Although a popular concept, design thinking is still somewhat of a mystery to a lot of people. Design thinking is defined as an iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems, and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. To shed more light on this process, Jeffrey Edwards brings on Marc Bolick, the leader of the US office of DesignThinkers Group. Marc is a passionate practitioner of the service design methodology and loves teaching people to optimize their opportunities and creativity.
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Delivering Innovative Solutions Through Service Design Thinking With Marc Bolick
I am grateful you’re here, and that we can spend some time talking leadership and helping you on your leadership journey. In this episode, we’re talking about strategic leadership. In particular, we’re going to talk about design thinking. I had the pleasure and opportunity to speak and interview a friend, a guest, Marc Bolick, who is the Head of Design Thinking USA and also DesignThinkers Academy.
I get the pleasure of bringing into the show someone that I had the opportunity to see his work up front, to learn from him and I continue to learn from him and his entire group. He is someone who is not only smart in what he does, but he brings a lot of heart and truly embraces leadership in many dimensions that we talk about on our show. As we begin with our topic, let me introduce you to this gentleman. He is the leader of the US office of DesignThinkers Group. His whole mandate and how he approaches life is he brings his essence to grow the business, help the team and deliver on client engagements. He has over twenty years of experience in various aspects of product service creation and entrepreneurship. He has worked in a variety of different sectors, including medical devices, mobile, web applications, travel and leisure, financial services and innovation consulting. He is an engaging strategic thinker. I can tell you that upfront from personal experience. He’s amazing. He’s a very keen observer of behavior and a wonderful group facilitator. He is a passionate practitioner of design thinking service design methodology. He loves teaching. He loves balancing them left and right, and people optimize their opportunities and their creativity. Please let me welcome you our guest, Mr. Marc Bolick. Marc, how are you?
I’m doing great, Jeffrey. How are you?
I am fantastic. I am here and we’re talking. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and yet, here we are talking about strategic design. On top of that, I introduced you on previous episodes, but I find that it’s something that’s still somewhat of a mystery to a lot of people. This episode would be a great opportunity for us to talk about what is this thing called strategic design or design thinking, and how does that apply it to leadership? How can we leverage and harness this tool, this resource for our own purposes in our companies or businesses going forward?
Thank you so much for the glowing introduction. I like the saying, “I’m smart and I have a heart.” I’m sure I have a heart. I’m not sure about the smart part. The other thing is we are in a pandemic and in many places, people are emerging in various different ways out of this pandemic. If we talk about leadership, of course, we’ve all had different experiences of leadership as citizens and fellow humans in our various different communities. We also have another crisis that’s emerging, and I think it would be totally wrong of us not to mention, at least what we’re experiencing in my country, in the United States.
It’s a wave going across the world of the issues of inclusion, diversity, the crisis and tragedies that we’ve had in our communities with policing and the difficulties, to say the least. As a white man of white privilege, I want to acknowledge that because that’s also another area where we need creative solutions and we need leadership. Both of those areas are equal crises that we’re facing. While the pandemic has been something that we’ve all experienced as a world in a timeline of humanity in a thin slice of time. The issue of race, inequality and justice is something that’s unfortunately cross-cutting. Hopefully, leadership will show up for that. Sorry to put that in there, but you mentioned the pandemic, we have to talk about that in my mind.
Marc, I appreciate your comments and also your insights. It’s one thing to talk about leadership, and we talk about often in the context of business and organizations. It transcends everything that we do, and in all parts of our lives and communities. It’s one of those examples too where we’re talking about design solutions for business. These same principles also apply to how we design opportunities and solutions for how we live as communities, organizations and people on a long-term basis too. What is strategic design? When someone says design leadership, what would that mean to a common person in your experience?
I try to de-jargonize what we do as much as possible. When we met, we were in a training course. When we’re training in DesignThinkers Academy, we use the jargon and we explained to people what that jargon is because jargon in some ways helps us. It’s a language. It allows us to communicate in efficient ways. However, the word design itself is something that I had to unpack as an engineer with an MBA coming to the world of design thinking and human-centered design. I had to understand what that means and come up with my own definition. Put quite simply, or at least the definition I like is purposefully creating a future desired state and then making that more and more concrete. That’s what designing is all about. We all design stuff.You learn things from actually having contact with customers. Click To Tweet
I hesitate to say we’re all designers, but I do say that from time to time, there’s some controversy that comes into that because degreed professional, licensed designers don’t like us to say that. In a way, we’re all creating future desired states and think of planning your next vacation when we get the opportunity to do that again. You’re thinking through, what do you want to achieve with your loved ones and your family, or whoever you’re traveling with, or if it’s by yourself traveling. You’re thinking through what are your needs? What do you want to do? What are your constraints? All these things are elements of what we do as designers. Strategic design is another combination of two words.
