Designing for the Greater Good is Good Business

#7 Think Forever; Design for Perpetuity.

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Imagine living and working in a world where the expression “not my problem” was obsolete. Can you picture all of the future challenges that would be obliterated before they hatched?  Can you breathe the fresh air of progress, untainted by the smell of someone else’s smoldering dreams?

With the seventh design principle – Think Forever; Design for Perpetuity – we are reminded that it’s the designer’s job to consider all the ramifications of a proposed solution. That means we must anticipate and own the consequences of our design for both the short and long term, for ourselves and our great-great grandchildren, in our own backyard, and in the world at large.

In the past, it was easy for companies to overlook the downside of their business plans by explaining it away as an externality. If the runoff from a plant polluted the drinking water downstream, or killed off the fish others relied on for their livelihood, it was a “negative externality” — an economics euphemism for “not my problem.” As long as the downstream victims weren’t paying customers, it didn’t matter to the business plan.

This business model isn’t only immoral, it’s unsustainable. It doesn’t account for reliance on resources that can’t be easily replenished. If you’re planning to light the world with whale oil, don’t expect your business to outlast the whale population.

“Sustainability is the baseline of 21st Century design,” says Bruce Mau. Examples are all around us. When a big retailer makes the decision to renovate its malls, and replace all its incandescent light bulbs with long-lasting, efficient LED lighting, they may incur a significant cost right away, but this will pay out over time in the form of lower energy costs and minimal maintenance.  Electric cars may cost a bit more up front, but they are inexpensive to operate and virtually eliminate traditional maintenance costs.

Bruce also references his firm’s work with Coca-Cola, which realized that, if 2 billion people drink a Coke every day, that adds up to 720 billion plastic bottles per year.  As a truly global brand doing business in every market in the world, they made a business decision to own the problem, instead of pushing it to some other country or some future generation. As they designed a long-term solution, what began as a corporate social-responsibility initiative became an entirely new, long-term approach to the business — one that reduced waste and reused material across the supply chain. It was good for business, and good for the planet.

“Perpetuity means we’re not trying to just get to a less negative way of doing things, by trying to mitigate our impact,” Bruce explains, “but rather, to understand how we get to a positive impact…. not just a positive economic effect, but an ecological system effect that’s positive…. You don’t just have to solve for the next quarter, or the next earning cycle, or the annual revenue. You really have to solve it in perpetuity.”

Freeman has done this historically with our aluminum MIS display systems, which are used over and over again. And the next-generation system we are developing will recycle this aluminum into a product that offers an even better user experience, while sustaining the recyclability of the material. Carpeting is another good example of a product that can be reused and, thanks to design-thinking at a molecular level, can be completely recycled.

Freeman has traditionally sought to do the right thing and avoiding waste is just good business. But as individuals and as design-thinkers, we need to be vigilant about looking for new ways to effect positive change … in perpetuity.

Bruce sums up the idea of designing for perpetuity this way: “We want greater and greater impact, with less material and less energy. So, if we think about the future of stewardship at Freeman, its understanding that idea, and making a long-term effort to apply it to everything we do.”

We are all focused on strengthening the core of our Freeman business. I can’t think of a better way to do that than by embracing business habits that work in perpetuity. Savings go straight to the bottom line. And untold generations will thank you for not making it “their problem.”

Unconditional Love is a Design Value

#6 Sketch: Hey everybody, let’s fail!

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Anyone who has ever scrubbed crayon marks off the wall knows that children are born with the instincts of a designer. We are all makers. We want to capture and share our thoughts. Unfortunately for many of us, somewhere along the way, the confidence to sketch whatever is in our heads is discouraged — we’re laughed at or given a poor grade — and we stop trying.

By the time we reach adulthood and engage in business, we’re told to “do it right the first time, every time.” Failure is anathema. Of course, we all want to do our best for our customers. So why does the sixth design principle encourage us to sketch … and fail? Bruce Mau makes it clear in his design workshops that, in the course of formulating concepts, we need to fail early and often, because failure is the essence of design.

