Inspiration

Episode 55 with Aaron Cooper

Hosted by Sean Flaherty & Paul Gebel

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About Aaron Cooper
Product Momentum Podcast guest Aaron Cooper
Aaron Cooper
Honeywell

Aaron Cooper is the Enterprise User Experience Leader for Navigation and Sensors at Honeywell. He leads end-to-end design, from researching customer needs through ideation and into implementation and iteration of products and services.

Aaron collaborates and leads, leveraging more than 20 years of growth as a designer in domains ranging from product design and architecture to marketing and interaction design. Every day, he works with cross-functional teams, driving ideation and prioritization to deliver new value for customers and businesses. Aaron is a certified Design Thinking and User Experience instructor, is certified in Scrum, and is a Six Sigma Green Belt. On the side, he does stained glass, which can be viewed at prairiehomeglass.com.

His motto is, “There is always a person I can help to be successful, more efficiently, and with greater joy.”

Great ideas can come from anywhere. It is the job of product leaders to seek out these ideas by taking educated risks, thinking (and working) outside the box. In this episode Aaron Cooper, the Enterprise User Experience Leader for Navigation and Sensors at Honeywell, shares key strategies for ideation, workshopping, and working across disciplines.

Aaron believes that “excellent facilitation helps you scale your ideation.” In fact, great ideas and great leadership go hand in hand. An idea can lay dormant for years waiting for just the right moment to be applied; the quietest team members often contribute the deepest insights. The key is creating a space for everyone’s contributions, then recognizing which can be applied to build better products.

Listen in to learn some strategies that improve your facilitation skills, and be sure to catch Aaron’s thoughts on:

  • Persona speed dating to keep customers’ needs front-of-mind across the organization
  • Gleaning deep insights by asking the right questions and asking them often
  • Challenging the status quo and choosing people who are “willing to be a little crazy”
  • The impact of AI on the future of product, especially for designers

Sean [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. This is a podcast intended to entertain, educate, celebrate, and give a little back to the product leadership community.

Paul [00:00:32] Hey, Sean, how’s it going today?

Sean [00:00:33] It’s going great, Paul. I’m super excited about this interview.

Paul [00:00:36] I am, too. I got a question for you. How long do you think it’s going to take until my job on the podcast gets automated?

Sean [00:00:44] We’ll get to talk about that and how designers can avoid getting automated. This guy has some incredible experience.

Paul [00:00:52] I really enjoyed getting a peek into Aaron’s brain. He’s obviously a storyteller at heart because we talked about Tolkien for a little bit. And I think the way that you apply this notion of ideation is really determined by how good of a storyteller you are, how well you get into somebody else’s shoes.

Sean [00:01:12] That’s right. He goes into depth talking about where you can find innovation, how to look for innovation, how to get it out of people.

Paul [00:01:17] Yeah, I hope our listeners have as good a time listening to it as we had recording it.

Sean [00:01:22] Without a doubt. And whatever you do, make sure it’s 20 percent scary.

Paul [00:01:26] Let’s get after it.

Sean [00:01:27] Let’s get after it.

Paul [00:01:31] Well hello and welcome to the show. We are honored to be joined today by Aaron Cooper. Aaron is the Enterprise User Experience Leader for navigation and sensors at Honeywell. He leads end-to-end design from researching customer needs through ideation and into implementation and iteration of products and services. Aaron collaborates and leads, leveraging more than 20 years of growth as a designer in domains ranging from product design and architecture to marketing and interaction design. Every day he works with cross-functional teams driving ideation and prioritization to deliver new value for customers and businesses. Aaron’s a certified design thinking and user experience instructor, is certified in Scrum, and is a Six Sigma Green Belt. His motto is, “There is always a person I can help to be successful more efficiently and with greater joy.” I love that. Aaron, welcome to the show.

Aaron [00:02:18] Thank you. Great to be here.

Paul [00:02:19] Excellent. So I want to jump in, you know, a topic that we were bouncing around chatting beforehand here was just about getting ideas into reality and this concept of rapid ideation. And I want to get right to the heart of this sort of sense of urgency that I heard from you loud and clear. When you hear product people talk about MVP, there’s sort of tried and true paths that people walk down. When you’re getting behind the wheel for the first time and you’re starting to think about these discovery areas of product, the things that we call product leadership, where do you go? Where do you start? What’s your toolbox: tactics, techniques, that you rely on to get ideas into reality as fast as possible?