A strategy is this thing that we do as organizations of people to try to get to an envisioned future state. Strategy and design go together. You can use design in pulling together strategies for organizations and for businesses. To me, design is all about taking and the design thinking and human-centered design. Part of it is just a problem-solving methodology in many ways. It borrows from the world of designers. It borrows some of the methodologies, approaches, tools, and stuff like that. We, in our group, talk about and many in this profession talk about how important it is to have the mindset. That’s the most important thing. That’s the mindset of putting humans at the center of the process and in many ways, resisting the temptation to jump straight to the solutions and make sure that you’ve framed your problem correctly, and you frame that problem based on people’s needs and stakeholder needs. That can translate to almost any kind of problem or challenge that you’re trying to approach as a leader.
You mentioned the merging of the two concepts. I think there are people that I know I speak to when I do design work. They look at me like, “It’s like interior design. Are you an artist?” I go, “No.” If I tell them that I do strategic planning, then they have a better idea of what that looks like. It’s like, “Okay.” That’s when we sit in a room and we go and figure out things. It sounds like what you’re describing about strategic design, more than the combination of both. It’s looking at how do we plan that better future and that future state. Here are some steps that we take towards achieving and creating that vision.
What you and I do, and when we’re working with clients, whether it’s looking for a way for an organization to change the products and services that they’re offering in such a way that able to get a better market share or serve their customers better, change their reputation in the market. We don’t typically work on problems that have straightforward solutions. Strategy is an example of that. Generally, a strategy is about taking things that are complex and making sense of them ultimately. Once you’ve made sense of the complexity of organizing things so that you can get a group of people together with an organization’s assets and capabilities and pointed in the right direction.
This thing called management comes in, which is taking the strategy and making it happen. There’s a method to the madness. The work that you do is super important and it’s hard. We have to manage that complexity and be able to step back and see the 30,000-foot view, zoom in when necessary, zoom back out again, and deal with the leadership inside of an organization to help coach them, guide them and provide structure to their process. Those are all tools that we use.
From a leadership perspective, if I’m going through a change. For example, a number of businesses are having to readdress their business models. A number of them had to go from the traditional brick and mortar to go to a virtual platform. How do you deliver on a product or service in a way that is unique and different than what you used to do before? What would be some of the steps that would be part of that process that a leader would undergo to start considering how to approach this situation?
I have personal experience doing that because in running our business here in the United States for DesignThinkers Group and DT Academy, we’ve had to do that. Many organizations, in particular, our business is a face to face business up until COVID-19 hit. We had a lot of customers asking us, “How do we do this when we have distributed teams around the globe?” My response was pretty lazy, I’ll admit because we hadn’t addressed that question seriously enough. You can do it, but you first have to understand what design thinking is or what our practice is and our methodology and the tools. That makes it a lot easier for people to collaborate at a distance. I was dead wrong because what I was doing was coming up with excuses for why we weren’t doing what we were doing. How do you as an organization pivot and up-skill when you have to is a lot easier than when you don’t have to. What we did is we try to be very attentive to our market and that’s easier said than done.
You learn things from actually having contact with customers, but you don’t know the whole universe of your potential customers. You have to have your feelers out and all that kind of stuff. What we did together with our colleagues in Europe is we started just experimenting and doing things. We said, “We have got to get online in a serious way. We have to learn as quickly as we can.” Why not create a community of people in and then learn together with that community? It sounds like we knew what we were doing. I don’t want it to sound that way, because we were in many ways following our gut.
One of our founders, Arne Van Oosterom, I remember he told me right as I started learning how to be this thing called Design Thinker learning in this business, he had great advice. He said, “You have to get active.” By doing the activity at that time, we were doing in-person lunch and learns every month. It forced us to do stuff. It forces us to experiment, to be vulnerable, and to get out there in front of people. We’ve done that online, our first event, we had over 1,000 people registered for this two-hour webinar. Seven hundred fifty people showed up. It wasn’t bad as a first experiment. We’ve iterated. We’re on our 12th Wednesday Web Jam. That’s one thing we’ve done. We’re doing free office hours on Fridays, open the door figuratively, virtually. We’re pushing to do as much experimentation and learning as we can.
