Wednesday, February 24, 2010

?WhatIf! Innovation's Lisa Buckley Interview -- "Being a Creative MBA"

I first met Lisa Buckley in 2005, when she wrote a great “Day in the Life” piece for me about her post-MBA advertising work for Saatchi and Saatchi X , the shopper marketing arm of the large New York-based advertising company.

Not too long ago, I noticed (in the virtual world of my LinkedIn contact list) that Lisa had left the glamorous world of Saatchi for a company called ?WhatIf! Innovation . When I started poking around, ?WhatIf! struck me as something akin to design consultancies like Design Continuum and Frog Design but more focused on helping companies discover their own latent creativity and innovation to drive growth. A slightly deeper probe revealed a long and diverse client list

My interest officially piqued, I decided to reconnect with Lisa to ask her how she went from the MBA program at Texas A&M in College Station, TX to an innovation consultancy in the East Village of New York City.

When I arrived at the ?WhatIf! offices at 2nd Avenue and St. Marks Place, Lisa showed me around the beautiful old building, which is home to (count ‘em!) 0 offices and 0 cubicles.

                                  (The cubeless world of ?WhatIf!)

Pointing out the configuration of the couches in the large, open first floor foyer, Lisa proudly declared that on no two days have they ever taken the same shape (just of one of the ways the company physically embodies their values). The couches represent the value of “Freshness.” The other ?WhatIf! values: Passion, Action, Love, and Bravery.

Lisa then showed me where the inventing (and eating) happens, before introducing me to “Super Cow,” ?WhatIf! New York’s unofficial mascot.

                                  (Lisa with her friend, Supercow)

After the tour, Lisa and I sat down for a little chat about life as a creative MBA.

ThinkingDesign:  Good old-fashioned herd mentality and groupthink are pretty common at most MBA programs. How did you assert your creativity during and after business school?

Lisa Buckley:  I’m kind of the poster child for a non-traditional MBA at A&M, one because I’m a woman, but also because my undergraduate degrees were in psychology and musical theatre. Everyone else was, you know, business, law, marketing, finance, and so on and so forth. So right away, they [Texas A&M admissions] were like “Yes, we’re going to take you because you’re going to give us some diversity.”

I think I really had to work hard to seek out people who were living life more creatively than your average person. At A&M, I found two professors who were sort of doing that on the fringe a bit, so I formed relationships with them. They were also really encouraging about my odd choice to go into advertising. Because everyone else was like, A) You’re not going to make any money. What are you doing? And B) You’re not really going to use your skills, so what a waste.

But I had to be doing something creative. I figured advertising was as close as I could get to that with a psychology degree, an MBA, and the [musical] theatre thing. And I thought it would be this creative Mecca and amazing and all about bouncing ideas off of people.

ThinkingDesign:  Tell us a bit about why you chose Saatchi?

Lisa Buckley:  When Saatchi hired me, I thought, “Oh my god, I’ve made it!” because I wrote my MBA application about Kevin Roberts. He’s the Global CEO and he wrote Lovemarks .  I was obsessed with this framework and thought that this is the place I have to be.

As it turns out, it was a bit stifling for me. It was much more staid than say a Crispin Porter Bogusky, which is a lot of razzmatazz but also some method to the madness.

I still did well there, because I’m just a hard worker – that’s how my parents raised me. But I wasn’t happy. I was there almost four years. Then, I found a recruiter that only hires for creative companies. I didn’t even know that existed, but here in New York, it does.

ThinkingDesign:  When they brought you in here to ?WhatIf!, was it with the expectation that you were going to be an Excel jockey?

Lisa Buckley:  Here? Noooo! I am one of three MBAs here (out of 40 in the New York office). And there are maybe 10 in other parts of the world (out of about 250 worldwide employees). And in fact, ?WhatIf! used to advertise that they didn’t hire MBAs, because they were the ones that were going to bring in the fresh thinking, different from the MBA analytical thinking common at many companies.

But now, I’m recruiting from Stern at NYU, because if I can do it…

We used to be very anti-MBA, but as we grow up as a company, we’re figuring out that there is a place for that.

ThinkingDesign:  Cool. So what are you looking for in an MBA hire? It’s obviously not about having the best finance skills, right?

Lisa Buckley:  No, we’re just looking for MBAs that are like me basically. Okay, they have all that [business] background and can do it, but they don’t want to.

