Design Thinking Course critique

This is an attempt to condense the learnings from the Design Thinking course at McCombs Business School during Fall 2018. It has indeed been a very refreshing experience, unlike any traditional MBA class and has provided a new perspective of a customer-oriented approach to solving business problems.

The course and especially the group project helped me appreciate the challenges that firms and organisations face in view of the changing preferences of the newer generations. The millennials and the GenZ have very different behaviour and different expectations from the products they use. Taking a customer-oriented view, it becomes evident that an understanding of the new generations and their needs is critical for businesses. It requires a rethink on their part or else they often face a threat to their relevance and existence. The same was true for the client, who was facing a threat to its core content business due to the changing content consumption habits and channel preferences of the young demographic. This change was leading to a clear disconnect between what they had to offer and what actually the new-age tech-savvy consumer wanted. And while this disconnect is very visible to both the people within and outside the organisation, it is very difficult for organisations to respond to these changes and reinvent themselves to keep themselves relevant. This reinvention often requires a very concerted effort and that in my view was very valuable learning for me for my future professional career.

The other key realisation during the group project was the fact that structured data collection and visualisation tools and exercises can help unravel insights which would otherwise be difficult to gather. In our case, we could infer the habitual nature of content consumption by looking at the content diaries filled in by the participants and use that insight to generate solutions. However, it was quite a task to administer the exercise as it required the users to deeply think about their routine and habits and often resulted in uninspired submissions. At the same time, more objective measures like the iPhone screen time analysis were easier to administer as it required no extra effort on the part of the users and were instrumental in revealing insights that would have otherwise been difficult to unravel. These insights were even more powerful as they were not in line with our hypothesis and were surprise findings. In other words, we felt that objective tools and exercises that require less effort on the part of the user are more effective than the more subjective tools. Thus, while we did not appreciate it at the beginning, innovation in design and structuring of these tools can be extremely critical in driving the final research outcomes.

For the project, the part that could have been avoided is the ability to choose the target persona. I felt that most of the team, ourselves included chose the safer options and hence were not forced out of our comfort zones. Staying in our comfort zones, we ended up using our biases to drive many of the aspects of our research, making it easier to accomplish. I fear that we do not always have the liberty of choosing a persona in the real world and the ability and confidence to apply the tools to any persona is something that I did not gain from the project experience. I felt that dictating a persona for the project and removing the choice of the persona from the scope of the project might make it more interesting and also more practical. From a class perspective, it can also have the effect of ensuring that different kinds of persona are covered by different groups and thus a more diverse perspective is gained by the class as a whole. In the current form, a lot of groups ended up taking the same persona and also ended up with very similar findings, which made the outcomes less exciting for the class. In other words, by setting the persona for the group projects to work with, a more realistic environment can be created both for the group and the class in general and better outcomes can be ensured in terms of learning about the tools and preparing for the real professional world.

Overall, the project was an interesting experience. The most pleasant surprise for me was the fact that while I came from a different country and culture, the changes in consumer preferences that I felt were happening in India resonated with the changes in consumer preferences in the US. Further, the views of my teammates often aligned with my views on the hypothesis of the needs and requirements of the target persona, which was a pleasant surprise for me. However, we often had very different perspectives on some issues and that disagreement was extremely helpful in avoiding groupthink and forcing us to analytically think through the key aspects and get more confidence in our findings. The fact that all three of us were open to disagreement and were willing to discuss, analyse and then come to the final conclusion was extremely helpful in keeping us on track. Finally, the most interesting aspect of the project was that all of us agreed that we felt lost at several times during the project and felt that we did not know in which direction we were going. However, we were pleasantly surprised at how various insights emerged and how we could aggregate them to build several prototypes for the client that we were proud of.

Design Thinking Course critique

Ethics in marketing

It is a huge moral dilemma that marketing folks face: to some extent, marketing is all about manipulating people to maximise profits for your organisation.

Take for example coca-cola – the company has been able to capture the minds of people and been able to manipulate people into consuming copious amounts of sugared soda that has been proven to cause harm to human health.

They have been able to do that using all the tricks from the marketing playbook- glitzy ad-campaigns, large packaging, bundling etc. to drive consumption and create wealth for their shareholders.

How does an ethical marketer accept this? One might argue that a marketer is only doing his/her job! But then again, the end-outcome of promoting a behaviour among people that is harmful for them in the long run is indeed an ethical conundrum that is difficult to resolve.

