Advertising and marketing professionals have long been known for their creativity at generating attention to drive prospective customers through a funnel towards a sale. This topic may sound a bit redundant, like Design Thinking for Industrial Designers, but please hang in there with me. While the methods and mindset aren’t new to marketers, practicing the techniques will make us better at our craft.
What is Design Thinking?
Design Thinking is often confused for a process or tool that either works, or doesn’t. In practice, we have found that Design Thinking is a mindset for managing risk and uncertainty. It starts with the idea that human creativity requires flipping back and forth between divergent and convergent thought. Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes this as System 1 (Fast and Intuitive) and System 2 (Slow and Logical) in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. If one were to design a creative process for computers, perhaps it would be a different approach, but this basic observation is fundamental to all of us humans. The Trig process for Design Thinking then creates three cycles of divergence and convergence through Explore, Prototype, and Build. The process is cyclical, not linear, as we navigate the possibilities to uncover new value in a complex environment.
Domains of Marketing
Broadly speaking, I view marketing as having three core functions: strategic planning of the company, brand building, and lead generation. Marketing has accountability for creating, growing, and sustaining demand.
Strategic Planning As a key stakeholder to any innovation effort, marketing helps ensure the growth of the company by identifying new market opportunities and aligning products to serve customers.
Brand Building Make a promise, keep a promise. Great brands position themselves to make compelling consistent promises that the operational team can consistently deliver.
Lead Generation Keep the sales pipeline full by building awareness among the right prospects and providing targeted messages that move them towards a conversion.
Design Thinking for Marketers
Design thinking, as a discipline of thought, is most useful when you are seeking useful new practices in a changing or uncertain environment. For the most part, you don’t want to Explore-Prototype-Build on a routine process like your daily commute or have pilots get creative with their flight patterns. With the disruption of traditional media and the constant churn of digital media tools, practicing good design thinking practices will help marketers identify trends as they emerge and produce original techniques to engage with customers. To help illustrate, I’ll use the rising popularity of Quora among marketers as an example.
There are so many digital marketing tools and platforms being continuously launched that it isn’t possible to keep tabs on all of them. Instead, start with understanding your customer’s journey as they search for solutions that your company offers. Content marketing is a well-known trend that we have been exploring. Marcus Sheridan is definitely the pioneer we seek to emulate with his book, They Ask You Answer (TAYA!) We can extract a principle by exploring new channels where customers are asking questions such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Reddit, Medium, Slack communities, and Quora.
The key here is empirical creativity. Play, experiment, tinker, measure. Quora didn’t really get my attention as a marketing tool until an answer I wrote on based on a funny conversation with my son went sort-of viral: Terminal Velocity of a Tyrannosaurus Rex It’s always fun to troll paleontologists (out of jealousy... it was my childhood dream job), but it doesn’t exactly have marketing value.
What got my attention with Quora is that it promotes content to its audience on merit and interest-specific targeting. Quora is effectively the TAYA social media platform. To prove out the merit as a marketing tool, I started responding to a number of questions relevant to Trig’s field while following the TAYA principles. I also started observing my own behavior in reading Quora content. Why did I drill down and click into that article? Do images always help my click through rate or is a compelling hook in the first two sentences the best at getting interested? With enough validated prototypes and empirical evidence, we can start to build scale.
There isn’t any way of predicting which answer will spike in advance, but you can improve the odds by writing a lot of answers to topics where you have expertise and try to recognize patterns. At the time of this writing, I have answered 37 targeted questions with varied results. Here are a few emergent best practices for Quora that we are building out:
The first two sentences are key
Use stories to connect emotionally
Break up text with formatting
Include a compelling image
Seek out questions that have a high ratio of followers to answers
Use Quora search to find questions in a specific topic area
Inspired writing to answer a question beats repurposed content
I can’t help but laugh after realizing the personal benefit of working through this case study. As a result of writing this case study, the Trig strategy for Quora as a marketing tool is evolving from low risk individual experiments to a team effort with organized best practices where we expect cumulative returns.
After wrapping up with an initial Build phase, good Design Thinkers then circle back to the Explore phase to continue diving into best practices and learning from others. For those interested in the Quora platform as a marketing channel, be sure to check out the recently launched Grow with Quora podcast.
Hopefully this example illustrates one application of Design Thinking, as a mindset, that can be helpful for marketers who are facing a chaotic environment where they need to quickly make progress in managing risk and uncertainty.
The book “They Ask You Answer” by Marcus Sheridan has really got me paying attention to the questions I’m hearing every day and taking the time to craft thoughtful and (more importantly) honest responses. While I do get a lot of questions about Innovation and Design, if I want to be really honest, the question I’m hearing the most these days has been, “Do you miss teaching?” A close second to that is, “Why did you choose to leave the university?”
My answer has primarily been some form of, “It’s complicated.” That’s just not good enough and thus the thoughtful and honest exploration began.
I’d like to start with one of my favorite TED Talks, “Your Elusive Creative Genius” told by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love.” During her inspiring talk, Elizabeth shares a bold idea that rather than a person “being” a genius, they instead “have” a genius. I love this concept and rather than unpacking it here, I encourage you to check out her talk. That said, the key takeaway is that with a title like “Chasing the Genius of The AND,” this genius is some elusive external being that is being chased; that I’m chasing.
Your elusive creative genius | Elizabeth Gilbert - YouTube
Where to Look for a Genius
Think, “Oh that’s Genius” when observing something else. For me, this could be when I see Gus (our awesome dog) cuddle in a particularly comfortable position. “Oh, that’s Genius. I should relax just like that.” Gus is my relaxation genius.
The Genius of The AND has been the most elusive genius. I’ve been chasing her before I knew her name.
Do I miss teaching? Of course I do. Do you know what else I miss? I miss working on movie sets with my brother and family. I miss that dearly.
“Why did you choose to leave the movie business?”
“Because I was chasing the Genius of The And before I knew her name.”
In those days, I was either studying Engineering in college OR working on New York City film sets. The dichotomy of the two environments was tearing me apart. I loved them both, but never fully immersed in either. Throughout the 90’s, I would leave them both on soul searching journeys guided by country roads on the saddle of my Harley-Davidson. I was looking the wrong way and never did find her, but got closer, landing in Charlotte where I would study both Physics and Poetry, thinking I would be happy as a High School teacher. I’m sure in fact, that I would have been happy in those frenetic halls, lockers slamming, with boys and girls becoming men and women.
Somewhere in there, I read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, and loved it, but was too naive to know I was holding her in my hands. By 1998 the journey took me to Chapel Hill where I studied Biomedical Engineering, and I was getting closer to finding her.
Over the years I went to school or worked, started a for profit and then a nonprofit, and went on living a mostly dualistic life. When hired to teach Biomedical Engineering Senior Design at NC State in 2006, there was one… well, there were many… but there was one particular story that I recall impacting my teaching philosophy.