This is a huge upscaling moment for us. In a way, my answer is that if you want to figure out how to do something, what happens a lot? When my engineer or my MBA brain kicks in, it’s like I have to go off and plan a thing, and then I have to come back with a fully baked strategy. Everything has to be lined up and I have to have thought about all the budgetary stuff and everything like that. What I know now as a design thinker is a lot of that. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but a lot of it is slow. Speed is an important asset for you to have. It can be wasteful because a lot of times you make a bunch of assumptions and hypotheses, which you don’t stop to test those. It’s very inward-focused most of the time. What I believe is we have to prototype everything. Inside the prototypes buried are these hypotheses and go out and somehow learn by doing, and do stuff with your market, with your customers, as much as you can to get them to tell you whether you’re right or not and where you can help them. That’s been a huge lesson for us.
You said something, I can feel inside is tremoring. It’s like, “I have to go out to the public.” It feels like I have my bathrobe on, and I’m going to have to go to the public I’ll be with you in just a moment. You’re putting your suit. Everything is out there for people to see versus me being on my suit, my jacket, and then presenting that image that, “I’m in control. We got everything figured out here.” Especially when it comes into the business markets, you’re looking for a competitive edge, reluctance is in there. Internally people are incented for having the answers and for being the thought leaders. To say that, “I don’t know or let’s figure this out.” I can see where it could feel a little threatening for some people to embrace.
Your show is a great example of this. You’re doing this because you wanted to do something. It’s how much have you learned?
I learned a great deal. Actually, when I think back this idea came late years ago. At the same time, I was always waiting for the right time or the right environments, or to make sure that I was in the right position. Someone encouraged me to take a leap of faith and here we are.
Also, that thing about being incented to have the right answers. I think that’s changing a little bit. When somebody like Elon Musk decides that he’s going to revolutionize the way that we put people into outer space, most people will say, “You’re crazy.” In fact, he’s okay with not being 100% sure about the direction that he’s going. Knowing that if he pours enough focused energy into something, I’m not idolizing Elon Musk, but pick any example of someone who’s done something amazing. It’s either based on a passion and a purpose, but it can also be based on vision, the drive, and a refusal to take no for an answer. A healthy dose of humility and vulnerability, which maybe doesn’t describe necessarily people like Musk, but to me, that’s what leadership is all about. I’m a student of servant leadership and I definitely know I don’t have all the right answers. In many cases, I want other people to help me find those answers because making decisions is hard. It requires you to be ready to be wrong. That’s all part of the alchemy of leadership.
One thing you did that you mentioned before was that having a designer mindset. You mentioned some of those elements that make up that designer mindset. For someone who is either considering looking at a different way of approaching issues or looking at innovation and trying something new, what would be some of the foundations that would help them terms of developing that designer mindset?
That’s something that I’m familiar with talking about. I hope I don’t screw it up. As an engineer, there’s a couple of elements. The first one, they didn’t teach us this in engineering school or MBA school. It was this word empathy. Ultimately, it’s attributed to designers. It’s 100% part of the design thinking methodology. It is probably the single biggest differentiating factor as a problem-solving methodology. It’s a principle of the way that we work. In order to come up with good solutions that are going to be different than what everybody else is offering. Whether it’s your customers or your members, if you’re a nonprofit organization or the people you’re serving if you’re also a nonprofit organization or even a religious organization, is to deeply understand their needs to see the world through their eyes.Empathy is the key. It provides you insights as to what people need. Click To Tweet
You can’t actually have 100% empathy for somebody, it’s not possible but you have to try. Empathy is the key. It provides you insights as to what people need, whether they’re saying that or what they call the latent unexpressed needs. Empathy is what we base everything on. That’s where we start. We do that through research and it doesn’t have to be complicated, but it usually is the part that is the hardest for our clients to wrap their heads around. Why should we go out and spend this amount of time and this amount of money going out and talking to people and observing them and all that kind of stuff, because that’s where you find the brilliant little insights and nuggets. It’s upon that we build. We have ways of making sense of that qualitative data, combine it with quantitative data.
Another principle is reframing the problem. Knowing that when you start off with an initial challenge, you will find things as you explore that space. We say it’s a challenge. We need to frame it in a way that it doesn’t have a solution baked into it that you let your beginner’s mind, your child’s mind explore those needs, that empathy process. Through that, using various structured conversations and tools, you start to see things. You start to see patterns emerge, and then you reframe the original challenge around areas where there’s an opportunity for design, where there’s an opportunity to create some new future for specific people. It’s always going to be based on a specific type of person. We call that a persona. Reframing is a big deal.
