thinking about work. It goes like this, “really know the market, develop a strong strategy, and then, because you have done that well, bet the ranch.” My guess is this seems a bit to cowboy or reckless for some. But I think it is dead on. Risk taking is critical, but only after the homework has been done.

As I am talking to prospective employers and various company executives, I have been working on to simply explain what I want to do. I think visually, so developing a mental model was a pretty obvious step. I have shown it here and after some brief explanation… would invite critic and comment.

Take a look:  Mark's Model3

The three spheres are those I am most interested in. And I will go through them one at a time. First is the Market Intelligence. This involves knowing the demand, supply, distribution channel (economics), understanding your customers through dialog and research, and of course every bit of information you can gather about competitors. Second is the marketing and brand positioning. Last is a systematic process for developing innovation in your offerings. At the core of this is the company’s strategy. Some add value (Apple), others radically out source cost (Wal-Mart), and yet other work hard to do both (the golden goose). My passion is in adding value.

Curiously, all three of these require and can radically benefit from design thinking. Design at the thing or product level, the process level and at structuring an organization.

So, that brings me to what I want to do in my life. I have spent most of my career in the marketing end of things. I get the branding, marketing of features, benefits and outcomes. Much of this is focused on user experience and specifically the web. At the moment, most of the consulting work I do (and dig the hell out of) is the Market Intelligence component. Matt Mayfield, of IIT/ID and Motorola introduced me to some of their methodologies in a very short telephone conversation and it has never left my though process. Thanks, Matt! Researching the competition, learning about customer’s needs, wants, and activity structures fascinates me. I have a passion for building and maintaining that knowledge base. That is the core where companies need to look for opportunity – whether it is the next step in technology or an un-serviced customer willing to buy. When I am researching, much of the tools, processes and data compellation is the same, whether that gets purposed for brand positioning, user experience planning for a web site, or uncovering opportunities does not seem to vary my degree of interest. I think part of that is that I love to learn.

Although I have not been in the employ of a large aggressive firm, the development of teams and processes for innovation is an as yet untapped passion. Sometime soon though… I will be there. I guess that would (along the lines of Chief Innovation Officer) be career stage 3. Putting all of that together into a cohesive strategy with optimal execution is what’s left. The ability to straddle reliability and validity (embraced by me and borrowed from Roger Martin of Rotman) is something important. I do not know if my aspiration of eventually being a CEO and directing a company to greatness is too grand, but dreams are supposed to be large. And mine is.

22 May 2006

Chicago, IIT/ID Strategy 06. – Day Two

Sorry for the delay… but it was graduation weekend and between that, project deadlines and being a bit travel worn, well, I just plain dropped the ball.

The first presentation I saw on Thursday was that of Ben Tsiang. And although he had a lot to say about business in China I felt like much of it was redundant from the number of international business classes I have taken. His take via SINA.com (his company) was however, a nice variation.

Later that morning Douglas Look gave us a quick look (sorry) of his work at IIT. When I say quick, I mean it… maybe 10 minutes. I look forward to downloading his presentation. I think some of the tools and matrix were interesting and I intend to study them with a bit more diligence.

The most intriguing presentation was that of Clement Mok. I have heard Clement talk quite a few times and have had some interesting debates with him – though always focused on design management and interaction. This talk was focused on Advertising Agencies. I have felt for 15 years that the Agency Model is broken. The first problem is that of consult vs. sales. I believe that it is very hard to do both and maintain integrity. But I also believe that every employee must understand and be sales oriented.

Clement has spent the last 9 months studying the prospects for agencies in interactive and Internet advertising. He is heading in the right direction. Two things struck me as absolutely crucial and quite accurate in my opinion. First, when advertising on the net, the medium is an extremely important component of the message. Second, most agencies are in panic mode, but they have been for the last five years. And, they are absolutely asking the wrong questions. There are so many assumptions being extended from old media to new media. This is the basic problem of heuristic work. Assumptions are made and not re-thought in the current context amid inevitable change. That is where the gold is… hard to find, but rich in opportunity.