“The designer starts with not knowing how to do it,” Bruce explains. “If we did, we’d just do it. It wouldn’t be design, it’d be production. The design process demands that we start by admitting we don’t know the solution. We need a cultural acceptance that we’re going to fail a lot. I want people to fail 100 times so that they get the one most brilliant way to do it.”

That’s where sketching comes in. “Sketching” may or may not involve drawing – it’s simply a quick, low-cost way to capture and share a prototype. It could involve creating a short description with words … dashing out a high-level budget … using Play-doh to make a model … or just snapping a photo and adding a note that says, “something like this, but with fish instead of birds.”

The good news is that anyone can sketch in this way; but like so many things, it takes practice and hard work. The more you make it part of your routine, the more you try to generate, capture and share lots of potential solutions, the better you get. And the more everyone on your team does it, the better your collective results. It’s a collaborative process. The point is to capture and share, quickly, to keep the flow of ideas coming, so that the process is quick and cheap and hugely productive.

Bruce refers to this as starting with low-resolution ideas and then adding detail, over time, as the iterative process of refinement and testing (or approvals) progresses. This may take a little more time up front, but it saves a lot of cost in do-overs, because the design has been poked, prodded and proven before any of the build dollars are spent.

This process reminds me of an adage that salespeople will recognize – it takes 100 “no’s” to get to “yes.” Think about design this way. The more quickly we can conceptualize and share several rough concepts, the more quickly (and cheaply) we can reach the optimal solution. Thomas Edison understood this in his relentless pursuit of the light bulb. He’s quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

This is where unconditional love comes into play for design thinkers. We need to encourage each other to fail quickly and cheaply in the formulate phase of a project. And we need to give ourselves permission to sketch out and share half-baked ideas — lots of them — to be tossed into the salad of ideas that lead us closer to the right one.

“I want to be able to look at it and know, is this plausible? Is this promising? Is this something that we could accomplish? And really use the sketching method to turn that cycle as quickly as possible and as many times as possible in the process,” Bruce explains. “Because the more times you actually explore something, and decide yes or no, the more opportunity you have to get an amazing result.”

Every day it seems there is some new app or software to help us sketch ideas digitally and even physically. You can actually buy 3D printers that children can program with kid-friendly software. Clearly, the barrier isn’t our ability to sketch. It’s our reluctance. We are fighting years of being taught not to share something that’s less than perfect. Many artists talk about having to re-learn to see and experience things as a child — unselfconsciously.

We can help each other get there by jumping into the sketching process with enthusiasm and by surrounding the process with unconditional love. It doesn’t matter whose idea is chosen. We just need to remember that each sketch brings us closer to what beautiful looks like. Our design quality goes up. Our costs go down. And everybody wins. Especially our clients.

Being Grateful for Unmerited Gifts

Thanksgiving is not about “what” but “who.”

I hope I carry a spirit of gratitude with me throughout the year, but as an American, this feeling comes into focus as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday.  I feel like the luckiest person on the planet, because I am constantly surprised by the number of people that I have affection for – specifically, people I’m privileged to work alongside of. I once thought this only happened to young people for whom the world was still new, exciting and ripe for conquest. I guess, for me, the world IS still new and exciting, and so are the human beings who people it. What a blessing.

Some background: When I was in my twenties and thirties, I was lucky enough to rub elbows with the smart people who were exploring the nascent technology known as the World Wide Web (LANS and WANS). I worked with the founders of Java; I helped those who were first to modernize publishing and ignite the eventual digital revolution. These people were changing the world forever, and I fell in love with their intellect, their integrity and their unmitigated energy. Perhaps it was just a young man’s perspective — from what felt like the pinnacle of my career — but I assumed I would never again work with such inspirational people.