It was about an entry level engineer we hired out of Penn State to join our product development team at Alaris Medical Systems in Creedmoor. This kid came into the company with so much energy, excitement, and creativity, only to have it beaten out of him by the FDA’s Quality System Regulations and Design Controls. He picked up his whole life, moved from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, bought a car and got a place to live, and within 6 months, he was leaving because he couldn’t stand it.
I never wanted that to happen to the students. So, I wanted them to get a taste of what real life is like in this industry while still in school. So, in my classroom, I insisted on them following Design Controls. But even more important was a message that I hope my former students all remember, and that new students embrace. The health and wellness of our world is depending on your creativity. It takes a truly special talent to be both creative and live in the required constraints of a system that is in place to protect us. We need quality systems AND we need creativity. Be brave and do both to make this world a better place.
The health and wellness of our world is depending on your creativity.
Over the next 12 years I would get to meet the Genius of The AND from time to time. Most notably, Jim Collins is credited with developing this concept in his book, “Built to Last,” where he states most famously to reject the, “Tyranny of the OR.” But I don’t think I truly knew And until practicing Yoga.
The Genius of The And is all around us. She’s everywhere, in all matter and energy, and is both Luke Skywalker’s AND Darth Vader’s Force. She is caring and thoughtful, confident and humble, courageous and careful, competitive and collaborative, leader and follower, logical and emotional, classical and romantic, orderly and chaotic, and … well AND.
In Yoga, she is the Peaceful Warrior (and many more such poses of both relaxation AND strength).
So why did I leave the university? Because I was chasing the Genius of The AND. In my humble opinion, many academic institutions and design firms have lost the Genius of The AND, often times reducing Industrial Design to primarily aesthetics. As a best practice however, Industrial Design IS the Genius of The AND.
AND it is Psychology AND it is Art AND it is Engineering AND it is Business
AND it is all the other perspectives brought together - It is People First.
It is the ability to derive order from chaos.
And today, I find myself in a very special place where the Genius of The AND is celebrated and encouraged and practiced daily.
I first had a Hawaiian Pizza in 1998 while in San Diego for a kayak national team training camp. Yes, one of my Hawaiian teammates encouraged us to try it while we were out to eat at a local restaurant. Up until that point, it had never occurred to me that pineapple could taste so good on a pizza. Hawaiian pizza became an instant favorite for me, and that combination of novelty and good memories with friends combined to make the experience memorable. Such visceral experiences have shaped my pizza topping choices, I say, for the better.
Entering into a new experience requires some form of provocation. On the whole, people do not step out of their comfort zones easily and doing so has to be clearly worthwhile or at least intriguing enough to let curiosity outweigh hesitation. This insight was formalized into the ideation process of Provocation and Movement by Dr Edward de Bono. If you’re interested in resources straight from the source, Dr. de Bono’s detailed thinking systems can be found here.
Dr. de Bono proposed Provocation and Movement within a larger framework of methods he developed to help teams intentionally shift their own perceptions and conceptual framework. He described the human mind as an auto-organized system. Perceptual models are the organizing tool that stores information. The brain only sees what it is prepared to see: mental models and pre-existing shapes. Having our thoughts organized this way helps us identify the objects and actions occurring in our surroundings very quickly so we can largely ignore the things that aren’t recognized as dangerous or unrecognized. Quickly accessible mental models were good news for our ancestors who were glad to notice and react to hungry tigers, but the resulting trade-off of selective attention bias means that we often miss what is right in front of our faces. For a great example of selective attention, watch the video below and count how many times the basketball is passed between players wearing a white shirt:
selective attention test - YouTube
That leaves the question of how to capture attention from a species designed to ignore so much, to literally miss the gorilla in the room if we are primed to look for tigers. The Lateral Thinking process is a set of tools one can use to step away from the same “vertical” repetitive thought patterns that lead to the same repetitive product design outcomes. Within Lateral Thinking as a concept, there are many techniques, but “Provocation and Movement” stands out as particularly useful for disrupting mental models relevant to product design.
Consider the attributes of a coffee mug. It protects hands from heat, is made of ceramic, and has one handle. By deliberately introducing illogical thoughts, we start to break down those mental models. What if the mug makes hands hot? What if it were made of flexible rubber? What if it had four handles instead of one?
Provocation breaks us from our mental models and cuts across patterns. We use provocation to intentionally break us out of the comfort zone of familiar existing patterns in order to see opportunities differently. If done properly, lateral thinking should elicit a similar internal reaction as running across a busy highway. It’s scary, perhaps dangerous in some social circles, but also useful if you’re trying to find uncharted territory. It takes courage to express ideas that seem wild, silly, completely over the top, but proper priming of the ideation group makes it possible.
Fruit on pizza? Hmm, mandarin oranges, apple slices, grapefruit, apricots, pears… why not pineapples?
Ultimately though, what’s the point of completely wacky ideas too grandiose, too rash to exist? That’s where Movement comes in.
We use Movement to transform the uncomfortable illogic into a meaningful adjacent possible. Those intentionally loony ideas… while they aren’t feasible as initially described, something about them does actually solve the problem. If you can suspend disbelief for a moment, take the seemingly illogical concept seriously and move it towards a useful idea. If the mug makes your hands hot, it could become a hand warmer on a cold day. If it were flexible, it could become collapsible as a durable piece of backpacking gear. If it had four handles, maybe it could be a share able set for friends.
Extract a principle, focus on the difference, and find benefit from the provocation. What is it about the idea that makes it odd? Are people just preconditioned to not accept fruit on their pizza given their dominant mental model, or is there a demonstrable taste preference? If not pineapples, then why not oranges? I can’t help but find appreciation in Dr. Seuss’ book, Green Eggs and Ham as a model for creative provocation and movement. Dr. DiMeo, would you, could you, eat pineapple pizza on a train? ..on a boat? …in the rain? It’s silly, yes, but eventually the Seussian characters find new benefit from their provocative journey.
It is true in both design and in life that oftentimes nonsense can be peeled away to discover an underlying truth. Sift away the dirt to find the gold that looks like dirt to everyone else.
We don’t always use Provocation and Movement in our ideation sessions, but the principle lives in every session through use of Challenge Statements. The exercise is simple: take the Unmet Need Statement as defined by Dr DiMeo and make it weird. The best challenge statements start with, “How might we...”, establishing a provocative call to solve the unmet need. In my experience, the problem with challenge statements is that they aren’t weird enough. It’s easy to be safe. Being bold and provocative while rooted in solving real problems takes effort.
Once the challenge is identified and the challenge statement is created, it’s easy to look only for the quick, obvious, expected solution. The first thing that pops into your head may work. The low-hanging fruit growing on the idea tree may get the job done, but great ideas only emerge from a thorough creative exploration that includes the ridiculous, the absurd, the nonsensical, the Seussical, and yes, even the occasional pineapple.
