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Start Within authors Karen Holst & Douglas Ferguson speak with J Schuh, Design Strategist at Sabre Corporation, on how to leverage design and storytelling to align to business objectives and sell your idea
Excellent. I'm Douglas Ferguson and I'm with Karen Holst and J Schuh today, welcome. Really excited to have this chat with J, we've been building a friendship over the past it's coming up on a year now. It feels like a decade through all this COVID nonsense. And J has been an awesome contributor to our weekly facilitation practice and bringing friends along the way. So I really appreciated getting to know him and learning about all the amazing work that he's done at Saber Building, such a deep and effective design thinking practice. And especially when I compare it to a lot of our clients and companies around the industry, which there's even a sentiment that it doesn't work or it's a big fake or we've been moved on. And it's always great to see the people that are getting great success and doing it right. So kudos to you, J. I'm excited to talk with you about how our work and the book, Start Within, relates to the work you're doing there at Sabre.
Yeah. Well, first of all, plug the book because you got to pull the book. And it's awesome, it is fricking awesome. As you can see behind me, I love to read and I've read tons and tons of books. I've read every single book that I can get my hands on on innovation and design thinking. And what I really like, what sets apart your book, which by the way thank you for having me today, is the fact that you guys give real and practical advice. And I've said this I think when I was talking to Kelly yesterday, is Douglas I love the fact that you include things that don't work out in your book. Because a lot of books it's the happy path or the safe path and authors only want to talk about their successes. And I think that the fact that you were brave enough and bold enough to put in there things that didn't work out in your history and your past was really ... it says a lot about you as a person.
Because it shows that you are there to say, "This is all about learning. This is all about a growth experience." And you can memorize a method you can, whether it's design sprints or design thinking or anything else, and it's never going to quite turn out the way you think because we're dealing with human beings. And if there's anything that always throws us for a loop, it's the fact that human beings, the best laid plans of mice and men, right? Can get derailed by that one stakeholder who was never able to make any of the big pre-meetings who walks in the day and says, "Oh no, this is not what we're here to accomplish today." And so I love the fact that you bring that out in your book. So kudos to both of you for doing an amazing piece of work and I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying it. And really, truly highly recommend it that everybody should get your book.
Well, those words are very touching. And it makes me think about the importance of people learning how to think. And without those negative examples, it's impossible. Basically if it's just the positive stuff and all these glamorous stories of how people, someone came to save the day, then all you're essentially doing is idolizing or worshiping some idea or notion. And you can't learn how to think, how to bridge that gap between when you see something new and novel, how they'll then go and apply it. So that's why I think it was pretty core to the way we were working. And I know that you were specifically drawn to the assumptions chapter, so I'm just curious to hear how that applies to your work and what about it you thought was unique or especially helpful.
Sure. So first of all, I actually, our team at Sabre was actually trained at IDEO. We went and took the design thinking certification course at IDEO and it was a fantastic experience. I thought it went really quickly. I don't know if you guys have had an opportunity to go through it, but the facilitator was amazing, but they gave you like 10 minutes to go through each process. And they kind of said, "Oh by the way, we know you're going to have questions, but hold those off until the last day." And so I'm like writing questions down. And then on the very last day, it's like three o'clock and they feed you and everything else. And you're like ready to go and you're like, "Does anybody have questions?" You're like, "No. I'm tired. I'm going to go home."
So although the information was great, I think in any sort of education opportunity, and I've been teaching as an adjunct professor for almost 20 years, next year will be 20 years, I think you need time for students to digest what you're teaching and really, truly give them an opportunity to poke holes in what you've taught. Because everywhere, every company that they were going back to the culture was different. And you guys talk a lot about people and culture, right? I think you refer to people and as culture as the heart, right? And then you have the assets that are the blood, right? So you have the heart and the blood and every single company and every single culture is different. And you have to understand what blood type is pumping through that heart.
And when I went to IDEO, I asked them specifically, I said, "We are here. We are being asked to learn how to do design thinking so we can take back to Sabre and implement design thinking in Sabre at an enterprise level." I said, "How do we do that?" And it was kind of a round about question and what they didn't want to kind of say out loud, in my opinion, is it depends. And I think that's the hardest thing for all companies, is if you try to think of design thinking as an off the shelf kind of solution, that you're just going to take another company's methodology, IBM or someone else's companies program, and just take that and insert it into your company, more than likely it's not going to work in my experience. You have to take into account the culture and the people that you are in and what is their willingness and comfort level. And you even talk about in your book how you decide if your company is ready for this kind of program, you have to do it.
And I think also there's a constant desire for speed. Everybody, I mean sprint was based on speed. And even though we developed a program that's a half a day, full day, half a day. And Brian Sullivan and I developed it, the two of us developed it, working with our VP Bruce Nelson, who was formerly at IBM. We developed our own take on design thinking with the culture and constraints and we did it a half day, full day, half day is what we came up with. To run through our entire program where you're walking away in two full days with a prototype that you can validate with product people, users, or other stakeholders that weren't in the workshop to get feedback and move forward on. Right? And what we were actually tackling before COVID was how do we become more effective and efficient once you have that prototype? So that's the next book on my ... is your book about after prototyping Douglas because I'm going to dig in and see your thoughts on that.