Aaron [00:02:59] Sure, I mean, first there’s is getting to the idea, right. And how do you get to real customer needs, the jobs that they’re trying to get done? And that’s the first step. You know, how do you craft the “how might we,” if you will, to make sure that you’re actually solving the problem that customers have and it’s the right problem? So I think that’s the first step and that can be a challenge in an organization. There are a lot of technology-driven conversations that have happened, you know, “we’ve got this technology; how do we sell it to more people?” And [that’s a] totally valid discussion. But how do you get to, “here’s an explicit or even a gold mine latent solution or latent idea that we can bring that’s new to the market, that’s better than the next best alternative?” And to make that happen, first of all, it’s important to understand the problems that you’re solving and have really deep insights from customers having actually talked with customers in an open-ended way. But then it’s also really critical to make those ideas, what we’d say visible as quickly as you possibly can. So that’s where the user experience teams that I lead come into play is, “we’ve got an idea, but how do you make that visible, then get that in front of customers?” You know, kind of an established rapport with a customer may turn them into a reference customer for that product. So it’s goodwill as well as good insight gathering.

Sean [00:04:16] Yeah, a question on that. So if you’ve got an idea, you’ve got a group of customers you’re already somewhat connected to and have done things with in the past, who do you typically target first if you have an idea you want to test out?

Aaron [00:04:26] I mean, it’s tempting to go to those that drive the most revenue. Or you can look at it as, you know, “who are the 20 percent that drive 80 percent of the revenue?” So it’s way of looking at it. I think we also should look at it from the perspective of, you know, where are the white spaces, those domains that have new problem spaces that are ripest for disruption and where we have a right to play. So we’ll look at those things as well.

Sean [00:04:49] Yeah, I’ve always found it to be productive to try to find the customers who will be the most honest and upfront you know, the ones that in the past, like they’ve proven themselves to be good advocates of the work we’re trying to do like they care about the future of it.

Aaron [00:05:03] Yeah, it’s true. I mean, I think going to VCs, venture capitalists, is another route. You know, if you can find some hungry VCs who want to partner with a large organization, for instance, then you get inside their customers’ shoes. It can also be helpful to talk with people who work with your customers or who are suppliers to them because they’ll have insights that maybe the customer wouldn’t share, you know, on how they support that customer. So when you’re working in a B2B, B2B2C, B2B2B, you know, marketplace, there’s lots of different angles you can come at it.

Sean [00:05:35] Yeah. It’s tricky, though. I think of the sticky note example, right, like the sticky note lived at 3M for a while before they finally found a problem that it could solve. And now look at it like our space and how often we use sticky notes.

Aaron [00:05:45] Right.

Sean [00:05:47] You have a technology or solution, like, going to find the right problem for it to solve, it’s a completely different way to approach it than we historically as product people think.

Aaron [00:05:57] Yeah, it’s true. And I think that’s the reason why we can do some ideation. You know, good old design thinking where you have the how might we and then you feed the creative matrix with problems across the top and enablers down the left and you generate at the intersection of those because you might have a particular technology that you haven’t thought about bringing to a specific problem space previously. Or you can look at a mash-up and say, “well, here’s a somewhat similar industry or domain; here are the problems that exist in that domain and the solutions; what if we were to solve for those problems in that domain?” So there’s different ways to get people thinking differently.

Aaron [00:06:34] And really the trick, my background’s in psychology and counseling, so I think about things like Jean Piaget and schemas. Ideally in ideation, you really want to get people assimilating and accommodating, right? So you want them thinking about preconceptions that they may have, exposing those, and you want to try to move them somehow from, you know, just taking every input and siphoning that into an existing solution or an existing schema. And you want to try to break them out of that. And that’s the real challenge in ideation is there’s a lot of kind of ideas that people have had for years and they polish them in an ideation session and bring them up again and again, right?

Sean [00:07:12] Yeah.

Aaron [00:07:13] How do you get them understanding the customer problem, getting intimate enough with that, and then challenging their schemas?

Paul [00:07:19] Yeah. You know, Sean, I’m glad you took us there, because one of the things that I’m hearing you talk about, Aaron, is this concept of getting to the point where you’ve got a funnel that you’re trying to fill and you need to have enough ideas so that these ideas can have this creative friction and live in that matrix, finding intersections. But having one good idea is enough to set you apart. But it’s having enough ideas over time that creates this culture of innovation. And I’m wondering, can you talk a bit about, you know, you’ve been in some really interesting industries where innovation has been up or out, do or die, kind of, you need to keep innovating. How do you create this culture of having new ideas all the time?