Natalia Davis and Russell Redenbaugh gave an interesting presentation that focused on the financial aspect of design and innovation performance. This is an important topic for designers, and likely alludes to the groundwork for more overlap between business and design in IIT’s conference and academic agenda. Notice the current fad of combining MBA degrees with Design Degrees. IIT/ID and Kansas are doing this… and there is merit to the concept. But business programs have been partnering with other disciplines for quite a while. Back to the presentation… Natalie and Russell presented a beautiful concept together to sell their vision of the importance of shareholder value. It is a critical message for designers, but my guess is that this audience is very much focused on the user as the primary stakeholder. I am sure that it is quite effective for them in presenting their consulting services.

One great quote from Russell that demands mentioning, “good companies squander abundant resources and protect the scarce ones.” We designers should all have this tattooed somewhere as a constant reminder. And the accountants need to learn that to aggressively invest in R&D when times get tough is not only a valid but crucial strategy. A favorite professor of mine once said, “really know the market, develop a solid evidence based plan, and because you did those two things, bet the ranch.”

The last formal presentation of the day came from Jeremy Alexis and Cynthia Benjamin. Again, the theme of business and designer working together was covered. As an MBA with an MA in design, I needed no convincing. But the presentation was a great experience for those designers that silo themselves.

I rarely get anything out of roundtables – so I am going to blow that off completely.

Something happened and Bruce Nussbaum was unable to do the conference wrap up. Instead, Christopher Meyer stepped up and quickly gathered his notes and gave one of the most dynamic and compelling presentations of the conference. He spoke of design in terms of Context (the past), Merging (the present) and Emerging (the future). He talked briefly on Daniel Pink’s notion of design (MFA/MA) being the new MBA. He also spoke of the classic designer vs. businessperson dilemma that Roger Martin focused on the day prior. Chris’ take was basically that designer need to get over it. I could not agree more… working, and presenting at the executive level is something designer MUST learn to do.

Chris mentioned and interesting view of the value chain… reversing it so that it has more meaning. I am not sure I fully gather the implications in this moment, but I assure you I will be researching and postulating.

There was so much content in Meyer’s final wrap up that I could go on for days… but maybe it is best that I don’t. And maybe it is best if you just make sure to be there next year. I know that I will.

Note: I must recant something I wrote in my review of day one. I was a bit taken aback by Patrick Whitney’s shortness when we met. To be fair to Patrick, he is in high demand at this event and it was presumptuous to even think of demanding or deserving more of his time. An introduction was my goal, and that accomplished, we were and should have been done. Sorry Patrick!

18 May 2006

Chicago, IIT/ID Strategy 06. – Day One

As I found my way to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), I followed the trail of black… clothing that is. A dark and dreary day that would provide both hail, horizontal rain and eventually even some sunshine looked to be a typical design fest. I knew not a single person here. After checking in I had my share of coffee (intake seems to go up when I travel).

Opening remarks from Patrick Whitney – met him… a bit cold and had no difficulty letting me know when my time with him was up. It could have just been my lower Midwest sensibilities.

Someone, who’s name I could not hear spoke about the roll out the combination MBA and MA program coming to IIT. I had mentioned to Whitney that Kansas had just set up a similar program and he with distain asked, “a full MBA and MA?”

We then heard comments from Elizabeth Smith, curator of Museum of Contemporary Art. They are moving to exhibit more in design… and coming in the fall – “Massive Change – the future of design” by Bruce Mau. There is also something coming called a “Visionary program” that touches the topic of sustainability – this announcement was more than a little vague

Christopher Meyer was the first slated speaker and started out discussing the use of network connections to increase value. He talked a bit about Memes and Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), how networks produce more networks causing the extremely rapid growth of the likes of Google – and how the network of network is expanding organically and rapidly. He mentioned a few noteworthy books that Intend to at least check out… Nexus, Linked, and Six Degrees. He then spoke of “Liquid state of networks that allow for rapid innovations.” Most of his talk was extremely reminiscent of Blur and It’s Alive, but hearing him speak added some real flavor and personality to the body of knowledge.

Meyer then mentioned a new project called futuremonitor.com that Intend to check out once back at home.

