Mentor Speak: Nathan Shedroff

Nathan Shedroff, Chair, CCA Design MBA Program

Nathan Shedroff, Chair of California College of the Arts DMBA program, is one of Mix & Stir Studio’s highly experienced mentors. We interrupted his crazy schedule with a few questions:

Nathan, you started the MBA program in Design Strategy (DMBA) with a vision that integrated design and systems thinking, design-driven innovation, a real connection with the customer and a commitment to sustainability.

You argued – quite accurately it turns out – that a company could no longer be successful without this integration, and you’ve made it a guiding principle of the DBMA’s curriculum and teaching. My guess is you are still seeing ahead of the curve. What do you see emerging as the next contribution of design to a successful business?

The integration we originally identified as key continues to evolve. I wouldn’t say there’s a quantum change coming – rather we are accelerating at a faster pace than I originally thought possible. Focusing on where I see the greatest impact, I’d point to three areas:

1) Our organizations now must grow and change continually just to keep up. As a consequence, we all need to learn and adapt continually. Designers learn best in the context of doing or connecting. To put it succinctly, for designers and anyone emulating their process, make is the new think. For example, design research doesn’t just study and think about users. It integrates designers and users in a process of prototyping, testing, communicating and iterating. We make the connection to users; we make prototypes and encourage their feedback; we make iterations and revisions and seek more information and connection.

2) It’s no longer enough to merely be profitable (though that’s certainly necessary). We’ve come to realize that most students, employees, communities, and other stakeholders aren’t fulfilled by money alone. In fact – not to go “Tea Party” on you – but when our Founding Fathers created the country, they specifically required businesses to serve a social mission. That’s why corporations are required to be chartered from the government. The rapidly growing interest in social entrepreneurship is really a return to the role of business our Founders envisioned. It’s also turns out to be a better way to live and work – and one that is uniquely American. Again, in short social good is successful.

3) Finally, integration underscores that leadership isn’t just authority. Great leaders clearly communicate a vision that others can understand and want to follow. They unite people of different mindsets and skills to work together for a common goal with shared attribution. The design world hasn’t completely acknowledged this – we still have self-important gurus running around dictating to others and taking the lion’s share of credit for a team’s success. But, I have to say, this is changing very quickly, particularly among young designers. To push it even further, we need to develop better collaboration tools. We also need to convert or replace the people in leadership positions who persist with an industrial age perspective that has already lost its relevance. When you start seeing designers regularly added to large corporate boards, you’ll know the transition is complete.

Mix & Stir has enjoyed working with the SF mayor’s office of innovation on several recent “unhackathons” hosted at CCA. They’ve spoken highly of their experience with the college’s design students. Why do you think government agencies are finding the design process beneficial?

The design process emphasizes uncovering customer needs (instead of solutions), reframing the challenge in the face of these needs, and prototyping or iterating until everyone is satisfied with the results. The design process isn’t afraid of modest failures in service of incredibly better results. If you have a tighter budget and less time – like most government agencies – this process can deliver real, relevant and valued innovation.

Government agencies – particularly cities – are aware that they must integrate technology into their processes and connections to citizens. Technology is a great enabler yet over 90% of startups fail. They fail not because of poor technology but because of poor a user experience. Design is a highly effective mediator between technological possibilities, business realities and what actually fits into people’s lives. Governments around the world are discovering that design can help introduce new technology-based services to a populace that might be suspicious, resistant or highly diverse. Design can help governments look like heroes instead of bozos.

Startups throughout Silicon Valley and SF are hiring designers to be co-founders – not simply to create the interface but to help direct the strategy. You’ve worked in this environment for a long time – why do you think designers have become the new “hot” hire?

Designers have a high tolerance for ambiguity – almost as much as poets and artists. Most engineers and business people don’t. In addition, designers are model-makers and “divergers,” whereas most others in an organization are model-followers and “convergers.” Designers aren’t a panacea but we represent skills, perspectives and processes that can get at important issues not uncovered in other ways. Design thinking isn’t a process to, necessarily, use when the way forward is obvious and clear. It excels, however, when all you have is a blank piece of paper, you don’t even know what the question is yet, or all of the data self-cancels and it seems like nothing will work. That’s a reasonably good definition of most startups.

Thanks, Nathan. Provocative, insightful and fun as always!

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