Aaron [00:07:56] Yeah, well, and sometimes there are too many ideas and not enough funding too. That problem does come up, right. But in the event that you’d certainly want your idea pipeline full, one of the ways to do that is to crowdsource it a bit. So you’re in an organization, and a mentor of mine, Tim Larson, I used to work at some design in Minneapolis, said to me, he said, “you know, Aaron, a great idea can come from anywhere.” There were a few other great insights he gave, like, “whenever you take something on, make sure it’s 20 percent scary.” That’s another good mentoring kind of tidbit.

Aaron [00:08:25] But on the point of a good idea can come from anywhere, make sure that your organization is engaged with the customer constantly, right. Because it’s not just the user experience team, it’s not just the product team’s responsibility for generating those ideas. And what I have found is that to the extent that I can support sales leaders, offering managers, product managers by helping them do unbiased, open-ended voice of customer, that gathers real insights that they didn’t know about. That builds legitimacy for us user experience professionals and customer experience professionals and the fact that we have a unique skill set in that area. But it also helps get them excited about engaging with customers and gathering those insights, not always just doing the pitch. And they can be perfect allies. You know, a salesperson who gets together with me as my team is doing usability testing of a software application with a customer and is hearing things for the first time because they’re used to pitching, right.

Paul [00:09:22] I love that. Yeah. I think one of the keys that I know our teams are really engaged is when ideas are coming from, you know, the key ways. You know, at the end of the process, it’s not a UX designer, it’s not a product leader, it’s, “Hey, I had this thought when I was putting this demo together and I want to share it with you.” That’s when you know you’ve got this team that’s got the vision and they’re focused on the problem. And sort of this ground-up ideation can occur because everybody’s got that picture. I love that.

Aaron [00:09:49] Well, absolutely. And it’s, you know, coming in at any project, what is all the data that you already have that you can pull from, right? And some of this is a bit hackneyed, maybe, to folks listening. I mean, we all know this, like look to your contact center data, look to your text analytics, right. Talk with your front-line folks the most. I think that’s really important too. When I was at Prime Therapeutics, I worked with Ingrid Lindbergh and the whole team there in customer experience for pharmacy benefit management. And we did a customer experience room that we toured around the organization to some of our main office hubs, and we had people walk through the room. And this is in a Forrester article. You can look it up, Prime Therapeutics Customer Experience Room.

Aaron [00:10:23] And we had them walk in and in the front, it was all customer feedback. It was snippets from phone conversations, contact center conversations. It was listening to recordings through our personas, right. It was, you know, “so healthy because they ate enough kale to choke a goat” to someone who had rheumatoid arthritis and had constant needs of medication. They would listen to really step inside the shoes of customers and then they would understand their key issues. They would open up envelopes and understand what our contact center was hearing. And then they stepped through into the future experience that we were proposing of, you know, more digital solutions, easier to order and track status. And then at the end, they had to pledge to obsess about the customer. And it was just literally taking it to our people and saying, “everyone in the company is responsible for, not just our success, but the customer’s success,” right, every touchpoint. And by doing that, then too, that starts to create this groundswell of people coming forward, passionate about it, saying, “Hey, I’m supposed to obsess about the customer, you know, I heard this problem; are we doing something about that?”

Sean [00:11:23] Yeah. I want to pull on the thread, unravel this story a little more about a comment you made: “Talk to your front line folks the most.”.

Aaron [00:11:30] Mm hmm.

Sean [00:11:31] And I think we get enamored with our user research and going and taking ideas to a customer and talking to customers, which is a really powerful and important thing to do. But you hit on something there. The reality is your customer has one threaded experience with you, but your front-line folks, they see hundreds, if not thousands of customers every day. They know where the skeletons are hidden. They know where the real pain points are. They know where they might experience joy.

Aaron [00:11:57] Yeah. Yeah.

Sean [00:11:58] If you leave them out of the mix, you’re missing out on some of your most important data.

Aaron [00:12:03] And your salespeople know when they’ve been losing sales to a competitor and what they’ve been hearing for the last two years. And, “Hey, no one’s listening to me,” right. It’s good to get with sales as well, yep.

Sean [00:12:13] So talk a little bit more about taking on something and making sure it’s 20 percent scary.