The anatomy of people I’m hiring now are things like the right blend of playfulness and gravitas, naturally good at having ideas, inspiring, engaging, and superstar communicators.

ThinkingDesign:  Who are some of your clients? And what do they come to ?WhatIf! looking for?

Lisa Buckley:  We train some of the most regulated industries out there. Our number one client base comes from pharmaceuticals. We work with some of the biggest pharma companies in the world [here she rattled off a list of 10 or 12 of the biggest names in the industry].

We train cross-functionally – R&D, marketing, manufacturing, operations, and others. And that’s one of our philosophies – if you just sit in marketing, or you just sit in R&D and you get the training, then there are innovation “haves and have-nots.” And sure, you can have ideas, but if the people that need to get it out to the market aren’t part of it, they have no ownership.  They haven’t been on the journey so they don’t have the same understanding of the ideas.

So, we’ll go in and we train them in our behaviors and the way our inventors behave, so they can set up their own little shops.

ThinkingDesign:  A bit more of a personal question for you. Do you do the work more for the way it makes you feel, or to make a lasting impact in organizations you serve?

Lisa Buckley:  When I first came in, it was definitely for selfish reasons. I was like, “I will thrive in this environment. I’ll be challenged every day. It will be all me me me me me!” To this day, this place is still what I’ve been looking for. I’m constantly surprised and amazed at the opportunities that exist here. And the working relationships I have are just phenomenal. We love and adore each other. Clients are drawn to it and want to be a part of it.

So it started off inward-focused, but it’s so much more. For example, the first thing we do on day one with a client is we put a group together in a room – the traditionally “creative” people alongside folks from departments like finance and operations – and actually knock all of that down and explain to everyone why they’re all massively creative. Some of them just forgot how to do it. When you were a kid, you lived in this amazing world of possibilities and there weren’t rules...

We get feedback from every client interaction we have, and the number one takeaway people have is that they realize or remember that they are a creative person. They thank us for helping them remember how to build creativity back into their lives. That’s massive! That’s huge! On an individual level, it’s the most rewarding career thing I’ve ever done.

On an organizational level, we’re working with a CPG company that a year ago didn’t know how to do innovation, didn’t have anything in their pipeline. On our last day of our workshop with them, we gave small teams a project, with an executive sponsor, and we coached them through three or four months on these projects that are all uber-successful. And these aren’t small projects. The goal of one of them was to come up with some $300 million ideas, which they’ve done.

ThinkingDesign:  What advice do you have for other creative MBA types?

Lisa Buckley:  I would say to find a company that has an innovation program and a training around it, and also systems that give you freedom within a gilded cage to go innovate, to do whatever you want within confines that are pretty loose within a big, bureaucratic organization.

Or, be someone that is more of a catalyst that goes into these companies and helps them.

Or go to a really small company that, by the sheer nature of the small entrepreneurial culture, will allow you to be nimble, try stuff out and fail, and rip it up and start over, because that’s what’s going to make you happy.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Creative Design Lives On!

As I've noted previously, the course I co-founded at Cornell called Creative Design for Affordability has now entered its second iteration.  The biggest change between year 1 and year 2?  It's gone from a quarter-long class of seven weeks to a full-semester offering.

Last year, I reached out to some Ithaca-area companies and non-profits to partner with.  We settled on designing a human-powered corn grinder and protective gear for a local green skateboarding company.

Sally Park and Jenn Li, the two second-year students who have carried the torch this year, have done a wonderful job of moving the class forward from its humble beginnings.  This year, Cornell teams will be paired with students in India to form bigger teams that will design viable business solutions that provide “energy for cooking” for underserved populations in India. Each team will identify the business opportunity, design a solution, and create a viable business plan to compete in The Acara Challenge, which has a pretty simple yet cool mission: 

"Engage students in a multi-discipline, multi-country collaboration to develop sustainable solutions and business models to challenging global social issues."


"Incubate and implement the winning plans into successful sustainable social businesses."
Each Cornell team will work with their team's counterparts in India to design a product or solution and create a sustainable business plan/model to deliver it. Teams are judged on a variety of factors and can generate "returns" that aren't only financial but potentially social.  However, measurability is key.

I'm looking forward to seeing what teams develop in conjunction with the Acara Institute.