Prototypes, then Theory
As Dan Ariely once observed, you cannot reverse engineer the taste of food by looking at the nutrition label. The process of trial and error using low-cost, high-upside prototypes is an empirical process of exploring the new, testing for fit, then building upon the 5% of ideas that work. After the fact, one can build nutrition labels describing why the solution is healthier and theories of why the acidity of the pineapple mixes so well with tomato sauce when cooked. You have to first experience the new, then try to understand why it works. Things fall apart when the order gets reversed and chemists, not cooks, try to derive the recipe and give you “everything the body needs…” as experienced by the Nebuchadnezzar's crew in the Matrix.
We have some truly exceptional people at Trig. As our new tradition is maturing, a few of our talented folks were recognized for their amazing efforts with a painted rock. The UPS guy didn’t even blink this go around when I asked for help mailing five rocks. I think he’s gotten used to me shipping out bizarre items.
We did things a little differently this go around - team members were asked to anonymously nominate others for the awards. I got to paint the rocks and announce the winners. Reading through everyone’s nominations was such a treat with a few amazing stories mixed in. Check out our winners:
The Design and Development team has just been slammed over the last 6 months. There's dozens of stories to tell that includes the hard work of the people he supports, but Ethan has shouldered coordinating the full effort of his team. He also took on a bulk of a massive client project while working towards an insanely tight deadline. Ethan plays an important role in holding down the fort and holding the line.
Her constant researching and questioning of cutting-edge professional practices and design trends elevates the entire team's awareness of the present and future of our ever-fluid industry. Also, through her fearless travels and embrace of the remote lifestyle she's become the pioneer / guinea pig of the most extreme possibilities of the Trig culture.
The explorer mindset is always in Kelly's tool bag, she approaches each project with a curious spirit, always coming up with fresh perspectives along the way. She's a tireless tinkerer whether small scale or large, she's gonna have a keen eye for what's on the horizon and is able to connect it to how it can benefit / dazzle our clients--it's that translation that's so impressive. Her curious tinkerer mindset is also shaping Trig's design philosophy and her recent client work shows she has a vision for how we can share this philosophy with our community.
While we recently elevated this emergent value of the team to one of our Core Values, it is fitting that Brian win the first one. While Brian's Q3 rock may have been to establish a regular virtual social gathering, he has continued to take the initiative in bringing the team together. He's faithfully prioritized Trig coffees and has initiated other activities. He's made a large effort to bridge the virtual gap and forge a sense of connection, truly demonstrating the People-First mentality and that the people of Trig matter. This camaraderie of team ultimately strengthens our ability to serve our clients. For those keeping score at home, this is Brian’s second rock for his already impressive trophy collection.
This guy literally started off hungry ... job searching and taking a real big risk with the employment agreement he chose to accept when coming to work with the Trig Team. Since joining, he's constantly asking the team what he can work on, and, well, being hungry for work. When he gets his hands on something, he knocks it out of the park. Given his weekend updates we've speculated he must be rather hungry, having recently discovered Krispy Kreme doughnuts, but his work week has proven it! In a short amount of time he's demonstrated that hunger, taking pride in his work and going above and beyond. It's been amazing having him on the team. His willingness to grow is essential to Trig remaining relevant enough to do the work our future clients need, and hungry enough to earn it in the first place. And the output has been really cool to see!
Stephen has delighted clients by delivering exceptional solutions and fearlessly jumping into learning new skills such as implementing Klipfolio and Webflow. His experience and hunger also serve Trig greatly, allowing BAM to expand service offerings to include UX/UI design, further showing our clients we're a partner always on the hunt for new solutions. It seems like every project he is learning a brand new app or stepping into something completely new, but always shows up with beautiful work. Always asking questions, always hungry for feedback that he will use to improve his work.
Her pragmatic delivery of creative work is no small task but Connie has done a bang-up job of fine tuning BAM service offerings, being attentive to lessons learned along the way and refining her process to improve efficiency. Expressing the utmost respect for client resources, she's taken a pragmatic approach with her brand competitive analyses and e-commerce site builds to tweak her process and deliver delightful solutions.
This is also Connie’s second rock award. As a fan of Pokémon, we’re each striving to collect ‘em all!
The word “innovation” is getting used a lot these days. So much so that its meaning has become generic and its definition lost. I wish to find it. What follows is an exploration of the word “innovation” in search of a useful definition, for clarity, and for enlightenment. My favorite definition to date comes from Scott Burleson, friend and innovation expert at The AIM Institute. Scott describes innovation as, “an improvement in value” and then further defines “value” as “benefits over cost.”
To explore this topic further, I’m going to dive deep into the definitions of each of these words proposed by Scott.
What Are “Benefits?”
The root of the word “benefit” comes from the Latin “bene facere” which translates to “do good (to).”
The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig explores the concept of “good” in great detail by examining the word “quality.” In this fantastic journey of quality, Pirsig makes a case that it is intrinsic, existing in both the romantic and classical thought processes. Indeed, the book explores quality as The Buddha, as Tao, and as what is good.
Quality as what is good feels like common sense to a professor who has had to assign grades by (quality of work) or (what is good work). The notion proposed by Pirsig that quality/good exists in both romantic and classical thought processes is key to the topic of assigning grades to students in the arts as well as the sciences. This can further be extended to commercial innovation in the sense of both psychology and economics; often considered two unique domains. Tying together emotional (brand assets) and rational (product design) purchase decisions can be explored further in its own right.
(Benefits) = (Quality) = (What Is Good)
What Is “Good?”
What is good work in an engineering class versus what is good work in a poetry class may seem subjective. What is a good flavor to one person might not be a good flavor to another person. The notion that “good” is subjective is a complicated road to go down, because it suggests that good is whatever you like it to be. If that were the case, how then can grades be assigned by any other means than a subjective measure of good?
What if we define “good” another way?
I have a particular interest in Health Innovation, and therefore will bias in that direction. So, I’m going to propose a definition of “good” as “conditions favorable for health.”
(What Is Good) = (Conditions Favorable for Health)
What Are Conditions Favorable for Health?
For this, I’ll draw from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and consider our most basic needs such as air, water, food, and shelter. It is a natural instinct to seek conditions favorable for health for all living things. From bacteria, which “like” conditions such as warmth and moisture, to a stray cat that might like to be under a parked car with a warm engine and safe from the falling rain. These would be “good” conditions for bacteria or a cat (not that I’m comparing the two).
So far I’m building a hypothesis that:
(Benefits) = (What Is Good) = (Conditions Favorable for Health)
Looking back to Scott’s original definition of innovation as benefits over costs, then a new proposed definition might look like this:
Indeed, this is the thought process at the root of our nation’s focus on value-based care as defined by CMS. This topic is explored in detail by organizations such as Deloitte and Optum. If this formula is correct, then it is not enough just to have conditions favorable for health, but rather, to promote such conditions. After all, if innovation is indeed a process; a process is active, not static.