Aaron [00:12:19] Yeah, I mean, Tim’s advice to me there was just, in your next job move, right, and I did move from there and to future roles that were more global and leading user experience teams globally. And his point was just, yeah, don’t take something on because it’s easy, take it on because it represents a challenge and an opportunity for growth. And I think the same is true in innovation. I mean, people will generate safe ideas. I interviewed Steve Portigal one time about user research and ideation and kind of this double hump that he brought up of, you know, you get past the first round of ideation and all the obvious ideas come out or those kinds of pet ideas, those things people have been carrying around that they really just want to give voice to. And then you get into the second round and it’s more difficult, but you typically will end up with higher quality ideas that are potentially more innovative, more disruptive, and they’re scary. Right.

Paul [00:13:10] Then echoes a lot of what happens in design sprints when you get into the crazy eights exercise. When you’ve got one box to fill every 30 seconds, often it’s that seventh or eighth box that you’re filling, that you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, that all of a sudden you get that breakthrough idea because the easy ones are all on the paper already.

Aaron [00:13:29] Yeah, well, I think that’s where suspension of disbelief, and that’s been interpreted multiple ways. You know, this idea that you get into ideation and people critique their idea before they even speak it, and how do you prevent people from doing that? You know, J.R.R. Tolkien talked about it in I think his book On Fairy Stories. And he said, you know, you have to create this alternate world that people believe and as long as you can keep them in there, then a child, for instance, reading a J.R.R. Tolkein, or an adult for that matter, sucked in and kind of willing to live in that space and willing to entertain new ideas. And I think you need to do that in innovation, too. It’s like, how do you create your middle earth where people feel safe to come up with new ideas that are a little scary, but they’re not quite real yet and so you can go there and kind of challenge the status quo.

Paul [00:14:14] I’m going to resist the temptation to go on a Middle Earth tangent here and go back to something you talked about a minute ago when you referenced personas in the case study where you walk in the front and then you see the output on the back. And then it struck me that Jared Spool talks about this frequently when he discusses personas. But the most important part of a persona, in fact, really the only required part of a persona is the scenario, the story that it tells. And often when we’re demoing, when we’re prototyping, we show the ideal state, we show the end product, and we don’t show that journey of the pain point and the friction. We kind of resist that. And I wonder if that’s something that as an industry we should take a second look at and demo the hard part as well, demo the pain, and then sort of having that resolve, instead of just going right to, “here’s our slick new interface; isn’t it pretty?”

Aaron [00:15:02] Yeah, absolutely. I actually wrote an article in UX magazine on persona speed dating, because what I was finding at Prime Therapeutics and then subsequently at Honeywell is that the other thing you run into is not only might people avoid the pain, but they’ll often talk about just one group, right. The group that has that hundred percent all the time, digital access, and kind of lives in this ideal world. And when I led employee experience on Honeywell for five years, when I first came in, people were talking a lot about technologies. “What’s this new technology that we can implement?” And I came in and kind of turned that upside down and said, “what are the needs we’re trying to solve? What are the things where they’re wasting time and having a big challenge?”.

Aaron [00:15:41] And so I went on a world tour and did research and actually created personas. That was the first thing that I did. And you’re right, that scenario is the most important thing because I got with front-line producers and process improvers, that was one of our personas, you know, in the plants, on the front line. And they really valued generating ideas and they had a hard time with managers not always spending enough time with them and getting onto the floor with them. So we revealed the day in the life, kind of the continuums of what they cared about most. And then we exposed leaders and project teams to that. And before you knew it, we had people talking about our frontline producer and process improver persona in conversations, naturally saying, “well, what about this persona? We haven’t talked about her yet.” Really important.

Aaron [00:16:22] And Prime Therapeutics, same thing. You know, we created those personas to really try to capture their unique needs and in a whiteboarding session and then a design thinking session, it was a pinnacle moment when a project manager walked up to one of the sketches and we were doing some dot voting to decide whether these new interface concepts made sense. And without mentioning personas during this workshop, he walked up to the board and said, “well, I don’t think this works for Adele.” I just lit up: “tell us more about that.” “So it won’t work for her because, you know, she’s in so much pain she can’t even get into her car. We need to figure out a different way to manage this.” And clearly, from those months of speed dating, you know, play-acting in front of people, having people kind of introduce themselves to the personas, it had sunk in. And so it’s when you hear the team then taking on the voice of the persona that they become powerful.

