Friday, June 25, 2010

DMI's Re-Thinking...The Future of Design Conference in San Francisco - June 16-17, 2010

Recently, I attended DMI’s Re-Thinking… The Future of Design conference in San Francisco. This was my second DMI conference, and I love the network and conferences. The event was a call to action for industry leaders and academics to foster design thinking.

There is a great deal of curiosity within the business community about merging business with design. However, only a few corporations have been able to instil and foster the design DNA into their culture. And, those who have been able to do so (P&G, for instance) have discovered that design is indeed the next competitive advantage.

The conference was an opportunity to create awareness about successful businesses that have remained profitable by approaching problem-solving through a design thinking lens. The conference had an impressive lineup of speakers, but the two that stood out for me were Katie Taylor and David Butler. Both leaders are creating value for their customers and business by applying design methodologies but without explicitly talking about design.

David Butler, Vice President of Global Design at The Coca-Cola Company, is responsible for instilling design into Coke’s DNA. I was stuck by the fact that he is an extremely humble person. Someone asked him, “Can you teach me how to deal with politics at work?" David’s answer was inspiring—he emphasized that once you stop taking credit for your work, you would be able to tackle the office politics. Using his own example, David pointed out that since he was featured in Fast Company recently, he could potentially shoot down everyone’s idea at Coke and pretend that he is the only think tank at Coke. However, the move would not make strategic business sense. He further argued that as long as everyone at Coke moves towards the common goal, i.e. increase product sales, it does not really matter who takes the credit for his work.

Wow! How many of us are tolerant of someone else taking the credit for our work?

David’s comment was thought-provoking. What drives political behavior at any organization? Current incentive systems could be driving such behavior since they are built to reward individual’s performance. A bigger question to re-think and re-design, in my opinion, is how we might change the current incentive system (and, therefore politics) within corporations.

Katie Taylor, President and Chief Operating Officer of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the company’s global operations. Her talk was clear, compelling, and memorable. Katie gave several examples which clearly showed that design is at the core of Four Seasons and every decision at Four Seasons is approached with a human-centered approach.

Katie described something that most corporations most likely do not pay much attention to, that can be motivational for the employees. Four Seasons interviews 100-200 candidates for one position. After five rounds, the candidate meets with senior management. At this point, the decision has already been made to hire the candidate, but the candidate is probably unaware of this fact. The point of the meeting is to explain to the new hire that he or she is an important asset to the company, and that his or her job is really important for Four Seasons’ success. While the senior management does not need to meet with the new hire, Four Seasons has deliberately adopted this policy.

The policy speaks volumes about Four Seasons’ culture. In fact, there is a bigger lesson to be learned here about organizational behavior. This clearly shows that empowering the employees can lead to grass roots innovation in any industry.

This conference presented compelling examples that design can be used to initiate a movement within corporations to think more holistically, and still be able to generate profits. Bruce Nussbaum made a comment directed at CEOs which sums up the conference quite well: “Stop making excuses about not being able to merge business with design, just go do it!”

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