“Innovation is a process of improving health and reducing costs.”
What Is a Process of Improving Health?
It’s to be caring.
Historically, caring may have been thought of as providing medical attention to the sick. Today, caring is more than caring for the sick, it’s more than helping someone get better, it’s more than sustaining your current health. As technology and standards of care have advanced, so have our mindsets in addressing health. Caring is about improving your health and the health of your surrounding communities. But this is just the top half of the equation. What about the bottom half?
What Is “Cost”?
To explore “cost,” I came to the idiom: at all costs.
What are all these costs?
Money spent and/or the effort to earn that money?
Cost of goods sold?
Lives lost in war? The effort to win the war?
Resources to achieve a goal? The effort to reach that goal?
The highlight is on “effort”
Indeed, looking at the historical roots of the phrase, “at all costs,” it can be translated to “regardless of effort.” It is logical that cost is relative to effort which itself can be defined as energy spent on work. We work to make money, to buy a product. Logical. But I’m hung up on this notion that if our goal is to reduce cost, it is also suggesting we reduce effort. This is not so logical.
To get past this, I needed to draw lessons learned from coaching baseball.
“Control what you can control: attitude and effort.”
The idea of giving less effort just didn’t sit right with me when first meditating on this part of innovation. But if attitude and effort are two things we can control…, what is control anyway? If we give maximum effort all the time, is that really controlling effort? Is the foot on the gas pedal all the way down controlling the car? Or is that car out of control? Interesting, right?
What Is the Control of Attitude and Effort?
Is this to mean we have choice of attitude and effort? What are we asking the baseball player to do here? Choose a “good” attitude. Choose what about effort? Full effort? It feels right to consider that the choice in attitude is to choose a “good” or a “bad” attitude. Choosing a good attitude is one that promotes conditions for health. This is making sense, but now I’m back on benefits, quality, what is good, and health.
So what effort are we choosing? Is there good effort and bad effort?
In the book, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement; author Eliyahu M. Goldratt takes us to the floor of a manufacturing plant and explores many concepts, including a notion that “always working” is not the most efficient way to run a business. The concept is resisted by the characters in the book, rightfully so, as it is not intuitive. The Goal masterfully uses the scientific method and Socratic thinking to teach lean manufacturing. Among the many lessons learned is that always working is not a solution to improve plant efficiency.
If we have a choice in effort, is the effort we put forth an effort that is carefully considered? Scientifically? Socratically? Thoughtfully? This is the old debate of “working hard” versus “working smart.” Cost. Effort. Work. The relationships of these make sense. However, even after reading The Goal, the notion of minimizing effort is still not sitting right.
I need to zoom back out to the big picture: Innovation
There’s an example used in class for years about a swimmer at the beach. The undertow is bad and they’ve drifted far off shore and suddenly realize they need to get back. This can be a scary situation. As the lesson goes, I ask the students, “what is smarter, putting your head down and swimming towards shore as vigorously as possible, only coming up for air when you need it? OR, slowing down, thinking, and looking at the waves?”
Swim in with the waves. Rest between waves. Swim smart.
Work hard with the waves. Take breaks. Observe. Be thoughtful about your return to shore, your return to conditions favorable for health. It’s not to minimize effort but to maximize effort. Using all of your effort can be wasteful, if some of your effort is used without the waves. Work Hard AND Work Smart (with the waves).
So, what is innovation?
Innovation is increasing benefits over reducing cost. This is value based care.
Innovation is improving conditions favorable for health and maximizing effort. It is working towards (What is Good) through (Hard AND Smart Work).
In 1998, just a year after returning to lead the company he founded after a 12-year hiatus, Steve Jobs took the opportunity presented by a MacWorld address to confront Apple’s critics in public. During his appearance, he humorously outlined what he dubbed a “Hierarchy of Skepticism,” in order to make a clever, pre-emptive strike against the criticisms he’d inevitably face next.
At the first level, critics ask, will the company survive? Then, once that is solved, they ask, but will the profits be stable? Next, what is the strategy? Finally, can growth be sustained? In truth, as Jobs posited that day, the skeptics may never be satisfied.
Our company, Trig, is entering its 10th year, and we are in a very fortunate position. We are wrestling with questions of strategy and growth, rather than survival and stability. In light of our current status, we believe that there’s no time like the present to think more deeply about our culture and values. Reassessing who we are and where we stand will shore up a bedrock foundation before accepting more growth.
SPEC’s research revealed a breathtaking finding: one of the six cultures had a 100 percent survival rate through the dotcom bubble, was the fastest to go to IPO, and continued to hit growth targets as a maturing public company.
A 2002 study by the Stanford Project on Emerging Companies (SPEC) collected and analyzed the most comprehensive database on the histories, structures, and cultures of Silicon Valley startups in its time. The study identified six different models of cultures that evolved over a 15-year period among 200 companies in the Valley. SPEC’s research revealed a breathtaking finding: one of the six cultures had a 100 percent survival rate through the dotcom bubble, was the fastest to go to IPO, and continued to hit growth targets as a maturing public company. If you are an entrepreneur, investor, or are in any way involved in the startup community, this should get your attention.
Take a look at the six models outlined by the Stanford research findings:
Star Model: Hires were the best and brightest from elite universities, were well compensated and given “huge amounts of autonomy.” The strategy of applying the “A-team” to solving issues and developing great product made this model very popular with VC’s
Engineer Model: “This is your stereotypical Silicon Valley startup, with a bunch of anonymous programmers drinking Mountain Dew at their desks; they’re young and hungry and might be stars someday but right now they’re focused on solving technical problems.”
Bureaucratic Model: A common and proven model of organization, with a robust hierarchy and processes. Thick with middle managers, extensive job descriptions, org charts, and handbooks.
Autocratic Model: Close cousin to bureaucratic, but driven by a single person, usually the founder and/or CEO, one of whom reportedly described it thus: “You work. You do what I say. You get paid.”
CommitmentModel: Firms where people could work their entire lives, even if most chose not to. Eschewing the rapidly shifting nature of many of their peers, these companies valued rich and lasting intra-company relationships. “Commitment CEOs believe that getting the culture right is more important at first than designing the best product.”
Hybrid / No Clear Model: These firms combine elements of two models as a compromise in anticipation of future changes to the management approach. For example, the observed culture might have fallen midway between Star and Bureaucracy, - getting off the ground with prominent talent, while planning for a transition to a Bureaucracy model following IPO.
Origins matter – the founder’s early formation of culture, values, and HR practices are a strong predictor of success.
Before we reveal which model had a 100 percent survival rate in the study, it’s worth noting that the authors found that changing cultures during the company’s growth led to higher chances of going out of business. Origins matter – the founder’s early formation of culture, values, and HR practices are a strong predictor of success. Change is disruptive – any short term benefits from changing a culture’s enduring core values to respond to external pressures are offset by significant long-term costs of undermining the predictable internal expectations among employees that can lead to higher turnover, increased management burden, and declining profitability that puts the survival of the company at risk.
