Goyert’s background, like many in the industry, is diverse. He grew up mostly in Latin America – Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay – then went on to study a blend of Physics, Theatre, French and Spanish at Middlebury College in Vermont (full disclosure: Middlebury also happens to be my alma mater).
After working in a variety of Internet strategy and advertising roles, John attended the Lauder Institute at Penn, earning a masters degree in international studies and a Wharton MBA.
I recently caught up with John by phone to learn how he’s fusing business strategy and design at one of the top design firms around. Here are some edited excerpts from our discussion.
John Goyert: Before business school, I worked for Modem Media in San Francisco, which was one of the first digital advertising firms – some even claim they invented the banner ad. That was the most creative and innovative role I’d had to date.
Over time, I got frustrated because it was a very specific kind of creativity. What seemed to work in that atmosphere was spin. It was a sales-y kind of charismatic approach to selling ideas, which I didn’t feel like I wanted to compete with. I wanted to be grounded in something factual.
ThinkingDesign: Then you ended up doing the Lauder Program at Wharton. How’d you choose that program?
John Goyert: I grew up in South America – in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay. So it was in my blood – being international. I was only looking at MBA programs that had dual programs with international studies. I also looked at schools like Thunderbird and the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
In the end, I had to choose between affordability and reputation; at Thunderbird, I would’ve learned what I needed to know. It was kind of rare for me, but I decided to go with the big brand name. And I wanted to have the opportunity to be thrown in with lots of business sharks.
I thought, “I’m going to go to this finance-oriented business school, and I’m going to completely reshape my career around strategy.” It’s directional for companies in the same way marketing can be, but it’s grounded in facts, and analysis and numbers are what drive your decisions. That was the kind of environment I wanted, so that was what I studied, and that’s what I did after Wharton.
ThinkingDesign: You’re at frog now. So that means you went from advertising to operations and somehow ended up in design? How’d you manage that one?
John Goyert: I worked for a small operations consulting firm for private equity investors, so it was very heavy on analytics. It was a lot of looking at cost saving activities and best practices that could be implemented to get companies up to speed with where they should be performing. It was about identifying performance metrics for them and getting them to focus their efforts on those metrics.
I was there for under two years, because it got really boring.
ThinkingDesign: I was about to ask – did you miss the creative element of advertising?
John Goyert: Absolutely. But I have to say it was not boring for the first year because everything was new to me. But as soon as I had a similar client challenge a second time around, I wanted to answer it in a different way, and I was hired to repeat the same way. And that wasn’t working for me.
Working always on best practices can be very limiting for companies. But a lot of companies have to get those things in place before they can really move forward and grow, so I’m not knocking it. But for me, I’d rather focus on companies that have their best practices in place and are stuck because they have optimized their system to death and are not sure what to do next. They want to grow in new areas. They want to try different things. They want to differentiate in ways people can’t copy. That’s the kind of stuff I want to work with.
So I started looking around for companies that I could do this full-time – the more innovative approach – and I found frog. I had always known frog as product design company with 40 years of history doing this stuff. But it was a lot more recently – the last five to ten years – that they had begun deliberately hiring business strategists and thinkers to answer different kinds of questions.
ThinkingDesign: So what stood out to you about frog?
John Goyert: frog’s approach is grounded fundamentally in design research – in facts. It’s not necessarily quantitative facts. And it’s not incremental innovation like you’d find in management consulting. But it’s grounded in observed and repeatable behaviors and tastes and needs.
And the second thing about frog is that frogs want to change the world. I feel like I’m in this cultural place that fits for me. And sometimes I think that makes it difficult for us to embrace all the client opportunities that we’re faced with. There are cases where we’ve turned down work, and there are cases where some of us frown at the projects we have. And I’m proud to be in a place like that – I think that makes the work more legitimate.
The other thing is that frog still feels like a small company. Fit is a stronger component at a small company, because there’s a bonding thing that happens.
(Frog's Mission Statement)
ThinkingDesign: What role do you personally play for clients?
John Goyert: I represent the business lens of design and innovation challenges, which means different things at different times.
At the up-front phase – the discover phase – I’m responsible for figuring out what the status quo is in the business world. frog is talking to the end users and figuring out what they want in an ideal world. And I have to figure out how the industry works and if there’s even an industry around the needs that we’re targeting at all. If there is, how does it work, who are the companies involved, how do they play with each other, how do they create value and how do they share value?
After we’ve figured out multiple possible opportunities or concepts to solve these problems, then that’s when we get into the design phase. My job is to design around the business hurdles and obstacles to bring it to market – to make it work.
That could mean a creative team developing a new solution from scratch. But without a business person in the room, you’re at risk for proposing a solution that is completely out of left field, over-costed, or is completely redundant with what’s already there. So I like to look at it as designing with existing things in the marketplace as my toolkit.
I think that’s part of the story that frog is telling the marketplace in general: that when you’re confining your design efforts to a specific product, there are very few design elements that you can really change that will dramatically improve the experience and value of the product. So when you can look beyond the product and look at where it fits in terms of how it’s sold, how people learn about it, what other products it works with, then you can make big changes for companies.
ThinkingDesign: That’s an interesting role you’ve carved out for yourself. Do you consider yourself more creative or more analytical?
John Goyert: Some people would say that I over-analyze everything. I would say I’m highly analytical but I like to surround myself with creativity.
I think that people in my position have failed when they have applied structures that weren’t creative. Part of what strategists are doing is applying frameworks and helping people prioritize different elements. And you can do that exercise right out of business school, but many of the frameworks are so tried and true that when you apply them you can destroy innovation in some cases.
I think the best way to do it in a place like frog is to re-create new frameworks for every single program, based on new research findings. It’s still highly analytical, but it’s creative in coming up with frameworks that are uniquely suited to the business challenge, to the brand, and to the customers.
ThinkingDesign: If you were going to go back to business school hoping to land where you are now, what would you have done differently?
John Goyert: I think about that a lot. If I had been seeking this kind of opportunity when I was at Wharton, I would have spent more time in entrepreneurial classes, perhaps taken more classes outside in the engineering school or design school if I could. There is a lot of interesting change management and organizational thinking out there, with more of a sociological element that is close to design thinking. I would have thought more about that.
I was thinking a lot about quant, and I was aggressively going toward operations. I would do less of that now. I like operations and am glad I have those tools, but it’s not as much of what I’m using day to day. I would go toward more design thinking.
ThinkingDesign: How has the growth of design thinking as a management practice affected frog as a company?
John Goyert: I have a friend from business school that went to work at IBM in consulting. I used to think that I couldn’t be doing anything more opposite than what he’s doing in consulting.
Six months ago, I was surprised to learn that he’s on a big usability project where he is doing design research. I’m sure it’s very different from what frog and other companies that have been doing for decades, but it’s just indicative that the most traditional and analytical consultancies are finding ways to think about design thinking and to embrace some design tools.
It’s a little dangerous for us, and it’s a little dangerous for them if they misuse the tools. But it’s great overall that people are getting used to thinking this way.
ThinkingDesign: So how can frog continue to differentiate itself?
John Goyert: Five years ago, we had to tell people what design thinking meant. Now, you tell people and they say, “We get it, but how are you different?”
We have to be more transparent about what we’re doing that’s different. We have to be clear about sending cross-functional teams to do this work that include technologists, business people and trained sociologists and anthropologists. The IBM’s of the world are sending businesspeople – three or four of them. That’s a very different value proposition from frog’s, because you’re going to get different results and you’re going to use different techniques, even if you’re calling it the same thing.