Rob Forbes then took the stage to discuss the history of his company. He talked at length about the reserve that went into creating the look and brand for hic company… building a perfect backdrop or container for the exquisite products he vends. He discussed briefly the design of his organization, but admitted that it was less than a thoroughly planned out process.

The most interesting concept that Forbes put forth was that of “acquiring and retaining the right customers.” This is an extremely powerful idea and one that I had never encapsulated so succinctly. That one will be noted and be used often. He also noted that only 2 of 10 products in his inventory would be sustained (he, insidently, did note give a metric for what constitutes sustained.

After a brief break we were treated to a very compelling talk by Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Management. He articulately laid out his theory on the disconnect between designer and business person. Being a hybrid (MBA/designer) it made perfect sense to me, but was in such a clear context. It had never occurred to me so clearly. He spoke of the to test of what we consider worth using… that which is reliable, and that which is valid. Business people are risk averse and so choose the former. Designers, easily bored and often risk takers prefer the late. The two are never in sync, and Roger showed with two intersecting bell curves the dynamic of the problem. Few people set squarely in between and operate on each basis (reliable and valid) with equal influence. Roger says these are the people to peg as CEO’s. He sited the current CEO of Proctor and Gamble as a perfect example. Likewise, P&G is a case study in how to use design as a competitive advantage (in contrast to the design positioning model of Target.) There was much more great content from this talk… but I must move on.

Jeffery Li is Country President of Novartis China. His talk was short but he made some excellent points. Two were most compelling. The first, coming from Jeffery, was that the governments commitment to innovation has been titled as “imparative.” If only our own government would realize this and put resources behind it! The second came fro a question in the audience. He asked, “what is the approach of Novatis China for exporting some of the most innovative health treatment in the world (herbal, etc)?” Unfortunately the question was misunderstood then miss-interpreted and what we got was a rather corporate PR response with little substance.

The art of the possible… Scott Durschlag and Jim Wickes gave a very compelling history of the reformulation of Motorola Wireless that has taken place over the last several years, resulting in product successes such as the Razr and the Pebble. Design was a crucial portion of this process, but research and the resulting discovery of opportunities resulted in a cohesive process and strategy for Motorola’s real success. Clearly, they believe it is not about the object so much as the strategy that creates the elegant and powerful objects. While Scott focused on the larger picture and global trends (Macro-trends to use his terminology), Jim spoke to the more direct and tactical elements. He showed the product stratification plans and how common technologies where threaded throughout.

I was fortunate to participate in a round table discussion at lunch with Chris Conley (IIT and Gravity Tank) and a group of IIT students and alumni. The topic was a new program, their Masters of Design Management. A 9-month masters degree that had me very interested (like I need a third Masters.) I would encourage any current MBA or executive to consider extending their knowledge and management skills by taking a serious look at this program. Though design may appear to be a hot trend right now, innovation and the management of designers to achieve such will not be going away anytime soon.

After lunch we heard from Todd Tillemans of Unilever and Chris Conley. They sat and discussed their client/vendor relationship and how they worked together to not only research and design product, but how to investigate opportunities in lower end distribution channels (such as Dollar Stores) and the unique problems they experience. This was the first notion at the conference of Design Thinking going beyond object and product and being applied to processes and organization. While the dialog felt a bit rehearsed and staged, the content and subject matter was excellent. Also nicely done was the overhead presentation. While at times it distracted from the presentation, it was refreshingly fluid and was not constrained to the talking points. It told a visual story that paralleled the dialog.

The last formal event of the day was a dialog moderated by Patrick Whitney. Along with him were Bruce Nussbaum (technology writer and design advocate for Business Week), and Blaise Zerega of Condé Nast. Their good-natured rivalry made for a very entertaining conversation about design in the press, its status as a trend or fad, and the new upcoming publications from each group. Blaise (former managing editor of Wired) would not disclose the exact nature for their new business publication but described it as cutting edge and that it would definitely have design and innovation content. He positioned it in contrast to Wired, which he called more of a techno lifestyle magazine.

Bruce spoke about a the coming redesign of Business Week implying the motivation by nodding towards Blaise. The new publication will be entirely focused upon innovation and design and should be out as an accompanying piece with the June 9th issue of Business Week.