With the Hierarchy of Skepticism in mind, this means that culture is a crucial consideration for answering that initial first question of “Can it survive?” When forming Trig and first composing our values, I referred to a list of quotes I had been keeping, that I found inspirational and challenged me to be more pragmatic, collaborative, and uphold integrity above any hardships that might be solved through compromising character.
Values are intrinsic. They don’t change in response to competitors, management fads, or customer feedback - even if the survival of the company is at stake. Values are initially formulated by the founder, but they can evolve as the culture forms with new hires. I have been fascinated to watch our culture change and grow richer as each new person’s personality, sense of humor, and unique perspective adjust our norms and open up blind spots in how we operate. I stand in awe of those organizations that scale from 20 to 100 to 200 people in a year and still preserve the original culture and values. Ultimately, values preserve the culture as it becomes the tool by which employees are hired, fired, and evaluated for promotion.
‘Issues of organizational scalability capture remarkably little mind-share among people who are thinking about starting new enterprises…’ despite many founders giving lip service to declaring that ‘people are the ultimate source of competitive advantage in my business.’
— James Baron and Michael Hannan, Stanford Project on Emerging Companies
So what happened to the 200 startups from Baron and Hannon’s SPEC study as they traversed the dotcom bubble? Half ceased to exist, but a selection of those that survived became incredibly successful. The researchers were surprised, however, at how strongly the management style correlated with success, even after controlling for factors such as company age, size, institutional funding, turnover, and the macro-economy.
The Star Model, to no surprise, produced some of the biggest winners, but also quite unexpectedly failed at a higher rate than any of the other models, and was least likely to go public. For investors, this type of culture is a great signal that you can base significant returns on playing one out of 10 odds. For employees, the star model sounds unattractive, with the most common cause of failure resulting from infighting because everyone wants to be the star. “Players that swing for the fence tend to strike out more often.”
So, of the five models, one outperformed the all the others in multiple ways:
Faster to go public
Higher profitability ratios
Fewer layers of managers
Less wasted time on internal rivalries and individual agendas
Less employee turnover
Greater commitment to their customers, building superior service and long-term relationships that helped the companies detect and adapt to changes in the market
Amazingly, the Commitment model, having been shunned by many in the start-up community, was the model that had a 100 percent survival rate and outperformed all the others.
Commitment firms, as described, begin working on culture even before hiring the first employees, with the vision to build a company culture that survives the IPO or any exit strategy. By contrast, not a single founder within the Engineering model (1/3 of sample) put thought into organizational concerns as a primary launch activity.
When Baron and Hannon shared their findings with venture capital contacts in Silicon Valley, investors shared that the resilience of the Commitment model was consistent with their experience. The need to adapt, pivot, and handle interpersonal stresses is essential to survival in high-tech entrepreneurship. In their opinion, Commitment models manage to capture the hearts and minds of employees up front, making it easier to adapt to the environment. What I haven’t been able to learn yet is whether the findings of Baron and Hannon have changed the investment approach of Silicon Valley VCs or of the next generation of entrepreneurs following the dot com burst.
As you might have guessed, we have built Trig to be a Commitment company well before coming across the work of Baron and Hannon. We take care of our clients. We have been described as having a “do whatever it takes” attitude to achieving our clients’ mission (https://triginnovation.com/client-testimonials). Notably, we have been able to sustain this client-centric attitude by taking care of our team members, making sure new hires fit the culture as a primary prerequisite, encouraging team members to cross pollinate disciplines, and nurturing the development of new skills to do so. constantly training team members in new skills to keep things fresh, The constant evolution of the work we all do keeps things from stagnating, and and hedge against the risk of layoffs as the demand for different skill sets come and go.
At Trig, we stay family-friendly by allowing our people the flexibility to work whenever they want and wherever they want, as long as client deadlines and work quality standards are met. This standard is achieved by our proud commitment to a virtual working environment – no physical office space requiring furnishings, rent, and the culture-killing accessory of low-trust managerial oversight. The freedom of this setup is evident in the geographical makeup of Trig. We’re headquartered in Chapel Hill, NC, but have designers in Charlotte and Richmond, VA. Not only does Trig have the flexibility to recruit talent outside of our geographical area, it also give our employees the freedom to move wherever they want. You can find more discussion on the virtual model here (https://triginnovation.com/tangents/2016/3/2/working-virtually).
My hope is that we are an employer of choice for talented people who will enjoy their work. Not only that, we want them to also enjoy the camaraderie of our team. And we want to enjoy working here so much that they spend their entire careers here at Trig. I see my responsibility as the founder to return that trust by building an organization that is built to last, where economic turbulence is expected and anticipated, and never a reason for asking an employee to leave.
At the deathbed of an organization, no entrepreneur regrets having spent too much time working on culture and people issues in the early years of their company. Achieving goals and financial performance looks great on your resume. How you achieve those goals is what gets shared at your eulogy.
Author’s note: I originally wrote this article in a much more light-hearted tone. As I wrestled with the topic and spent time reflecting on the topic with family, friends, and coworkers, it became apparent that the choices of values and culture are too significant to too many people to be expressed through humor. I hope that you are encouraged and challenged by this piece. For further reading, please see the following resources:
Organizational Blueprints for Success in High-Tech Start-Ups: Lessons from the Stanford Project on Emerging Companies, James Baron and Michael Hannan, California Management Review, Vol. 44. No. 3 Spring 2002
Smarter Faster Better: the secrets to being productive in life and business by Charles Duhigg. (2016) See Chapter 5: Managing Others, Solving a kidnapping with lean and agile thinking and a culture of trust.
Ty Hagler is the Principal at Trig® an award-winning innovation, design, and marketing firm based in Chapel Hill, NC. From his time as an Olympic hopeful in sprint kayaking, Ty has believed in building innovation processes built both for speed and long-term success. At Trig, Ty has embraced the virtual model to create sustainable work environments for his team and tools to optimize the client experience.
The company has emerged with an elite combination of classical and digital skill sets that fuel explorations and bridge gaps for inventors, executives, and product development teams, converging the realms of innovation process, industrial design, and marketing. In 2016, Trig became a force to be reckoned with in the design community, taking home a pair of IDEA awards for its work with cycling products manufacturer ALTR Ergo and medical device company 410 Medical. Trig’s work, while having a modern aesthetic that appeals to customers in multiple industries, hews closely to the ultimate mission of industrial designers—form and function that improve the human condition.
Trig hasn’t always been Trig. I didn’t like the first name for this company, mostly because it was my name, Studio Hagler. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with my surname (pronounced Hay-gler) but it wasn’t building anything other than my ego. I wanted to build a brand.