Sean [00:17:11] Yeah, in my opinion, the primary reason to have personas is just to amplify the empathy of the entire team.

Aaron [00:17:17] Right.

Sean [00:17:18] To create some framework for, “this is the person we’re solving problems for,” and to really sort of consolidate our energy around this person and the pain points that they’re having. So I agree with you. When you hear them start to talk about things in the frame of the persona sets that the product is there to serve, you’ve got some success.

Aaron [00:17:34] Right. Different lenses, right?

Sean [00:17:36] For sure. And just to pull on a thread from earlier. We talk about MVP a lot, and I think we have this fascination with just getting something out the door quickly. And I’ve always said I think that’s a mistake to ever talk about an MVP without first talking about the minimum viable audience that it’s there and making sure that we understand the who really well and the problems they’re having before we talk about the product that we’re going to build to solve it.

Aaron [00:18:01] Right. Or the technology, right. Again, that comes up all the time. The technology takes the center stage instead of the customer. We use a lot of methods to try to get at that, too, right. I think a lot of teams now, more so, are using Business Model Canvas and things like this so that you can actually see it all in one place. “Who are our reference customers? Who are the customer segments?” “OK, what are the channels? What’s the customer’s decision journey? What’s the cost structure?” It’s all kind of matched up in one canvas so that you are considering all those things at once. The other thing that we’ve found really helpful, and I’ve used this at multiple employers, is the PRFAQ. I don’t know if you’ve heard of PRFAQ. So it’s something that Amazon became famous for using and some organizations have taken that on. So future press release and frequently asked questions.

Sean [00:18:45] Yeah.

Aaron [00:18:46] And it just allows you to step into that future and say, “OK, we haven’t even built this yet; we may not know all the details just yet, but if we were to build this, you know, how would we describe this to people and what are the questions that they would be asking?” And so you’re kind of reverse-engineering the future.

Paul [00:19:01] Yeah, I’ve also seen that framed as a future thank you note.

Aaron [00:19:04] Right.

Paul [00:19:05] Write a thank you note for what you’re going to deliver. I want to get a little bit more tactical here. We’ve been kind of dancing around the edges and talking about ideas writ large. One of the most effective ways to get ideas organized and road mapped out is through this thing that we kind of colloquially call workshopping. And I know it means different things in different contexts, but workshop is something that I think most product people have a generally common picture of when we use the phrase for where the most ideas happen in the shortest amount of time. One tactic, for example, that I use when I’m leading workshops is to seed the conversation ahead of time. You share some market data, you publish a brief survey, but you prime the ideas before you get there to have all the tools at hand. Can you share some other techniques that you’ve found helpful in your world tour of research? I’m sure workshops happen from time to time in there. What are some things that you found useful that product leaders can take away?

Aaron [00:19:58] Yeah, one of the things that I do is actually facilitate ideation workshops. So, yeah, you want some rigor around it, just enough rigor, like you said, so you don’t bias everyone, but so that they have enough kind of mood board to play off of. I started my career as a web designer and then worked through advertising and marketing. We would often do mood boards and it was really just an attempt to say, “what’s the zeitgeist; what does the world look like?” And oftentimes, you know, you’ve got to remember the people you’re pulling into workshops, they’ve got 10 other projects they’re working on. Hopefully these days they’re not, but they might be trying to multitask while they’re in a remote workshop with a remote whiteboard, right. So how do you get them excited about it?

Aaron [00:20:34] One of the things that I have done is kind of a PechaKucha. PechaKucha is kind of a brief presentation format, where, if you use slides, you could say you only take maybe 10, 20 seconds per slide. So it’s this ‘washing over’ experience. You come into the workshop and you start out with maybe a five minute PechaKucha and you just show through video, through models, through demonstration of existing solutions, through demonstration of competitors’ solutions, so that people, it washes over them and they get a sense of, “OK, that’s the world that we’re living in right now, here are some seemingly crazy ideas that are coming in the future.” So that’s one kind of stimulus and it gets people outside of their own heads so they can be in the moment and get excited about what’s coming.