But I am having a talk, I think on June 8th, about agile and UX working together more effectively. Because I do think coming up with ideas, you can get there. You can, whether you're doing sprint or whether you're doing design thinking. And for people that are getting agnostic, it's almost like religions, which religion is better. It doesn't matter if it grounds you in a moral thing that helps you become a better person, go for it. And I tend to be like, "I don't care which flavor of design thinking, design strategy, whatever you use, design sprint. If it gets value in the idea that's going to make your company better than do that. Do whatever that thing is, that makes sense for your company." It's not this versus that.
And Karen, you and I think were talking a little bit earlier about that people get into battles. "Well, design sprint and design thinking is BS." And I just don't think so. I think if ... that's like saying, "Writing is BS." Really? Really? Some of it's not good, but just to flat out say writing in itself is not a good framework that we should use to communicate. I would probably disagree with you. So I think that's where we need to be open minded. And you talk about your mindset of an innovation, one of it is being open-minded. Being open to being wrong, right? And that's in your course that you do on LinkedIn, Karen, which by the way is awesome as well. So I'm going to keep plugging you because I think you're great. So but yeah, it's talking about these things. So that's been our experience.
Is it easy? No, it's absolutely not easy. As a matter of fact, when Brian Sullivan and I first started doing workshops at Sabre, 50% of the people that we had engagements with didn't want us in the room. One of our favorite stories that we like to tell, we had a group of folks that flew in, they had a total of three days at Sabre to do a workshop and we were asking for a day and a half of their three days. And so we walked in the room and they were visibly angry. They were like, "Who are these guys? We don't know these guys. They're taking up half of our time. We've got a lot of really serious work to get done." And we started off with an exercise that both of you guys probably know, hopes and fears.
And so we put up a hopes and fears and some of it came out with, they were so frustrated that even their hopes were fears. As they were saying, "I hope this is not a complete waste of my time." And their fear was, "I fear this is a complete waste of our time." And so that was the type of encounters that we were put in, and luckily we had really tested our methodologies. We went through lots of iterations of our framework before we released it inside. I mean, we had internal like nine or ten versions that we ran through with our internal UX team to go through with the designers and say, "Does this work? Does this not work? Does this seem too long?" Just poking holes in it before we released it so we felt pretty comfortable it was going to work.
And after a couple methods of going through our framework and adjusting it, they were like, "This is awesome. You guys are showing us insights that we didn't even think about. You're showing us things we hadn't considered and reviewing insights that are going to help us as a team." And by the end of it they were fans, right? And Brian says, "If you can convert those cynics or the critics to, they will be your biggest fans." And that's what happened. After that we kept getting more requests, more requests, more requests. And we kept going higher in the food chain at Sabre and more and more people asked us to do workshops.
I would love to go a little deeper on that. Part of your work is you're launching a new idea within a large organization and that new ideas take a process-
-and apply it across the company. And you touched on different components there on not being a popular thing at first and not trying to be dogmatic about the approach and trying to explore ways that it would fit within the organization. I would imagine that doing this kind of work, you're having to design and story tell to bring people along in adopting it, all the way up to the very moment where you're converting naysayers. And I would love to get to that too, but just that idea of how you bring people along and that it's not a flip of a switch. Your idea didn't just overnight get to flourish the way you imagined it, but you built it out to evolve and grow.
Yeah. Storytelling. And that's ... I did my talk at Control the Room, which is the conference that Doug has every year, which is an amazing conference. So I'll plug Doug there too, if you haven't gone to Control the Room and you're in this industry, you need to go. It's fantastic. Anyways, my talk was on storytelling and that's who I am by nature. I've been a storyteller. When I owned my own company it was about listening to your client's stories and figuring out how you can communicate that story most effectively, either through a product or an advertisement or a commercial or a film. And the biggest key component you have to have is I'm a talker, but what may surprise a lot of people is I'm a very good listener.
And we talked about assumptions. People assume that because I talk a lot that I don't listen, and that's not necessarily true either. And I think some people misjudge stakeholders when they get in there and the best storytellers are the best listeners because they're quiet when people are telling stories, because you never know when it's a story that you might want to add to what I call your story stack. It's that collection of stories that you can talk to or bring up or engage a room. And Brian Sullivan and I tell stories all the time, and a lot of them are impromptu. We'll get feedback from the room that they're struggling with a particular conference or concept, and we'll go, "We can see that you're struggling with this particular conference. Another group thought the same way you did. And when we went in there, this is what happened." And we'll tell that story and they'll go, "Oh, that was Bonnie? You guys actually dealt with Bonnie?"