In 2010, I got tired of subleasing office space from an engineering firm and was frustrated with my lack of traction. For a few months, I was working from my home office and seeking employment instead of new business while wrapping up MBA studies at NCSU. As fate would have it, a number of things fell into place that renewed my enthusiasm for entrepreneurship. First, a few key client projects in door hardware and outdoor seating were awarded, giving new life to the company. Next, I decided to pursue the virtual model, not out of lack of resources, but as a cultural and competitive advantage. The savings on office accouterments could be applied to content marketing and a new website platform on Squarespace. Finally, and most impactful, I decided to change the brand name to reflect a bigger vision for the company, taking the focus off of me and making space for a team.
My exploration of name ideas pulled me back to my kayaking background and love of water sports. Playing with a nautical theme, I looked at adding new meaning to a variety of common terms. Having decided on an Explorer archetype, an outdoor theme mixed with daring and strength just made sense. Ultimately, what jumped out at me was the word Outrigger, which is a class of ocean-faring boats commonly used in Polynesian and Micronesian cultures. The Outrigger derives its stability from the Ama, which is a secondary hull attached by two beams to the primary vessel. The resulting stability matches a much larger craft, yet gets the speed and efficiency of a narrow hull.
Outrigger canoes are designed as racing craft with up to six people. Particularly exciting are the races between the islands of Hawaii where the teams have to work really hard to climb up the Pacific swells. As they crest the top of the wave, the lead paddler has a moment where he can no longer reach the water, but is hanging out over space. Then, the rest of the boat clears the wave and the entire craft zooms downhill only to start back up again. Crazy fun.
I liked the symbolism of Outrigger as a consulting metaphor, that we would come alongside the client to add stability and efficiency with shared goals and destinations, Outrigger is a bit of a mouthful, but at it’s center is the word Trig, shorthand for trigonometry. Now, most people cringe to think of their high school math classes, but I liked the dichotomy of naming a creative industrial design consultancy after a math concept. It speaks to the need for BOTH the analytical and creative sides of our brain to successfully bring new products to market.
The uncertain risk of the name Trig was a potential association with another innovation methodology called TRIZ, which is a Russian acronym that translates to “Theory of Inventive Problem Solving”. There are many books on the method, but the best is the original by the author Genrich Altshuller titled, And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared. TRIZ is an interesting methodology, especially for solving physics-based engineering problems, but hasn’t been particularly relevant to the challenges we face on a daily basis. Fortunately, the methodology is fairly obscure, so we’ve not had to combat that association very often.
The Trig logo has certainly evolved over the years as well. Check out our article about its history here.
Up to Speed
Trig, as any brand name, took a while to take hold. At first, it was simply an empty file folder in people’s minds, with comments of “oh, you changed your company name... guess we’ll see a new name from you in the next few years.” As the old name was forgotten, the new brand of Trig came to represent the complete experience of new clients and employees as promised were made and kept, both contractually and implicitly through a cohesive commitment to delivering on our value proposition.
It was so exciting to be able to purchase the trig.com domain name in 2018 (We have a whole story on that here!) because it represents the culmination of a big yet fragile vision from long ago.
To further build on our brand family, the Trig Team has decided to rename our newsletter from the not-creative title, “Newsletter” to “The Outrigger”. Our mission with The Outrigger is to provide articles that inform and entertain with topics relevant to current events in design spaces, explanations of tricky industry concepts, reviews of books we enjoy that we think you ought to give a try, and all sorts of inspiring miscellany from around the web. (Thank you for joining us on our adventure with this new look!)
Building the connection between your brand and your audience doesn't have to be complicated, and it doesn't have to cost an arm and leg, either. Most of what goes into building a solid brand is just extracting the good stuff you already have in your head. How we go about organizing the stuff what comes out of your head, that's another story...but no worries, this is why we use archetypes to set up a solid foundation on which to build a brand's personality.
Why Do Brands Built Around Archetypes Work?
Human beings yearn for connection. We personify everything we interact with. We see faces in clouds, rocks, and electrical outlets that aren't really there. We search for patterns in behavior not because we want to, but because we have to--it's in our biology. We search for the archetype we relate to most. This is how we were built, how we've evolved, and I'm mighty thankful for it, because if it weren't for our enduring need to connect and to see patterns, we certainly wouldn't be where we are today.
In 1919, Carl Jung coined the term "Archetype" to first describe what he called the "dominants of the collective unconscious." These archetypes form the dynamic frameworks common to all of humanity-- universal to all cultures, all time, and all places. Jung observed that each individual was predisposed to a set of traits (an "unconscious personality," if you will) on which his or her own experiences would further build upon and color (the resulting "conscious personality"). Each "set of traits" were shaped by observed patterns in his studies that he distilled into a list of personality types.
Archetypes work because they're universal and speak directly to our core. We already know and trust their stories.
Today, 12 distinct archetypes exist to describe these unique patterns in human behavior. Here's a quick summary of the 12:
The Creator lives to craft something new, not just for the sake of crafting something new, but as a means to further provide structure and order in the world. The Creator's dream is to create something that helps others create. Apple, Adobe, Lego, and Crayola embody the Creator brand with their own flare, and they do so very well.
The Caregiver lives to provide care, love, and support to others. Caregivers are selfless, always placing the needs of others ahead of their own. They create structure in the world by providing assistance to people whenever they need it, often going the extra mile without hesitation. Key brand examples are Caregivers are Dove, J&J, Allstate, and Nordstrom, for their impeccable customer service and focus.
The Ruler lives to be powerful. Rulers are bent on exerting control and forcing chaos to bend to their will. Some fantastic ruler brands include American Express, Rolex, and Hugo Boss.
The Jester strives to live life in the moment. The Jester just wants to have fun with whatever they're doing at the moment. Jester brands are pretty easy to pick out--they tend to have the most humorous ads. Great Jester brands include Geico, Old Spice, and Skittles.
The Everyman contends that everyone is created equal. The Everyman believes that no matter who you are, where you come from, what you believe, that you deserve the same amount of kindness and respect as everyone else. Wendy's has always been an Everyman brand (think of the days when the Dave Thomas cut-out personally greeted you at every Wendy's line, telling you that, yes, you do deserve restaurant quality burger without the restaurant price), and I've been enjoying the latest Everyman spin they've put on things with their active Twitter account. Ikea, eBay, and Trader Joe's also embody an Everyman brand, but not as humorously as Wendy's has been doing it.
The Lover believes that you're their one and only. Lovers want to engage the senses, but not just anyone's senses, your senses. Victoria's Secret comes to mind as an easy one, but Haagan-Daz does a pretty fantastic job of encapsulating the Lover as well, through the sexy taste of their silky smooth ice creams in perfectly-portioned sizes.