Aaron [00:21:19] As you say, pre-work is absolutely critical. So how do you engage leaders who might be very vocal in the workshop or who might kind of stand back and let folks just ideate, how do you get them engaged and make sure that you’re kind of inventorying them to say, you know, “what are the known customer problems?” And so I’ll often do that. One of the frameworks I use is Peter Drucker’s Sources of Innovation. I read his book years ago and he talks about the seven opportunities for innovation, right. So changes in market structure, perceptions, new technologies, the unexpected… And so one of the techniques I’ll use is before a workshop, I have all of the participants sign into a whiteboard and I just have them add insights that they have seen from talking with customers, from selling, whatever that case may be. It might be an engineer, a field service engineer who’s out in the field. What are they seeing in those different buckets? And year they might have said, you know, “well COVID has just transformed the aerospace industries, you know, airlines are shelving planes,” et cetera, but just trying to gather all of those changes together. So that’s another technique. But yeah, how do you build that corpus of, “here’s what the world looks like, here’s what’s changing, these may be sources of innovation,” to challenge what we thought might be our future markets or future needs.

Sean [00:22:33] One of the things I found super powerful going back to, you referenced JTBD, jobs to be done, Clayton Christiansen’s framework. I find it useful to list out all of the jobs to be done that we think that we’re solving for and then to talk thoroughly about how people are solving them without you.

Aaron [00:22:49] Right.

Sean [00:22:50] Just again, to put ourselves in the mindset of customer empathy. Like they have this pain, but they’re solving these problems today. So understanding how they’re currently solving them, I’ve found, helps open up the mind. And then you can ask yourself sort of questions around higher-level needs, like use Maslow’s framework as an example, like how could you solve this problem and produce more belonging? Or and produce more esteem for this consumer?

Aaron [00:23:12] Those emotional outcomes.

Sean [00:23:14] Yeah, get a little more creative.

Aaron [00:23:16] Yeah, I interviewed Tony Ulwick one time for a podcast as well, and he talked about the theory of Jobs To Be Done. And I think it’s important to abstract at the right level too, right. There’s that classic example of, “well, the job to be done is I want to heat water.” “Well, no, it’s not, the job to be done is I want to get to a nice hot beverage,” right. You can do that multiple ways and then Keurig came in and turned an industry upside down. So, yeah, kind of reframing. You know, sometimes we’ll do abstraction laddering to reframe as well. So we’ll take the original “how might we” and try to understand, “OK, well why are we talking about that? Why does that matter to customers?” Then you climb down the ladder of abstraction and say, “how would we solve that?” But you do it very rapidly and then you go back to the original “how might we” and you reframe it, make sure you’re solving the right problem.

Aaron [00:24:00] And Jobs To Be Done are fantastic. I mean, it’s another thing that you can combine with journey mapping, for instance, to look across the journey. You can extract, you know, experience outcomes or Jobs To Be Done from those as well and that can get you to some really good “how might we’s” for an ideation workshop.

Paul [00:24:15] Yeah. You know, kind of zooming back out again for a minute, when you’re talking about ideas, we at the product team level may only have a slice of the problem that we’re solving, especially in enterprise, right. You’re one app within an ecosystem. You’re one UI within a whole web of interfaces. I think that the way that we scale our ideation is just as important as the tools that we’re using to pull the ideas out of our users, out of our customers, out of the teams that are building them. You’ve worked at very large organizations developing very big ideas. Can you share a little bit about what goes into just assuming that mindset, you know, at a startup where there’s one product owner, a couple of devs, and a CEO and everybody’s chief cook and bottle washer, there’s a big difference between ideation at that level and enterprise and a lot in between? What changes when you go from the very small up to the very large?

Aaron [00:25:10] Yeah, well, if I think about my days working in smaller design agencies, you know, it was very much each person wore a lot of hats. And so I might be talking with a customer one day, going on a business development sales meeting the next day, designing an interface the next day. In a larger organization, you end up with a lot of kind of bifurcation of roles and you’ve got a salesperson for a particular business and then another salesperson for another specific part of that same business. And so what I found is in scaling ideation, there is a tendency to want to bring, you know, 40 people together because everyone wants a voice. But what I found is, again, if you can focus on the people who are really front of line with customers, as well as those people who’ve got relationships with VCs, for instance, who know other companies who are out in the world doing something creative in an area… That’s what I’ve seen is that it can be hard to scale because you’ve got like you say, a lot more cooks in the kitchen. But what I’ve also seen is that the methods don’t change that much, to be honest. I mean, we’ve got some really good core design thinking methods around statement starters and around, you know, how you generate ideas rapidly using structured brainstorming.

