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Ask questions. Challenge the status quo. Push boundaries

It’s not what you sell, it’s the who you are and also having a powerful personality that matters. It's also not about what you design, it's about how you configure the culture behind what you design that counts. That’s according to both home-grown and international leaders of some of the worlds most successful and innovative firms, speaking at last week’s Better By Design CEO summit in Auckland. 

Whether you’re running one of the world’s most successful and fastest growing environmentally-friendly household care businesses (Method Products USA); an innovative and irreverent, yet world class airline  (Air NZ); a kickass gym and fitness class franchise (Les Mills International); or an award-winning global design firm helping the rest of us to successfully innovate and design (IDEO)—this year’s summit speakers offered some tasty food for thought for the 300 plus Kiwi chief execs and designers who attended the ‘Design Integration’ themed summit. 

“Getting the right people on the bus and getting the wrong people off the bus” was perhaps among one of the most emphasised take-home arguments for businesses wanting to up their game in the innovation and design space. According to Adam Lowry, co-founder of Method Products, and Vaughan Schwass,  Les Mills International marketing director, the people you hire provide both the greatest opportunity to your company and the greatest risk. “We’d rather have a hole than an asshole,” says Schwass, in reference to the negative impact company bullies and toxic employees can have on a company’s innovation. 

Organisational Culture—more specifically, creating a culture with a cause that breeds entrepreneurs and which isn’t afraid to experiment—was also universally touted as being a key vital ingredient in the recipe of success for innovative companies.  According to the majority of speakers including Schwass and Rob Fyfe, investing in your own unique culture and developing a personality around this is paramount.  It’s one thing to be an airline, but to be an airline that gives people the warm fuzzies at the sheer mention of its name, well, that doesn’t happen by mistake. At the end of the day “it’s the only thing you truly own,” says Schwass. Lowry warns against trying to change or force a culture onto an organisation. For this clean and green cleaning product guru, organisational culture has to be approached more organically and less evasively. “Companies should plant the seeds of the culture they envisage and help it grow in a new direction”. 

Break paradigms. Ask questions. Challenge the status quo. And, push the boundaries. These were further take-home messages emphasised throughout the summit. Chairman of Design firm AD&D, Dick Powell, emphasised the importance of firms asking demanding questions “Don’t ask why, ask why not?” And it’s not about what people and customers say, “its about what they don’t say”.  Opportunities lie in the gaps of the unexplored. Powell says companies are like big giant jellies—they usually wobble at the excitement of a potential idea that will change direction and innovation. But once the initial excitement is over, the jelly stops wobbling and returns to being the boring old incumbent fat blob it once was. “You have to carve up the jelly and embrace change”. In other words get out of your comfort zone. 

While carving up the jelly is important don’t try to be everything to everyone.  From the mouth of Rob Sutton, a business consultant and senior professor at Sanford University, “keep it Sesame Street simple”. According to Sutton, to be a good company you need to be able to kill ideas—even the good ones. When Method Products massively shrunk its sassy range of eco friendly cleaning products from 300 SKUs to just over a hundred, profits soared and allowed the company to focus on its core breeding and its ability to create more meaningful and competitive innovation. Same goes for Air NZ. According to Fyfe, uncluttered minds in a cluttered complex world help you to see the wood through the trees and see the world with a fresh new set of eyes. 

Another key message across the keynote speakers was the importance of getting tacit. Experimenting, prototyping and just walking the talk.  Knowing does not equal doing, and doing is what gets results,” saysSutton. Similarly, design guru Powell rates “anthropology before technology”. He says hands-on ethnography driven research and experimentation allows companies to actually experience the world and explore opportunities instead of hypothesising about what is important.

Lastly, perhaps one of the most fundamental and key messages of the summit, was the importance of having a purpose, a compelling story and a relevant, emotive and sassy brand. Running a successful innovation-driven company with a sustainable and profitable competitive advantage requires moving beyond simply offering product and services, to offering an experience and journey for your customers. Dr Peter Senge, an influential business thinker and senior lecturer at MIT, summed it well:  Profit for a company is like oxygen to a human, but if you think your soul purpose in life is breathing then you’re probably missing something…”

 Further reading

Global detective and ‘Fast Company’ co-founder Alan Webber on why design is what makes change possible