How nice to be proven wrong, time and again. Across multiple career changes and chance encounters, I find myself surrounded today by an amazing number of bright, generous, witty and inspirational people. And I have come to look forward to the next meaningful encounter. Mind you, I am not egotistical enough to think this is something I earned, or that I am a human magnet for the best sort of people. So, I can’t help but wonder if it is just my own unmerited luck, or if other people have succumbed to the habit of walking past unopened gifts — turning away from unexplored relationships that might have been life-changing. The thing is, some of my favorite people don’t agree with me on “important” issues like politics, religion and lifestyle. None of that matters, because we connect on a higher (and deeper) level.

Whether you celebrate an American Thanksgiving or not, I wish you a life warmed and enriched by a diverse array of amazing people who share your workplace and heart space. This November 23 will find me thinking, with appreciation, about all who have blessed my life.

Thank you.

~ bph

When You’re Not the Center of the Universe

#5 We Are Not Separate From or Above Nature.

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Most of us have little patience with people who act like they’re the center of the universe. Who has time for anyone with such a misguided sense of their own importance, right? Of course, in the 16th Century, everyone really did think that human beings were at the center of the universe. No wonder they were so disoriented by Copernican heliocentrism, which challenged a story foundational to their belief system. The thing is, they became even more hostile 70 years later, when Galileo submitted irrefutable, scientific proof.

It seems we are hardwired to think human beings are the most important thing in the cosmos – separate from, and having dominion over the flora and fauna that make up the “natural” world.  It’s not too surprising then that, while scientists were busy cataloging these “others,” Darwin rocked the world again in 1859 when he published his theories regarding natural selection.  It threatened our sense of self-importance. It threatened our place in the universe.

Bruce Mau points to the 5th Design Principle – “We Are Not Separate from or Above Nature” – to illustrate how “many of the ideas we’re working with today are really Copernican in their disorientation.” Consider the issues surrounding environmentalism. Many of us today (okay, most of us of a certain age) think about sustainability as a nice-to-do gesture that avoids waste. Sure, we’ll recycle plastic bottles. Sure, we’ll avoid the conspicuous consumption of water. But this is still subject to our convenience as benign rulers of the planet.

Younger generations have already let go of the notion that, just because we wield opposable thumbs, our whims are somehow above the demands of nature and a sustainable ecology. Bruce tells about a time Massive Change was working with high school students in Vancouver, exploring the Toynbee premise that the true purpose of the 20th Century was to imagine the welfare of all mankind as a practical objective.  The students insisted that the welfare of all life trumped the welfare of all mankind. This perspective caused Massive Change to shift their own approach. “It’s understanding that our responsibility as designers is to understand the impact of what we do on the ecology that sustains us,” Bruce explained, “and realize that we are not somehow exempt from the laws of nature. And once you start to see that, it makes you see everything that you do in a different way.  Like Copernicus – who changed the universe.”

That’s the Copernican disorientation we face every day when we choose how we will go about our work. We can think about “ecology” as something separate from ourselves and our work, or we can make it part of our economy. We can think about any waste we generate as something that demands a high ROI on our balance sheet.

At the experience FREEMAN event in August, Carrie declared that a commitment to sustainability was no longer an option.  “It’s about more than reducing waste,” she said. “It’s also about optimizing opportunities. When organizations prioritize the health of the planet, everyone benefits.” We’ve amended our Freeman manifesto accordingly to read: “We work every day to inspire our people and partners to optimize our use of energy and material, minimize waste, and measure and improve our ecological impact.”

The truth is, over the years, our industry has put a lot of stuff in landfills. Without question, we are getting better at finding new ways to reduce, reuse and recycle. But how does it scale? Bruce reminds us that big challenges are rich ground for innovation, especially when we start to think about designing for perpetuity.

“When you’re actually creating the world that we live in, we have new responsibilities to manage it and design for it,” he says. “When you start to look at the business world today – all the work that we do – you realize that almost none of it is done in this new way. And the opportunity in front of us is really profound. Because the work it will take to reimagine practically everything that we do … every one of those problems, those challenges, is a realm of opportunity for innovation.”