Buffet dinner and drinks were then the focus and much needed. More about day 2 to come….

15 May 2006

What I would be doing this week if…

Actually, it is in fact, exactly what I WILL be doing. I am attending the Strategy 06 conference in Chicago - most of you know that innovation is my passion and it will be the dominant topic for this event. The conference has been assembled by the folks at IIT’s Institute of Design so it will feature some of the great minds from both corporate and academic organizations that specialize in design and innovation.


From the web site, “The IIT Institute of Design Strategy Conference is an international executive forum addressing how businesses can use design to explore emerging opportunities, solve complex problems, and achieve lasting strategic advantage.”

I am excited to go, Chicago is one of my favorite cities. I will get to visit face-to-face with old friends, and see the city in the springtime. Oh – and how could I forget my priorities! My mission – to network, meet, listen and learn!

I will do my best to chronicle in a timely fashion my experience at the conference here, but I offer no promises. My mission is a bit selfish, but given time, connectivity and energy, I will post everything I possibly can. Stay tuned!

Now… about that job?!?!

Having fulfilled my academic obligations (with the exception of the ceremonial component) it is time to seek gainful employment. At least that is what any parent would tell their graduate. And so I have set just such a course for myself.

Incidentally: having been an entrepreneur for many of my professional years, I have a growing list of business opportunities that I will gladly share for the price of dinner, lunch, or even a stimulating conversation. But the next phase of my career will be in the corporate sector.

Not being a traditional mid 20 year old graduate… I am a bit of an odd duck. As such, I did not participate in the traditional career fairs and cattle calls that frequent college campuses. I have substantially higher standards. I ask my self frequently, what does my ideal employer look or act like –I have found no easy answer, but here is what I do know:

I am looking for a company large enough to provide the sort of research and work group tools I have yet to be exposed to. I am looking for a company either smart enough or large enough to be nimble. I am looking for a company that is either in need of – or greatly value market intelligence and close communication with its customers. The company must also be in great need for – or have a passion for (or the variations of) the innovation process. I am looking for a company that has values, for its employers, for its customers, for sustainability, and contributing to live on this planet. Oh, and it would be great to locate near say… mountains… water… culture?

So what do I want to do? Manage or build teams. Teams that either investigate and builds scenario exploring innovative market opportunities, or teams developing those innovations. I have experience doing both, and am hoping that my three-year stint in academia does not cloud the perceived value of that experience. Stay tuned… I am sure that the process will reveal itself in some way here.

08 May 2006

Getting Noticed on the Net - shameless self promotion

There was once a time when companies would come to me and ask us to put their brochure online as a web page. Yep, those were the days… simple, full of anticipation and very exciting. But the world has certainly changed.

Our first question for clients was typically, “how do you propose that your prospects will find you?” Sure, you could send them but that is not nearly enough. We promoted direct mail and NPR. [it took us forever to get them to stop with the dub, dub, dub thing]

Search engines have been supplanted by blogs, RSS feeds, aggregators and now tagging. All of this is great. It saves time, lets the public (a loose sort of new democracy) choose what is most important or at least most interesting. Plato’s take on democracy (book VIII for those interested) got it right. Democracy is doomed to fail on two counts. First, do you really want to trust the future to the wisdom of the masses? Reducing things to an average is aiming a bit low in my opinion (I know I sound like a snob, I am OK with that). But my biggest concern is that of the loophole.

People are smart and ingenious when it comes to leveraging the details less thought out. We have already read about the legion of blog groupies enlisted to tag stories – so they rise to the top of Digg, TechMeme, and Del.icio.uc (I love these sites by the way and scan them daily.) Granted this is not the norm, but it does happen. What is worst is the cooperative bloggers who form packs, consciously mentioning their buddies on a regular basis with no real topical purpose. But then, finding loopholes and bending the rules is probably what humans do best.

I suppose maybe we should all enlist a small band of self/mutual promoters to enliven our readership. Personally, I use this forum to work out thoughts, write a little, vent some, and document what I was thinking back in 2006. I have no aspirations of fame, book tours and groupies. All I want is to make reasonable living, build teams that produce great work, and ride my bike without being hassled by the man.