As technology and big data seep into the marketing world, the ethical conundrum becomes even more pronounced with the new tools giving even more power to the marketers to analyse and manipulate human behaviour.

It is very evident in the impact that platforms like Facebook can have on the people. These platforms have demonstrated the massive power that they hold for shaping public opinion. Events like the Russian intervention in the US elections using such platforms are testament to the massive perception change that they can create.

Ethics in marketing

Fountainhead: Contrasting Individualism and Collectivism through compelling storytelling

I recently read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand and was instantly drawn upon the powerful message that it conveyed and also the intricate interweaving of multiple narratives that all reinforced the contrast between individualism and collectivism. That contrast was undoubtedly the dominant theme in the book and I felt the author did a great job in leveraging the narratives to build a compelling story.

This blog is an attempt at trying to analyse it better by breaking the story down using a storytelling framework to uncover the different narratives and how they together reinforce the core message.

Let’s start by looking at the two philosophies:

Individualism

Individualism is the philosophy that puts the individual at the centre. It promotes independence and exercise of one’s goals and desires and advocates that the interests of the individuals should get precedence over the social group. It celebrates the power of free will and its ability to push the envelope of the human civilisation.

Collectivism

Collectivism is the philosophy that puts emphasises the cohesiveness of the group at the forefront and celebrates conformity. This desire for cohesiveness and conformity often comes at the cost of personal desires and hence in a way is in contrast to the principle of individualism.

Storytelling Framework

I felt that storytelling style that Ayn Rands employs is best understood through the petal structure. The four key characters, namely Howard Roark, Peter Keating, Gail Wynand and Ellsworth Toohey set the context for the individualism vs collectivism debate.

The life of the protagonist, Howard Roark is an epitome of individualism and goes a long way in laying down the challenges that an individualist faces and also glorifying it by giving it a happy ending. The life of Gail Wynand, on the other hand, demonstrates the need for a certain deal of idealism to the individualistic principles and shows how a corruption of his individualistic beliefs led to his downfall.

The narratives around the other two characters are demonstration of collectivism. The life of Peter Keating represents the flaws in collectivism, with his eternal desire to please the people around him leading to his downfall even after initially rising to prominence. The life of Ellsworth Toohey, on the other hand, is a demonstration of how shrewd leaders can exploit the flaws of collectivism to their advantage to gain power and rule over the minds of people.

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Howard Roark

Howard Roark is the protagonist of the story and a true representation of an individualistic person. He is portrayed as a rebel who does not believe in submitting to the social norms but rather prefers to chart his own course at his own will. While he possesses a natural flair for architecture, he is looked down upon by his peers and superiors because of his disrespect for the architectural taste at the time and the constant pursuit for exploring new architectural styles.

The story details the struggles that he faces due to his individualist nature and is considered a social outcast due to his headstrong attitude. He is expelled from his architectural school, finds it difficult to stay in any architectural firm for long and also struggles to find work as an independent architect. His distaste for contemporary architecture and obsession with modernism was clearly out of place with the society. However, he eventually succeeds as an architect and is able to create a space for the modernism that he championed.

The key takeaway from this character’s story is evidently the glorification of individualism and its power to lead change. It hints that the individual ambition is probably the biggest asset of humans and is critical in pushing the envelope of the human race.

Peter Keating

The character of Peter Keating represents the flaws of collectivism which incentivises people to continue conforming to the social norms. He is portrayed as a person who does everything that the society of the day expects him to do, gaining widespread recognition as a professional architect. Introduced as a classmate and a friend to Roark, his conformist character is in perfect contrast to his non-conformist and individualistic character. By interweaving the two narratives so closely, the author makes the contrast starker.

However, in the process of conforming to the expectations of the society, he misses following his own ambitions and desires. And while he finds success and recognition, it is shortlived and he finds himself in a downward spiral falling into oblivion.

Gail Wynand

Gail Wynand is portrayed as a character who possesses many characteristics of Howard Roark and also shares a deep friendship with him. Gail sees in Roark a like-minded peer and tries to support Roark in his continued struggle with the society. However, unlike Roark, he is not a perfect individualist as he builds his media empire by submitting to the media consumption needs of the people. This flaw ultimately leads to his downfall.