That’s a disorienting thought —that every decision we make today could have repercussions in the amazing natural world of which we are a part.  But it’s an empowering thought, too. Freeman has the scale to effect new procedures that will reduce waste and engender positive change. We work on more than 14,000 projects around the globe. We are thousands strong. And we are all design thinkers.

Where do you want to start?

What Happens When Service Fails and You Want to Tell Someone?

Finding a chink in the armor

{A Note to Readers: This is another in a series of guest blogs focused on Customer Experience from the amazing Katy Wild. Working with Katy, I can always expect to learn something; I trust you will, too. ~ bph}

Let me start by saying I do a lot of shopping with a major online retailer that happens to be a valued Freeman customer. I think they are a phenomenal company.  They have offered  technology and consumer service that no one would have thought of even 5 to 10 years ago — and they continue to set the bar high not only for their competitors but for all companies in general.  It reminds me of the quote from the movie Field of Dreams — “if you build it, he will come.”  This retailer seems to know what the public wants even before the public knows.

But for the first time recently, I found a chink in their armor.  I had a question about an order I received so I went to the company’s website to see if they had a Live Chat option — or a 1-800 customer service number.

I know it’s hard to believe but neither are easily (or obviously) offered on their website.  If you are determined, you can find a Help link at the bottom of one of the pages, which gives you another page to scroll through with repeated information and a “Need More Help” at the very bottom of the page again.  After following prompts to click on Contact Us, and clicking on four or five more drop-down fields, you can then choose to email or chat, and there’s an offer for them to call you — but no phone number for the customer to initiate a direct call.

By this time, I was really curious — how DOES the customer contact this online retailer by phone?  As an experiment, I typed “customer service” into the search field.  The first item that popped up was the name of a book about how to reach the company by phone. They are online retailers, after all, so their systems are all wired to promote online transactions. In fact, they actually offered up three books (from $0.99 to $2.99) that tell customers how to contact the company by phone – I can only imagine the customer reviews.  Ironically, I later discovered that the easiest way to find their customer service number is to search through Google. It’s right there.

That may work for online transactions. But Freeman’s business is ALL about connecting people in meaningful ways and working WITH our customers to transform, grow and extend the world of live engagements.  We invest a tremendous amount of time and financial resources in technology, websites and education but, in the end, it’s all to make it easier for our customers to reach us — and chat with a real, live person if that’s their preference.   Talking, and listening, to our customers is our business and our culture. Make it yours — make it personal.

Change Happens When You Inspire People Who Inspire People…

Tags

#4 Scale for Impact

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

If you created a narrative about the 20th century, what detail would be most telling? Productivity made possible by the Industrial Revolution? Medical breakthroughs? Scientific discoveries? 

Bruce Mau suggests that the most significant fact of the last century is a fourfold increase in the global population. In 1900, it was estimated at 1.6 billion; this year, we reached a global population of 7.5 billion and are rapidly heading toward 8 billion, which we are predicted to hit in 2025.

“When you put those kind of numbers on the planet, the potential for impact is really dramatic,” Bruce says. “When we’re changing behavior, and redesigning what we’re doing – and what people do – we’re not just doing it for that example, we’re setting a prototype or a template for behavior all over the planet. If we change how people interact with business ideas in live experience, that will affect hundreds of millions and even billions of people.”

What does that mean to us as professionals in the brand experience industry? What does it mean to us as citizens of the world?

This is a huge topic, but let’s focus on two things:

First, while the expanding population presents challenges in how we feed, shelter and ensure the well-being of so many people, we need to acknowledge that this so-called problem is a result of success. Human beings are living longer, largely as a result of all those innovations and breakthroughs made in the previous century. And as much as our headlines are filled with violence and acts of terrorism, the data show that more people than ever are living in a time of unprecedented peace, especially in the years following WWII. The facts behind population growth tell us we are making headway in the struggle against disease, starvation and war.