Sure, the Hero saves lives, but more importantly, heroes inspire action through their courage. The Hero embodies the phrase, "where there's a will, there's a way." The hero is courageous and rids the world of weakness and builds a following of other heroes-to-be behind them. Brands that fit the Hero archetype are Duracell, Nike, and Fedex.
The Outlaw blazes its own path. They believe that rules are made to be broken, and they always question authority. You can't fence them in. Harley-Davidson and Diesel are, without a doubt, great examples of the Outlaw because they just don't care what you think. They're in it for themselves.
The Magician just makes things happen. Magician rids the world of unanticipated negative consequences by surprising you with a solution that just...happens. Magicians make people ooh and aww. Disney is a classic example of a magician, but Dyson does a pretty fantastic job of it as well (who knew vacuums could be so magical?).
The Innocent symbolizes hope and happiness. The Innocent promotes community and hopes to renew and retain faith. Coke is the most powerful Innocent brand in the world. When you drink a Coke, all of your troubles and worries just seem to fade away. Share a Coke, and you invite a friend to a moment's peace along with you. In this crazy world, we need all the moment's peace we can get.
The Explorer is a pioneer. Explorers live to journey, discover, and they always look beyond today's reality. Explorers aren't afraid to get their hands dirty if it's in service of a brilliant discovery. North Face, REI, and NASA are three brands that encapsulate the Explorer.
The Sage is symbolizes wisdom, and they pride knowledge above all else. The Sage strives to understand their world. Good Sages seek to share that knowledge with you any way that they can. National Geographic, Discovery, and IBM embody the wise Sage.
First Impressions are Everything
We've all heard this cliche time and again. When there's a disconnect between your brand and your audience, you do a great deal of injustice to your product or service. Your message is confusing, people aren't sure what you do, why it matters, and they can't even begin to imagine how you could help them. The end result is to dismiss it all, and when your brand has been dismissed, it can be hard to escape that bad reputation and try to rebuild it. To avoid this, all you need to do is build a brand that people trust and already know.
In 1882, shortly after the widespread adoption of the safety bicycle, John Boultbee Brooks found himself pedaling along the streets of Birmingham, England on perhaps the most enjoyable vehicle known to man - with an unacceptably sore undercarriage. A leather worker by trade and founder of leather goods company Brooks, he developed and filed a patent for a saddle comprised of a hard leather shell suspended on a sprung metal frame. In the years following, a number of other interesting saddle designs came to fruition, each attempting to improve the current bike seat solution (the bar was low: it was literally a wooden plank, hence the soreness) and vying to become the gold standard of cycling perches. Brook’s design prevailed, becoming the blueprint from which nearly all bicycle seats were created for the next 80 years.
In 1962 Italian cycling powerhouse Cinelli partnered up with a plastics manufacturer to produce the world’s first plastic-shell bicycle saddle: The UnicaNitor. It was an oddity at the time, with slow adoption in any cycling discipline. Then British cycling legend Tom Simpson glued sheets of suede to one and raced it a few years later, creating perhaps the first incarnation of the modern cycling saddle. By the mid 70’s, all but the finest bicycles came with plastic saddles. By the 80’s plastic was king (in nearly every industry, really) and leather saddles from the likes of Brooks were relegated to cruisers or touring bikes. They would remain the seat of choice for only a small group of devotees, a retro-obscurity compared to majority of companies producing ever lighter, faster, cooler saddles as material technology advanced bicycle design at breakneck pace.
During a recent internal discussion about the success of certain startups over others, we became fascinated with the topic of Survivorship Bias. It is one of some 200 psychological fallacies, occurring when the eminence of a successful person, occurrence, or thing outshines the improbability of its own success - causing oversight of the vast majority of unsuccessful instances. For example, the retelling of a WWII bomber riddled with bullet holes, the perseverance and bravery of its pilot and crew guaranteeing its safe return in the face of harrowing danger. Not heralded are the 19 planes from that same mission who weren’t so lucky.
In business, Silicon valley offers many examples too. The explosion of tech that has turned teenagers with a cool idea into billionaires overnight suggests that any geek with the right idea, in the right place, can tap into that success. In reality, there might be 1,962 Elon Musk wannabees second-mortgaging their West-Oakland home to fund their 12th "million-dollar idea."
But perhaps no more glaring examples of Survivorship Bias are heard when famous or successful people inspire kids with anecdotes chronicling their rise to prominence. “Follow your dreams, believe in yourself, don’t give up - and just like me, you can become something amazing.” Well, there were probably thousands of other kids with a similar dream, who took similar steps, and through a series of fateful circumstances wound up working as a waiter, a stay-at-home parent, or staring at a computer screen in a cubicle. Nothing wrong with that - I’ve done all 3 with contentment - but their stories aren’t getting airtime on ESPN or a speech at the Grammy’s. Statistics are less tasty than celebrity soundbites, but at least they’re honest. Here’s a fun little chart that exposes the Survivorship Bias of your Cam Newtons and Luke Kuechlys (Trig is in Panthers country, yall).
Such bias also exists with products as well, summed up in the banality “They don't make'em like they used to.”
You’ll hear of someone's grandparents who’ve been using the same Maytag washer for 50 years, whilst you’ve gone through three in the past decade. A Cadillac that’s survived hail storms and countless Minnesota winters, vs a modern hybrid that might fall apart from leaning on it wrong. This argument is, on its face, perfectly accurate. Indeed, washing machine motors were simpler and overbuilt back in the day. Older cars featured insanely thick body panels and subframes that laughed at impacts. They most certainly do not make this stuff like they used to, and for good reason. Modern appliances have energy-efficient motors. Cars are built to crumple on impact, not transfer energy to the occupants. Aside from that, statistics straighten out the truth about longevity as well: only a small fraction of appliances and cars older than 30 years are still operational. Furthermore, an IHS automotive survey back in 2015 concluded that the average age of cars on US roads was rapidly increasing - directly attributable to the vastly improved reliability of modern vehicles vs older ones.
In an interesting related curiosity to Survivorship Bias is the Lindy Effect.
Originally a theory that comedians who limited their output to “special appearances” would have far longer careers than those who did weekly shows, it was re-defined in 1984 by Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot to suggest that the age of a comedian’s collected works was directly proportional to their future life expectancy. Basically, if comedian's material has been enjoyed for 3 generations of people, it could plausibly be expected to be enjoyed for another 3 generations. The Lindy Effect was expanded upon in 2012 by Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. Taleb surmises that The Lindy Effect can be applied to a number of entities with “no upper bound.” While a single book will wear, age, and eventually decay, the story within is non-perishable. Shakespeare's Macbeth was first performed in 1606, making it a bit over 400 years old . According to Taleb’s Lindy Effect, Macbeth will continue to be digested and enjoyed until the year 2428, that life expectancy continuing to increase with every passing year of the historic play’s prominence in literary culture.
Survivorship Bias suggests that, minus outliers, things themselves statistically do not survive like we think they do. The Lindy Effect, however, seems to suggest that ideas don’t follow the natural laws of decay over time.