In case you're looking for more information, here is a veeeeerrrrryyyy detailed video with contest details, rules, etc.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Design Thinking at Business School Continues to Spread

A friend of mine just passed along this blog posting from, which details another step in the spread of Design Thinking at business schools around the country.  This time, it's at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

The blogger, Moses Lee, and Nick Tobier, professor at the School of Art & Design, started a course called Social Venture Creation through the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan.

Here's a look at the kind of thinking they're doing:

It's quite similar to the second iteration of Creative Design for Affordability at Cornell, which I will detail in my next posting.  Stay tuned...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Most Influential Designers (for social/environmental impact)

It seems that most times I find something of interest on the topic of design and design thinking, Helen Walters has something to do with it...

I like her BusinessWeek slideshow on The World's Most Influential Designers, particularly for the folks dedicated to social impact that she promotes.  Thanks, Helen.  Another nice piece!

                                                                                            (photo by Participle)

Hilary Cottam          
U.K.-based Cottam, 43, has become one of the most important figures in public service design and innovation. With a PhD in social sciences and a former life as an urban poverty specialist at the World Bank in Washington, she researches the emotional, social, and economic effects of design. Through her current organization, Participle, Cottam looks to tackle some of society's biggest issues—ageing or education—and solve them through design. In 2005 she was named U.K. Designer of the Year by London's Design Museum for her work in public service innovation.

                                                                                (photo by Francine Daveta)
Cameron Sinclair

Trained as an architect in London, Sinclair, 36, co-founded a nonprofit, social, and humanitarian-focused organization called Architecture for Humanity (AfH) in 1999. Headquartered in San Francisco, AfH now has 53 chapters of 4,650 volunteers working on projects in 13 locations around the world. Working to promote the power of design as "the ultimate renewable resource," Sinclair & Co. most recently leaped into action to help in Haiti, mobilizing forces to provide immediate shelter as well as plan longer-term reconstruction after the country's crushing earthquake.

Amy Smith

Smith's philosophy: Low-cost, low-tech solutions made locally can help communities in developing countries address crippling problems. The MIT engineer and professor spent time in India as a child and in Botswana as a Peace Corps volunteer, where she saw the devastation of poverty firsthand. Her inventions include a hammermill to convert grain to flour as well as an incubator that requires no electricity. Smith, 47, was awarded the MacArthur "genius" grant in 2004, and she runs the popular and influential D-Lab class at MIT to teach international development and technology in the developing world

Valerie Casey

Recognizing the challenges of introducing sustainable principles to an industry that quite literally thrives on producing more and more, well, stuff, Casey, 37, founded the Designers Accord. It's a fluid, global coalition of designers and business leaders who are committed to agreeing on and implementing stringent yet practical environmental design policies. Having honed her own design chops at companies such as Pentagram, frog design, and IDEO, Casey now works as an independent consultant, advising clients such as NakedPizza on how, when, and why to use design appropriately and responsibly.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Creative Design for Affordability -- My First True Design!

As I've noted in previous posts, perhaps the biggest reason I feel qualified to write a blog centered around Design Thinking is that I co-founded a course on the subject.  Creative Design for Affordability at Cornell was loosely based around the much-publicized Stanford class "Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability," out of which a number of truly inspiring, potentially world-changing companies have been born.  The company D.light Design sells low-cost lighting products in the developing world:

And Driptech, founded by one of my Net Impact panelists (I recently moderated a panel on affordable design at the Net Impact National Conference), Peter Frykman, sells low-cost drip irrigation systems, mostly in India and China (so far):

When I decided to attend Cornell's Johnson School, it was my dream to bring such a vision to my new institution.  After all, I believed that Cornell had a lot in common with Stanford -- a strong engineering program, a small, intimate business school, and a commitment to sustainability and social change.

Of course, Stanford's was founded by IDEO founder David Kelley and other high-powered professors in Engineering, Business, and the like.  And Silicon Valley is, of course, the world's premiere innovation and entrepreneurship hotbed. 

Starting something something similar in Ithaca, New York should have been a breeze, right?  Wrong.  What I failed to appreciate was what a monumental challenge it would be for a lowly student like myself to start a new class -- even after I'd demonstrated demand for it!

But my classmate, Charles Lo, and I just refused to take no for an answer.  And eventually our doggedness was rewarded. 