Second, the opportunity to effect positive change scales geometrically with population growth. Roughly 69 million people attend exhibitions and conventions each year in the U.S.  UFI has estimated that 260 million attend events globally each year. Consider how this power to connect people scales. Freeman is the world’s largest brand experience company; we serve 300,000 exhibiting clients every year. Last year we worked on more than 14,000 projects around the globe. What we do matters — our efforts have unimaginable repercussions.

In our Freeman Manifesto, we claim the responsibility to advance society and elevate the human experience. This isn’t romantic puffery. When we help inspire professionals at the American Heart Association to share new life-saving methods, we help spread those ideas globally. Lives are saved. When we work with the Institute of Food Technologists, we further their goal to feed 10 billion people in the not-too-distant future. More people eat nutritious food. When we bring together the world’s innovators attending the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, we help expedite the social and economic opportunities promised in 5G connectivity.  More people have access to the things that matter. We are helping scale big ideas for big opportunities.  Even cooler, as we master our ability to apply metrics and digital technology to personalize these encounters, we can scale in both directions — toward the vast masses, and toward specific, individual needs.

We’re all familiar with the story of the bricklayers.  We are in much the same role — we can simply put bricks on a wall, or we can help build the cathedral. Freeman, in fact, is very much a part of building a new world. That’s what makes our work exciting, challenging, and so worthwhile. I believe that each of us has innumerable opportunities every year to inspire the person who will inspire the person who inspires the next breakthrough.

When Larry Brilliant, working with the World Health Organization, was challenged to eradicate smallpox from the face of the earth, he wasn’t overwhelmed by the notion that it had been around before the dawn of civilization. He studied the scale of the problem in India, then helped design a way to distribute the vaccine so that with each outbreak, anywhere in the world, the smallpox could be stopped from spreading by isolating and vaccinating everyone in the area. It worked. And his methods have inspired countless others working in epidemiology and global healthcare.

“When you start to think about the impact that you’re having, and really understand the potential of that,” Bruce says, “it lifts our spirits in a way that really inspires us to look at the challenges that we face — as the opportunities that we have.”

The influence we have at Freeman, as leaders in the far-reaching world of brand experience, is mind boggling. We can squander this opportunity to inspire innovation. Or we can start with our next event, and scale for impact.

Make it Personal Is Not Just a Slogan

Unforgettable experiences make the difference.

{A Note to Readers: This is another in a series of guest blogs focused on Customer Experience from the amazing Katy Wild. Working with Katy, I can always expect to learn something; I trust you will, too. ~ bph}

I recently attended an event in Atlanta and stayed at one of Marriott’s boutique properties for the first time — the Glenn Hotel.  The main reason I chose it wasn’t due to a recommendation or price, but simply the close proximity to the event facility.  How was I to know this chance encounter was going to provide one of my best experiences in a hotel as it relates to “make it personal” service?

The experience wasn’t based on an elegant lobby, beautiful view from my room, or the lush, elaborate accommodations.  These were perfectly fine — but on their own would not have been enough to really bring me back.

It was the personal, seemingly natural touch the employees gave every act that definitely earned a second visit.  Every individual I came in contact with made even the simplest request seem like their supreme pleasure to fulfill.   There were actually several occurrences that really caught my attention, but two were especially memorable.

I did not see a taxi stand so I inquired at the front desk if there was a taxi available.  The desk agent personally walked me out (instead of pointing or showing me a map) and actually introduced me to the gentleman at the valet stand.   He responded that there was a taxi waiting and walked me to the vehicle only to find out the driver was missing.  He apologized profusely (even though it wasn’t his fault), took a minute or so to search for the driver with no success, so he then sprinted to the street to flag down another taxi.  And did I mention that it was also pouring down rain?  Just as I was getting in the taxi he had directed to the pickup area, the first taxi driver appeared and was extremely agitated that his fare was given away.  My valet apologized to the driver (even though it was not his fault) and said he would make sure he would have the next guest, then turned and with a smile, apologized to me for the situation, and placed me in the taxi.   A great save for both the customer and his vendor.