Ellsworth Toohey

Ellsworth Toohey is portrayed as a character who lives off the society’s desire for collectivism. He aims to get power over the society by using conformists like Peter Keating as pawns in his pursuit for greater influence. The conformists that he uses are regarded as champions in their respective fields and help him get power.

He is also portrayed as an adversary to people like Roark, doing all within his power to ensure that Roark continued to be either ignored or viewed in a negative light by the society. He perceives individualists as a threat to his pursuit of power over the society and hence actively blocks the rise of such individuals. He is initially successful in his aim, but eventually fails in his mission as Roark eventually becomes popular.

Influence

The story introduced two very powerful schools of thought and also provided a contrast through multiple narratives interwoven with each other. An individualist myself, I found the glorification of individualism aligned with my personal philosophy and found the storytelling very compelling.

Fountainhead: Contrasting Individualism and Collectivism through compelling storytelling

Creativity and innovation

There appears to be no dearth of ideas and literature around the concept of creativity and innovation. Many great minds, who have been hailed for their brilliance and creativity have shared their views on the theme. “Creativity is the residue of time wasted”, said Albert Einstein. Steve Jobs famously declared that “creativity is just connecting things.” However, what really resonated with me was the framework provided in the book “The Accidental Creative”.
Brilliant + Prolific + Healthy = producing great creative work
Brilliant
The first ingredient of creativity is individual brilliance. Most creations are the result of the brilliance and individual ambition of an individual. Take for instance Steve Wozniak. He created the Apple computer through his insights into the world of electronics and putting in sheer hard work to create something from nothing. He probably did most of the work alone, putting in late nighters.
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Apple Computer
However, the role of groups/teams cannot be ignored. I believe while it might be difficult for groups/teams to be creative as a whole, there is some value in having a sounding board where you can bounce off your ideas, get feedback and a general direction for moving ahead. In case of Apple computer, the role of Steve Jobs cannot be ignored. From my personal experience of designing digital creatives like logos in teams, while the initial idea is usually seeded by an individual, the team usually acts as a sounding board helping the idea evolve into the final output.
Further, individual brilliance of teammates in complementary skills can fill in the gaps and make the end result more effective. That is what makes innovation possible. For instance, in this case, it was probably the genius of Steve Jobs who saw the computer as a device which could be used  Yet, individual brilliance is necessary to make it work.
Prolific
The other key ingredient is being prolific. What really helps the creative process is to have a wide horizon and a vast knowledge base to draw upon. The knowledge base gives you the sense of what already has been achieved in the field and gives you a starting point. The diversity of experiences and fields that you immerse yourself in helps you ‘connect things’ from other fields, as Steve Jobs put it.
Take for example Google’s famous search engine. The creators, Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with the novel search algorithm by using the ranking method used in academic articles which essentially estimates the influence of an article through the number of citations and applied it to the web. In essence, their knowledge of computer science, coupled with their awareness about the internal workings of academic journal rankings helped them create the extremely successful web search engine.
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The core attribute that helps the creative people is curiosity. The idea is that because they don’t know exactly what the answer is or where the answer might come from, they are curious and are willing to look for the answer everywhere. As some people suggest, the answer to being more creative at the workplace could be as simple as having conversations with people with different departments and backgrounds.
Quantitative research also seems to agree with this thought. For instance, research was conducted by a sociologist on the business relationships of graduates of Stanford GSB, who went on to start their own companies. He found that the graduates with the most diverse friendships had a 3X score in a metric of innovation.
From my personal experience, the exposure to new experiences and cultures has been especially helpful in my creative endeavours. For instance, an exposure to the Scandinavian design philosophy through my student exchange helped me appreciate utilitarianism and minimalism that has been very impactful for me.
Healthy
This is purely required from a hygiene point-of-view, yet I have found it important. In my view, creativity flourishes when people feel mentally and physically healthy. Hygiene factors like sufficient free time to let your mind relax and rejuvenate make creativity possible. On the flip side, high workload and an extremely busy schedule is likely to kill creativity.
Borrowing from my personal experience of working as a graphics designer for a startup that required me to crank out quality creatives practically every day, I know for a fact that it is not sustainable.
Creativity and Innovation in companies
While the above framework could help explain creativity and innovation for individuals and small groups to some extent, additional factors need to be considered in the context of much larger groups or companies.
Low Price of failure
The key to making creativity flourish is to lower the price of failure and at the same time increase the upside of success. By doing so, the barrier to experimentation becomes low and there is an incentive for people to be creative. Companies like Google have been successful in doing so by encouraging employees to dedicate 20% of their time on testing their creative pursuits while working at Google, drastically reducing the price of failure.
Create a conducive environment for creativity
Again, more of a hygiene factor than a true motivator. The companies which are successful in creating a conducive environment that encourages people to be brilliant, helps them become more prolific and provide a balanced and healthy work life that gives them time for their mind to relax and rejuvenate are more likely to be innovative.
Improve execution for innovation
Innovation is partly about creativity and partly about making it work in the real world. Thus, sustainable innovation in an organization requires agility in execution to ensure that the creativity is translated into innovations.
As one of the articles in HBR puts it,
Capacity for Organisational innovation = Creativity * Execution
This agility can be encouraged by creating a culture of speed. Many times, creatives never “ship” out many of their great ideas because they are too busy obsessively perfecting and tweaking their ideas. This should be minimised.
Moreover, proper execution results in the ideas getting to the market, building aspiration and incentives for the employees to be more creative.
References
Accidental Creative. Retrieved October 15, 2018, from http://www.accidentalcreative.com/media/book/CH1-TAC.pdf
(2010, August 3). Innovation is Not Creativity – Harvard Business Review. Retrieved October 15, 2018, from https://hbr.org/2010/08/innovation-is-not-creativity.html
(2012, March 12). How To Be Creative – WSJ. Retrieved October 15, 2018, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970203370604577265632205015846
(2012, January 13). The Rise of the New Groupthink – The New York Times. Retrieved October 15, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/opinion/sunday/the-rise-of-the-new-groupthink.html
(2009, August 9). The New, Faster Face of Innovation – WSJ. Retrieved October 15, 2018, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970204830304574130820184260340
Creativity and innovation