Aaron [00:26:19] And then when you talk about scaling plus the need to do it remotely, that gets really interesting. Right. We’re moving into that more, especially due to COVID and a lot more remote work. The same principles apply, you know, good facilitation, making sure you’ve got someone like myself or a UX designer or a business leader who is willing to challenge so that when people are coming up with ideas, even during ideation, where we don’t want to critique and take something off the board per se, but when people are generating a lot of ideas and you’ve got maybe a leader in the room who has a dominant voice, how do you even call them out a little bit and say, “OK, well, that’s not quite an idea, that’s an outcome.” You know, like, we’ll be in an ideation session and someone will say, “increase speed.” “OK, how? How are you going to increase speed? Let’s get specific. Let’s get tactical.” “Oh, OK, all right. We’ll do that.” Right, and you pull that sticky off the board, leave a placeholder and say, “I want you to develop that idea.” So excellent facilitation helps you scale your ideation.

Aaron [00:27:17] Other than that, I haven’t seen too many challenges scaling, just making sure you got the right people in the room. It’s not just everyone who wants to have a voice but it’s the people who will actually challenge the status quo and making sure you do the right pre-work and that you’ve got excellent facilitation.

Sean [00:27:30] Equally important to making sure that you balance out the HiPPO, so to speak, or the loudest souls in the room, you also have to make sure that you extract as much as you can from the ones that are more timid or quiet, you know?

Aaron [00:27:43] Right. Yeah, it’s one of the great things about some of the more modern tools. We’ve used InVision for quite a bit of time and you can hover over a sticky note and see who wrote it and then call them out and say, “Hey, I see this one here, can you expand on that?” And give them a voice. Yeah, absolutely. There’s some brilliant, very quiet engineers out there.

Sean [00:28:01] Yeah, I’ve found in facilitation there’s a great way to use sticky notes in quiet time when you have that sort of an experience, just kind of quiet the room and take the same exercise you would have done on the whiteboard and just do it quietly on sticky notes and then reconverge the ideas so that you make sure you maximize all of the minds in the room, so to speak.

Aaron [00:28:21] Yeah. And I think timeboxing is really important too. And being pretty particular about that, I’ll set a timer for an exercise and time box a structured brainstorming to ten minutes and then maybe do that multiple times rather than one 60-minute session where people start to debate ideas and pull them off the board. You really want to just generate as many as you can.

Paul [00:28:43] Totally agree. I’ve facilitated a half dozen or so formulaic design sprints right out of the book, Google Ventures style. And one of the most amazing things to me, it still amazes me, is that the quietest, most engineering-focused person in the room always has some breakthrough idea during the course of the day. It could be the most front-end, UX-centric problem that we’re trying to solve, but it’s the QA, it’s the sales guy, it’s the engineer that has the idea. And you can always tell when it happens. There’s that moment in the room where it’s like, “why didn’t I think of that?” I think that that kind of structured chaos is definitely important. I’ve seen it happen. It’s magic.

Aaron [00:29:21] Yeah. I’ve also seen the need for a catalyst, someone who’s willing to be just like the seal, someone willing to be a little crazy because you get them using words even that people aren’t familiar with and someone else will see that, and then you can call it out and spark it and say, “OK, this person has this idea, it may seem crazy, but what do you think about that?” And get people talking about it. So you need someone who can come in and be a catalyst. And so I usually try to find a designer or someone who’s really not that familiar in the domain, who is not stuck in any kind of schema or kind of the way we’ve always done things who can really challenge that. And that’s where I’ve seen brilliant ideas come out is when you’ve got those catalysts in the room.

Paul [00:30:04] Yeah. The last topic that I wanted to pick your brain on is automation and so much of our industry is being exposed to the mindset shift that AI and machine learning have really wrought upon us. And I think one of the assumptions is that every job is eventually going to be robotic at some point down the line, far enough in the future, anything can be automated. There are pros and cons to that. I think what we’ve been chatting about is just how the nature of conversation itself and that interaction is really where the discovery needs to happen the organic way. What are some ways that automation can help? What are some ways that we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace it and sort of offload some of the process ahead of time?

Aaron [00:30:45] I was talking with a team about this the other day and I talked with friends in the design industry, if you will, too. Because I’ll ask them, I’ll say, “Hey, n percent of jobs, of roles, are going to be automated over the next 20 years.” And they’ll say, “isn’t it great that we’re designers because you can’t really automate that” and I’ll say, “well…” You know, first of all, if there’s this notion, I think which is probably true, of less interface generally. So a lot of software designers are proud of designing really elegant, beautiful software interfaces. But as you have less software through voice interaction and gestural interaction and thought, you know, as the years move on, that becomes a little bit less important. I mean, each interaction maybe becomes more important. But the overall kind of value of a designer as someone who places buttons and, you know, follows the right brand palette becomes less important and also easy to create a framework around. Which I know we’ve done, a lot of businesses have done. You’ve heard about IBM and many others who have really put a lot of effort behind creating their design language systems.