The second occurrence really took me by surprise!  When I returned to the hotel, I was looking for the ice machine on my floor and saw that it was being blocked by the car of an electrician who was working on a heating unit in the closet next to the machine.  He immediately stood up, apologized for the inconvenience, took my ice bucket, and began to get the ice for me.

Unfortunately, the ice machine was not working!  Without a second of hesitation, and with a smile, he said he would run down two floors, obtain the ice and bring it to my room.  He opened the near stairwell door and took off down two flights of stairs before I could even respond.  Keep in my mind, this was not a food service attendant – he was the electrician!   He delivered the ice as promised in a matter of 2 or 3 minutes, and with a smile, apologized again for the inoperable ice machine.

In just a few seconds’ interaction, customers can tell whether a service provider has that “make it personal” attitude and are ready to back it up with action. These seemingly small interactions made my stay memorable enough to share with others.  What unforgettable personal experiences are you providing for your customers?

Connecting Science and Art to Inform Design

#3 Quantify and Visualize: Seeing Is Believing

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

We’ve already talked about the need for designers to begin any project by gathering all the available, relevant data. With our third design principle, Bruce Mau urges us to quantify and visualize that data. “The key concept is visualize – which is sharing,” Bruce explains.  I’m sure there are people who can discover everything they need to know from a comprehensive excel spreadsheet – and that’s a good start. But spreadsheets don’t tell the story behind the data. They tell the “what,” and maybe even the “how,” but not the “why.”

“The difference between a spreadsheet and a visualization,” says Bruce, “is that we have to individually experience the spreadsheet, but we can collectively experience the image. The image is social. So … if I can take that quantification and visualize it, we can all see the it simultaneously, and experience it together. That makes it accessible to all kinds of thinkers.”

Data may show us that we have a piano and a kitten and six feet of rope. A visual shows us the Steinway dangling over Fluffy’s head – and totally clarifies the problem, potential solutions, and our sense of urgency.

We now have software that will convert data into graphs — I love that. Even better, smart designers can interpret data in graphics that take complex, qualitative data and present it in such a compelling and easy-to-grasp visual that it ignites breakthrough gestalt moments. A good infographic can inspire understanding, consensus and action.

As leaders, we want to inspire belief in a shared goal, and seeing is believing. Yale statistician, author and artist Edward Tufte understands the power of visualizing data and teaches seminars on how to tell complex stories in a compelling way. It’s a science-meets-art thing. He describes this as “Simple design, intense content.”

In 2010, computer-graphics master Kai Krause famously created an uproar when he demonstrated how Mercator maps distort the relative size of the African continent to the advantage of the USA and other countries. By graphically showing, in his map entitled “The True Size of Africa,” that the United States, India, Western Europe and China all fit easily within its borders, he forced people to reconsider the scale and geographic importance of the African continent and, perhaps, its 54 distinct and diverse countries.

Visualizing the data doesn’t need to be a two-dimensional process. When the engineers in Houston had to help the astronauts on the damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft convert air filter canisters from the command module to fit the lunar module, they began by assembling all the plastic bags, cardboard and tape available to the astronauts. With no time to spare, they took visual inventory and then devised a solution, in Houston, that the astronauts could implement 200,000 miles away, orbiting the planet.

In the brand experience biz, we are used to diagraming logistical info – timetables, rigging grids, floorplans, exhibit models, and so on. We are getting better at using storyboards to help a client see the recommended solution long before we start to build.  But what if we used data to plot traffic flow by personas, based on things like time of day, alternate activities, outdoor temperature, seasonal implications, and even sport/music/food preferences? We could not only staff exhibits more efficiently, but could also make sure the right docents and SMEs were on hand – in the right location – to engage with our guests. How might our experience design change if we layered in data that revealed extrovert and introvert preferences? How might we help different personas engage and interact? What new sponsors might we attract?

Think about your most complicated project or assignment. What kind of data do you need to design a better outcome? Can you visualize it? What might we achieve if we had a tool to help decipher and connect all the data collected through the various apps, surveys, game devices, registrations and social media activities attached to the events we create? What if we could literally see the opportunities for improvement and innovation?