*Note:  The course is now in its second year.  I'll make my next posting about how it's changed (hopefully for the better) in its second iteration.

Here is a description of what the class was last year (written by Jenn Li, one of the great Cornell students that is continuing the class into year 2):

Creative Design for Affordability Class Expands the Boundaries of the Traditional MBA Curriculum

By Jennifer Li JGSM '10

Posted: 4/1/09

A passerby strolling through the atrium on the evening of March 11th might have noticed what looked like a class in session. A charismatic lecturer was leading attentive students in a lively discussion. The passerby, however, might have been confused by some of what he saw. For example, large posters covered the walls. Colorful Post-it notes were strewn across these posters haphazardly. Students huddled around tables, working busily with piles of common household items-bubble wrap, binder clips, Play-Doh, and pipe cleaners. The passerby might have wondered, "Where are the spreadsheets? I thought this was a business school!"

The absence of spreadsheets is exactly the effect Jeff Gangemi and Charles Lo worked to achieve. While they come from very different backgrounds (Gangemi is a former BusinessWeek writer and Lo is a Ph.D. biologist), the two second-year Johnson students found common ground in their desire to bring more creativity into the traditional MBA curriculum. Under the tutelage of Johnson School Economics Professor Alan McAdams, Gangemi and Lo have worked for more than a year to start the class, "Creative Design for Affordability" (CDfA).

The concept for the CDfA class sprang from a similar class at the Stanford Institute of Design called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability. Both classes seek to use the inventive design methodologies used by firms such as Design Continuum and IDEO to design practical and affordable solutions centered on the needs of the user. While the course includes a series of guest lectures to examine the steps involved in new product development, it also enables students to participate in these steps firsthand from inception to implementation.

What the passerby witnessed on the evening of March 11th was a three-hour design workshop led by Daniel Buchner and Gaurav Rohatgi from Design Continuum. Founded in Boston, Design Continuum is a design and innovation consultancy famous for projects such as the Reebok Pump, the Swiffer for Procter & Gamble, and the initial design direction for the MIT Media Lab's $100 Laptop.

Buchner kicked off the workshop by introducing a type of reasoning highly valued by designers: "abductive" thinking. While inductive thinking proves what is through observation and deductive thinking proves what must be through reasoning from principles, "abductive" thinking embraces the concept of what may be. Buchner argued that abductive reasoning is critical to the creative process because it enables designers to think of "what if?" even when they are unable to prove that it "is" or "must be." He also urged the students to doggedly listen to the voice of the customer, in whatever form it takes, and let that voice guide design decisions.

Armed with this crash course in design philosophy, students watched a video showing a typical customer's experience removing a new mobile phone from its packaging and preparing it for use. Then, using insights gleaned from the video, student teams used the bubble wrap, binder clips, Play-Doh, and pipe cleaners to design a prototype for the packaging of that phone that would provide an ideal out-of-the-box experience for the customer. Students quickly gained exposure to both the challenges and rewards of the design process.

In addition to workshops and guest lectures, student teams will be working on a design challenge throughout the semester to provide an affordable solution to an area non-profit and an eco-friendly start-up business. In both cases, the teams will use only easily-accessible, low-tech items to build three successive prototypes that meet the needs of their customer, each one improving on the one before. "Using such simple, common items will allow anyone to successfully engage in the brainstorming and product development process," says Lo, co-founder of the CDfA class.

Some teams will work to develop a bicycle-powered corn grinder for Compos Mentis, an area non-profit farm that teaches life skills to adults with mental illnesses. The remaining teams will work with Comet Skateboards, a local start-up that builds skateboards and apparel with eco-friendly materials. In both instances, the challenge entails developing products that are gentle on the environment and affordable to the consumer or end user.

The uniqueness of the CDfA class has drawn students from across the Cornell Campus, including the graduate schools of business, engineering, sociology, urban planning, public affairs, and biology. Dan Jackson, a second-year student in the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs, says he was attracted to this class because "it's been a while since I've taken a graduate level class that allowed me to be creative, and I wanted to understand the process in which good design is rendered affordable." The multidisciplinary composition of the class enables the teams to incorporate many perspectives into the design process, which is a critical element of Design Continuum's design thinking.

Future guest lecturers include experts in product development and human factors engineering for Kodak, as well as professors from across Cornell University representing Engineering, Industrial and Labor Relations, and Business.


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