And it's much more effective when it's not, "In California, in IDEO they have those story about a mayor." No, it's much better when it's a real product in the company with somebody you've had that they can actually reach out to them after the meeting and say, "Hey J and Brian just told this story. Is that real? Did that really happen?" And when you can validate that internally, then that helps go. Initially if you don't have those stories, then you have to do outside stories that you can communicate the method and teach. I always say, it's no mistake that all the great religions in history are usually collections of stories. And so stories resonate with people, they tap into a different part of your brain.
And teaching 20 years, I tell stories all the time to my students, but they're never ... the interesting thing is they never remember what I wrote on the board, but they'll remember some of my stories. And the story is different for every student I've ever had. They'll come back and they'll say, "Oh J, the boat story was the one that resonated with me." Or, "J, it's the fear highway. That's the story that resonated with me." And I just keep telling all different stories because you never know what story is going to be that one story that clicks the ... that has that shift. Right? And Karen, I think you've had that experience where you try different things and then finally you say that one thing or that one story or that one thing, and then you can see it shift. And they go, "Well, I wasn't really ... What? What did you just say?"
And then as soon as, as soon as you get that, then they're bought in and they're like, "Okay, now we can really talk." Right? And so I think that's the value of stories is keep telling stories and they have to be meaningful and they have to be on point. And that's where you as a facilitator or you as an innovator have to understand that the appropriate story is also something you have to go through your stack and say, "I need to tell the story that is going to convince people that this is the way we should do it." Or at least this is a path that has worked before because everybody in corporate is always worried about results, right? And failure is not really an option in corporate. So Brian Sullivan and I have been like, "Okay, we're not where we need to be on this product. We want to be down here." And we'll ask, "What's your plan?"
Yeah. I mean we're coming up on our time, but I would just love to, like ... in the moment that we're in that if stories are what draw people to how to get work done and how to push an idea forward, recognizing that our stories and even the stories that we've collected by who we're surrounded by are not going to represent everybody. And that means you're losing that connection of bringing someone along, of being able to feel like they can innovate because you didn't hit the right stories that they can connect to you because you had such a different background than that person. And I think the moment that we're in with Black Lives Matter and COVID and just in general, trying to solve for the world that this is not the world we want to live in. Right? We want to create change and move forward. Part of that is looking at the stories that shape us and how do we evolve and make sure that we're representing the diversity of the people that we have here.
So I've had an opportunity to travel. I grew up in Germany, I've had an opportunity through Sabre to do workshops in Krakow and India. And one big takeaway for me as human beings are human beings. We all care about our families. We all care about our friends. We want the best for our kids. We want a good job that we care about, that we feel we can have purpose in. We want to make a difference. We, I think as human beings, we all want to be respected, accepted, and connected. And those are things and if you can tell a story and recognize where people are hurting and there is pain and you can tell a story that can connect with them at some level. "I may not be sharing the same pain that you do. I may not have experienced the same thing that you've experienced, but I have experienced pain. And I understand that you're hurting and I can't understand the exact type of hurt, but I am a human being and I want to understand."
If you come up with that mindset then I think people recognize that you're trying, even if you're not ... you're words are not what they need to be, your story is not right. Intention really, truly is, if people can feel that you are actively trying to connect with somebody, they'll go out of their way to reciprocate. And I think that's the key. You have to be genuine and you have to be authentic. And if you can be genuine and authentic and say, "I am truly trying to work with you. I'm truly trying to find something that's a win win for both of us and I'm trying to understand."
Regardless of what you're trying to do in life if you take that mindset, whether you're pushing an initiative inside a corporation or you're just trying to connect with a person of color that you don't understand their background and experiences that they've had, because you don't share those same experiences. If you reach out in an authentic, curious way that is genuine, my experience has been more often than not people will recognize that and give you a break if you mess up and say the wrong thing or do something else. If they understand the intention is right, you open up doors for communications and relationships. We're human, we're going to mess up. Right? But I do think you have to approach it with the right mindset.
Thank you for that and for your time today. We appreciate all the shout outs that you gave to our work, but also-
You guys are wonderful man, are you kidding? I'm like, yeah talk to you guys? Heck yeah, count me in.
Just so appreciate your enthusiasm for bringing in and thinking and really grappling with stuff. So thank you for joining us. And for those that want to check out the book, we're on Amazon, you can find us there. Our website is start-within.com and we talk about this every week. So if you're a person innovating doing work within your organization and you are willing to share some of the war stories with us, reach out to Douglas and I. And thank you again J for your time.
Thank you guys so much for inviting me.
Before you quit your job, take these 5 steps to create a better job that you actually want. How to make the job you have today, one you are passionate about. Seriously.
"Douglas Ferguson has long been a top design sprint facilitator. In Beyond the Prototype, he delivers a practical guide to what comes after. If you've ever experienced the dreaded "post-sprint slump," this is an absolute must read. It will just completely up your game..”
—Greg Satell, Author of Cascades & Mapping Innovation
"Design Sprints have helped to evangelize design thinking. Douglas' pioneering work and subsequent tips are captured here. It's the perfect guide for the next wave of facilitators and teams looking to harness the power of user-centered prototyping."
— Jay Melone, Partner, New Haircut