If important enough, these ideas can survive the odds, perhaps even through periods of undulating popularity. Which takes us back to bike seats. Leather is dead, plastic is ubiquitous, and even carbon fiber has thrown its hat into the ring. Everyone is now pretty much sitting on thin slivers of plastic, foam, and pleather. That wooden plank doesn’t seem so bad now. Then the 90s saw a handful of whitepapers published that linked cycling to impotence, erectile issues, and other ailments - framing the saddle as the unsuspecting villain of health-oriented sport. In 1996 Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer. A decade later a major recession encouraged many to ditch their cars and bike to work. Shortly after, the rise of lifestyle blogs fueled a shift in cycling culture from going fast and getting fit to riding for transportation and adventure. More riders were riding farther than ever before, many uncomfortably. Choosing a saddle became a priority second only to choosing a bike. That small forgotten group of Brooks devotees? They now had a receptive audience.
Turns out Brook’s comparatively ancient saddles were still quite adept at the job they’d served for nearly a century before being left in the wake of “progress” - especially for long rides.
The secret lay in Brooks’ old-world material and old-world design. Leather changes over time, the rigid fibers loosening and reshaping with the heat, moisture, and pressure of riding, eventually imprinting the rider’s anatomy onto the saddle for a perfect anatomical fit. Modern saddle materials like gel inserts and mid-shell cutouts have attempted to emulate the phenomenon, but none perform quite like good ol’ leather. In addition, the hammock-like suspension of leather on the metal frame made the saddles’ sides flex into the rider’s body, distributing the pressure of sitting to a huge area. Modern seats, by comparison, don’t flex much - the small area your tender bones touch is what you’re left sitting on, period.
In the face of discomfort, cancer, and perhaps the most terrifying outcome of all - declining sexual health - many riders in the last decade have ditched their carbon fiber, titanium, and gel-infused wundersaddles for the bliss of an old fashioned Brooks. The company’s portfolio of other leather goods and it’s small market of leather saddle die-hards had kept the company afloat, but they now command a strong position in the saddle market. Today, Brooks saddles are one of the most recommended aftermarket cycling accessories for riders facing long distances, discomfort, or simply seeking a classy touch to their bike.
If properly cared for, leather goods can have a long life. There exist rare rare specimens of Brooks saddles from the early 1900s and perhaps even earlier - but as the inevitable truth of Survivorship Bias confirms, not many older than a few decades are still in use today. Brooks’ leather saddles can’t last forever. They have an “upper bound” as Taleb would say, just like a physical book or a person. But the design, the idea that took root in the 1880’s has no shelf life - according to the Lindy Effect, it’s total life is at least double it’s past life. Most Brooks’ saddles are still made from leather and steel in their Birmingham factory, same as they were a century ago. But surviving ideas can also morph from their original embodiments. They can leverage technology far advanced from that in which they were hatched. The recent adoption of the company’s leather saddles to unorthodox disciplines like road racing and mountain biking highlighted the one detriment of leather: water. Brooks turned to another forgotten material to assuage this, and in 2013 released the Cambium - a classic Brooks design featuring a natural gum rubber shell, still suspended from a metal frame like its predecessor. Like leather, the rubber flexed and moved with the rider, but was impervious to excessive moisture and had no break-in period. Brooks has even created a line of Cambium saddles with carbon fiber rails - bringing the old-world design to a product that rivals top-tier racing saddles for weight, aesthetics, and performance. Not bad for an idea drummed up in in the 1800s, eh? If Taleb’s Lindy Effect conjecture rings true for Brooks, we’ll see their saddles being ridden for another 135 years - and counting.
We have a passion for cycling products. You can find our own award-winning saddle design case study for ALTR ERGO here.
There is a fascinating dichotomy in the innovation field between what I’ll call the “generous mindset” and the “finance mindset.” Explore and exploit. Nurture and scale. Diverge and converge. One has to be careful to get the order of thinking right to create a meaningful change in the world.
I’ve been listening to Seth Godin’s podcast, Akimbo lately. (It’s exceptional.) Seth practices and teaches this principle that, to do anything creative, you have to adopt a generous mindset. His audience and perspective started in the book publishing industry, but has expanded into other fields and industries, generally attracting people who want to “make a ruckus.”
In his podcasts, Seth talks about how hard it is to publish a book, and then the difficulty of factors beyond your control, like what happens if the launch gets crickets. Rather than focus on over-promotion of the book, he suggests that you simply focus on writing the next book. Be generous with your creative craft because it is the quality of your work that will sell itself - or not.
Why has the Stanford BioDesign process been so successful and yet those programs that mimic it fail to reproduce the results? Because they started with a mindset of generosity and education that has produced outsized financial returns as a secondary effect. Other academic programs, seeing those financial returns, try to mimic the success but ignore the generous approach with marginal results.
Exploration Before Exploitation
The finance mindset, when starting up an innovation program, only produces incremental results. The tendency to expect ROI from early stage opportunity screening misses the point. Large corporations routinely struggle to compare unproven ideas to known products that regularly produce revenues. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely a time and place for the finance mindset. The Explorer mindset may not always have the tools to scale up efficiently. Exploiting a great idea only happens after initial traction has been found. Many venture capital investors prefer to only invest when sales of a product are demonstrated and showing signs of exponential growth given a simple infusion of capital and connections.
To avoid pitfalls of applying the finance mindset too early and too aggressively, change the objective to first understanding needs. The real pain of real people. Then, after truly listening and empathizing, give those people an over abundance of ideas of how to reduce pains and increase happiness.
One of the greatest angel investors and founder of Angel List, Naval Ravikant, in describing his ideal founder says he looks for intelligence, clarity of vision, perseverance, and integrity. Ethics and integrity are something you do despite the money. Investing in a company means you’re going to be spending scarce time with the founders over the next ten years.
Money management is crucial, but that isn’t the vision. Frugality is not why designers wake up excited to innovate, and cost cutting is not why consumers wake up excited to buy inventions.
Taking risks is scary, but generosity doesn’t mean wild abandon. Generosity delivers a good and honest investment of resources into creating something that will be meaningful to the audience it intends to target.
A CEO doesn’t have to sell the clothes off their back to make meaningful disruption in their industry. People are out there right now needing solutions. Find them, listen to them, and once you have the idea that they are excited about, the initial investment will be worth it. People are willing to pay to have their problems solved in brand new and better ways. Solutions are even more meaningful when crafted by an affected group’s very own input. Simply listening will put a startup miles ahead of any firm that thinks it knows what other people must certainly need without ever bothering to ask. Market disruption feels good and it sells. Make a scene. Get loud.
The money will happen if you work with communities to conjure up some design magic. The design magic isn’t as easy to conjure up with a refusal to budge on finances. Fearful penny pinching leads to cost reduction in exactly all the wrong places.