Media Discourse across US: Visualizing qualitative data

As an international student, I was curious to find out the similarities/differences in the local conversations across the United States. Having been in Austin, I had observed the public discourse around the upcoming elections and the impassioned political campaign of Beto. When starting with the assignment, I was hoping to see similar trends across different cities. Moreover, recently there has been a huge debate around the Kavanaugh incident. I expected it to be a dominant trend throughout.

To test my hypothesis, I selected the top newspapers across the countries and inputted their homepage into a word cloud generator to visualise the dominant topics covered by the newspaper. A uniform filter of minimum word frequency of 4 was applied across the newspaper main pages as on Oct 2, 2018 and the resulting word clouds were put on the United States map based on the city of the newspaper HQ.

The results were quite interesting. One, the Kavanaugh and Trump dominated the headlines only in New York and LA and were relatively insignificant elsewhere. Moreover, while Beto appeared to be significant in Austin, political campaign did not appear significant elsewhere.

Other interesting insights that emerged were the similarity in conversations in newspapers from the same areas. The East Bay Times and Mercury News appear to have similar topics, and so do NYT and New York Post. Further, there appears to be a wide difference in the amount of text appearing in the main page of their websites, with Chicago Tribune being the most text-heavy and Austin’s Statesman the most text-light (as inferred from the size of word clouds)

Visualizing qualitative data

Courtesy: Word Clouds generated using https://tagcrowd.com/

Media Discourse across US: Visualizing qualitative data

Empathy Map

The objective of this assignment was to come up with an empathy map for iGen and millennials primarily based on personal experience and based on publicly available research/articles based on this theme. This would be the first step in creating an aggregated view within the team, based on similarities and differences among different perceptions.

igen_empathy_map

Empathy Map

Journey Mapping

This is an exploration of the planning of a family trip by one of my friends to an offbeat destination known for coffee plantations in India. The trip was planned as an annual family getaway as the family members were usually rather busy in their working lives. So when a long weekend synced on everyone’s calendar, it was decided that a family trip was long-pending and should be planned.

The friend is a young college-going male, a travel enthusiast himself. The trip was significant as most of his family members were used to travel to more conventional destinations and agreed to take this trip at his behest. As a result, the feelings were mixed at times due to the anxiety of being out of the comfort zone. However, the trip ended on a high note, primarily due to the comfortable stay at the resort that had been booked.

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Journey Map: Trip to an offbeat destination

Journey Mapping