Ideations is the fun part. That’s when people come up with new ideas, brainstorming, structured brainstorming, and then there are ways fun ways and super creative ways of combining those and testing those. Some kind of thread that goes through the whole process that I think is important, and it’s part of that humility thing. It talks exactly to what you were talking about, about the guys in suits. We’re conditioned to think that we’re right. We make a decision or we pick a direction. We place our bet on something, and then it becomes, “This is my idea. This is what I think is the solution.” Most of us think that once we’ve convinced ourselves, we’ve done all this analysis, that it becomes hard to let go. We fall in love with the solution instead of falling in love with the problem.
There’s this thing about recognizing that everything is a hypothesis and that you have to somehow quickly and rapidly test all of the little hypothesis. Part of our process is to identify what those hypotheses are and make sure that when we come up with an idea to solve a problem, we are directing our energies to as quickly and as efficiently as possible test those hypotheses with the people that we’re designing for. There are a few of the things that I think are super important about that make it a unique process.
I always learn something new when I’m going to get together with you, Marc. I’m thinking of my own experience and how I’ve defined it, and you broaden it even more. It’s that part where you mentioned the last words, we always fall in love with our solutions. It’s like, “I think this is the way it should be so let’s go with this.” There’s ownership, there are stats around that. That can fail to serve the outcome that we’re looking to achieve, which takes us off course to where we want to focus the attention that’s needed. That’s in the empathy side. It seems like I’m hearing more and more of that word in business. I don’t know about you but we talked about empathy in my business program and my MBA programs.
You guys that are on the north of the border have better MBA programs than we do.
It was unique for the school I went to way back. I think one thread I pull out of what you’re saying too, it’s that willingness to test out an idea, take in feedback and be open to what’s possible. Marc, in terms of the DesignThinkers Academy, if people want to get more information or understand strategic design, is there a place where they can go and learn more from what you do and the work that we do in our industry?
Thanks for asking and I’ll be happy to volunteer our website. I’m the Managing Partner for DesignThinkers Group in the United States. DesignThinkersGroup.us is the website. That’s primarily directed towards the consulting and problem-solving business we do for clients and also capability building we do in-house for clients. DesignThinkersAcademy.com is where we have our open to the public courses that you sign up for as an individual or as a team. In the past, you would go to a nice city and book a hotel room, but we’re doing all that stuff online. We’ll be back to live as soon as things become more clear, stable, and safe for everybody to be in person. We are looking forward to that.
We’re offering a whole host of different courses that we provide virtually, and it’s been a fun adventure. Those are two things. I mentioned the Wednesday Web Jam. If you google Wednesday Web Jam, you should hopefully find us. If you go to YouTube, for sure you can find our catalog of the past Wednesday Web Jams in there. It’s a community that anybody can join. It’s free. We do all kinds of fun experimentation. It’s a global crowd. We have people from as far as Indonesia, New Zealand and all the way to the other side of the globe and the other side of the continent. Also, down South to Brazil and all kinds of other places. It’s a lot of fun.
Being part of that community is a fun community. There’s such a lot of energy when people start looking at what is possible and everyone gets jazzed pulling out all these ideas. It’s a great opportunity to learn and to observe creativity at work. Also, be a part of that, participating in eight of the different programs or different activities that are associated with that. Marc, I want to say thank you for being here. On behalf of the audience, you always bring perspective, and you’re such a humble man. I’ll say that from what I know of you. You bring love, care, support and empathy, which we all can use a lot more of in the world every day.
Thanks, Jeffrey. Take care. I appreciate it.
That brings us to the end of our episode. A special thanks to Marc Bolick. Leave us a rating. Let us know how we’re doing. I’d love to hear your feedback and make this show as meaningful and purposeful for you. Until next time, be good and lead well.
- Design Thinking USA
- DesignThinkers Academy
- Arne Van Oosterom
- Wednesday Web Jams – YouTube
About Marc Bolick
Marc leads the US office of DesignThinkers, working to grow the business and the team, and helping to deliver on client engagements. With over 20 years of experience in various aspects of product and service creation, Marc has worked in a variety of sectors including medical devices, mobile & web applications, travel & leisure, financial services, and innovation consulting. He is an engaging strategic thinker, behavior observer and group facilitator. Marc is a passionate practitioner of design thinking and service design methodologies, and he loves balancing both left and right brain approaches to solving problems.