I know this much – seeing is believing – and I’ve seen enough to believe that if we act with intent we can find a way to visually quantify the relevant data – and make the most amazing brand experiences possible.

The Value of Failure

Business people, high school football coaches and politicians like to talk about winning as if it were the only acceptable — only possible — outcome of any endeavor. It’s driven by a sort of superstitious belief that even thinking about failure is tantamount to allowing it to happen. I like to win as much as the next guy, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider the value of failure.

For better or worse, I consider myself something of an authority on the subject of making mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as an employee, as a boss, as a spouse and as a parent. And here’s what I’ve learned. If your goal is to never fail, you must limit your actions to doing what you’ve always done. As one business pundit put it, “Only the mediocre are always at their best.”  But, if your goal is to reach higher and achieve something new, you must expect to fail quickly and course-correct until you get it right. If you aren’t failing, you’re not pushing hard enough.

Of course, nobody likes to make mistakes, and if we do it often enough, it can damage our self-esteem. This makes people risk-adverse and stifles innovation. That’s why I always ask leaders to give their people a safe place to fail. This doesn’t mean, however, that we look the other way and pretend the mistakes haven’t happened.  Or blame someone else. We all need to own our mistakes. When we overlook failures, in ourselves or in others, we are throwing away the invaluable opportunity to understand what went wrong and learn how to improve next time.

They say that it took Thomas Edison 1,000 attempts before he invented a working electric light bulb. He recognized the first 1000 “failures” as learning steps that made success possible. The value of failure is that we learn how to learn. The only true failure is not learning.

Cynicism Is a Luxury Leaders Can’t Afford

#2 Begin with Fact-Based Optimism.

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Bruce Mau likes to remind us that, as design thinkers, we are called to be critical but not cynical. Our responsibility is to design a new or better way of achieving or creating something — a product, a process, a piece of art, an experience, etc. If we don’t believe a better solution is possible — the cynic’s point-of-view — we’ve failed before we’ve begun. Buck Freeman understood this when he embraced the value of enthusiasm, which remains a core Freeman value today. Freeman values are essentially design values.

Although we can’t afford to be cynical, we can’t forego the rigors of critical thinking. Bruce urges us to qualify the essential challenges before we try to solve for them: “We have to start with, ‘This is really the true problem and we’re going to figure it out. What about this problem can we measure, and what kinds of proxies could we measure to help us understand the problem?’”

This is where data enters the picture.  In the history of live events, good metrics were hard to come by, so we relied on anecdotal evidence and hunches. Today, most things are measurable if we have the will to seek, analyze and believe the data. There are two problems here: One, we collect so much data, without thinking about what we need to learn, that we become inundated and just fall back on assumptions; Two, we initiate surveys or focus groups designed to affirm our assumptions, or make us look good to our bosses and our clients, instead of unearthing insights that could drive improvement.

To be designers, we have to be honest. “And when you start to think like that,” Bruce concludes,  “then the process that you’re in is a design process, because you’re actually looking for the truth.”

Integrity, of course is another Freeman value that aligns with a design-thinking approach to leadership. If we punish our people for delivering bad news, they will quickly learn to bring us only the good news. This begins the spiral of complacency and slow, sure death.  If we choose to believe that the things that have always worked will continue to work — that the next generation of attendees at our medical convention or auto show or user conference will engage the same way as their predecessors — we are doomed to fail. Conversely, when we form the habit of collecting meaningful data, when we think about what kind of proxies and metrics we can start to gather, and design that continuous cycle of learning into the process, we are well on our way to being a design-thinking company.

Cynics are usually just waiting for something bad to happen so they can say, “I told you so.” They treat the future as a minefield they refuse to cross. Designers consider all the bad news early in the process, when they think about the opportunity for improvement and formulate their plan. Having flagged and defused all the landmines, they can afford to be optimistic about their success for the future.  And people are inspired to follow them.

You can read more about Freeman’s decision to become a design-thinking company here.