Aaron [00:31:44] And then underneath that, you’ve got the code that you can use to develop the interface. Great thing, because instead of designers mainly being pixel pushers, right, what we’ve seen is the value, what we’re being asked to do more, and where we’ve elicited the greatest kudos from the rest of the businesses is, you know, we need someone who can be that voice to the customer and truly do unbiased research with customers and who’s willing to ask questions and not go into a conversation presuming anything. That’s a huge value, and then taking those insights and making ideas visible. So storytelling is a huge, huge value of designers. And it’s just like, I don’t think writers are going to go away any time soon, right. A designer can tell that story in a way where there’s just innate skills that they have to be able to do that.

Aaron [00:32:32] And we do that all the time in our businesses. We take an idea, we’re able to visualize the future so that a salesperson can get that in front of a customer. And I think the other thing is connecting, because if I think as a designer, as an offering manager, product manager, sometimes you’re working across domains, across businesses, across, you know, white spaces. And so you have the opportunity to connect dots: “hey, so-and-so is doing this over here, I understand you’re doing this over here; could we mash those up and create something new?” Which, it’s hard, you know, through conversation and just having visibility to all the human communications for a machine to do that, per se. So I think those are some of the top value areas that you can’t automate. But if automation saves designers time from pixel-pushing and recreating web forms that have been designed a hundred other times, that’s a great thing. So we can focus on the storytelling and actual ideation.

Sean [00:33:22] Yeah, that’s a win for sure. All right. Insights for the community, like what’s a book that you’re reading or a podcast that you follow that you think our community should be aware of or should be looking at?

Aaron [00:33:33] Yeah, well, I mean, right now I’m reading Frank Lloyd Wright. My daughter gave me a Frank Lloyd Wright book, a tome, really, I mean, it’s like three inches thick, for my birthday. You know, just this idea of the democracy of design and how Frank Lloyd Wright kind of structured his studio. And I would say some of that looking to the past and how the great thinkers and designers of the past actually structure their work and their teams is a good way to go because we’re inundated with self-help business books, right, and I think there are a lot of known concepts out there already around design thinking, around innovation and the signs you should be looking for to drive innovation. But I think there’s also some just really good solid design practices that we can learn from the masters.

Sean [00:34:19] That’s awesome. That’s a unique answer. Appreciate that. Just a little shout out, in Buffalo, New York, there’s a museum of the Pierce-Arrow Museum.

Aaron [00:34:27] OK.

Sean [00:34:27] Down the road from us. In it, they built a gas station that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. So they took his designs and actually built it inside the museum and it’s the coolest gas station on the planet.

Aaron [00:34:37] Oh beautiful.

Sean [00:34:38] If you ever get to Buffalo, come check that out. I’m a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, insights, and his work. He was definitely unique.

Aaron [00:34:44] And a large emphasis of that movement was making kind of architecture accessible to the common man, right. I actually do stained glass on the side as well. I do prairie-style glass. Prairiehomeglass.com, check it out.

Paul [00:34:58] That was going to be my next question, what would you like to plug before we let you go? So I do have one last parting question we ask all of our guests. We’ve used the word a lot today already, but just to get you on record with a definition that we can quote you on, what do you define the word innovation as? What is innovation to you?

Aaron [00:35:15] To me innovation is turning unmet or underserved need into new value.

Paul [00:35:20] Love it.

Sean [00:35:21] I think we should end on a J.R.R. Tolkein quote. “Still around the corner, there may wait, a new road or a secret gate.”.

Aaron [00:35:28] Beautiful.

Sean [00:35:28] That’s what we’re here to do, right?

Aaron [00:35:29] That’s right.

Sean [00:35:30] Well, thanks for joining us. This was awesome, Aaron. I appreciated the J.R.R. Tolkein references more than anything.

Aaron [00:35:37] All right. Thanks, Sean. Thanks, Paul.

Paul [00:35:39] All right, cheers.

Aaron [00:35:40] Yeah, bye-bye.

Paul [00:35:40] Bye.

Paul [00:35:44] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get, so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

 

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